photo by Amelia Langas

What Musicians Get about Chicago

A profound sense of melancholic nostalgia weaves through the city’s urban environment, triggering fond memories. 

By Amelia Langas


Picture this: It’s summer. A warm breeze tousles your hair as the sun kisses your face. You’re sitting on sand looking out at a vast expanse of glistening water. You blink, and now you’re looking up at elevated steel tracks as a train clatters by. Blink again, and you’re gazing down the Chicago River, spanned by bridges and hugged on both sides by high-rises. You know this place.  

That’s the type of yearning-filled video I’ve come across many times on my TikTok For You page over the past couple weeks. These bite-size videos are scored by Djo’s (aka Joe Keery of Stranger Things) 2022 song “End of Beginning.” In the audio clip circulating on TikTok, he sings:

"And when I'm back in Chicago, I feel it
Another version of me, I was in it
I wave goodbye to the end of beginning."

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m from the Chicago suburbs. But Chicago, in all its Second City glory, has always been my city. Going into “the city” means driving down Lake Shore Drive and taking the “L” means hopping on any train line. I live in New York now, but when I go back to Chicago, I do feel the “it” Keery sings about. A profound sense of melancholic nostalgia weaves through the city’s urban environment, triggering fond, playful memories: my dad taking me to sky shows at the planetarium, sunrises over Lake Michigan seen from a friend’s apartment, the winter zoo lights’ entrancing glow. Chicago is a city that welcomes you home with open arms, and musicians recognize this trait. Djo added an affectionate ode to the ever-expanding list of songs about the city, including Sufjan Stevens’s “Chicago” and, yes, Kanye West’s “Homecoming.”

When it comes to Chicago-centric music, Stevens’s “Chicago” from his Illinois album is a standout, an ode to the city that’s the heart of the state. With swelling instrumental orchestration and poetic lyricism, Stevens crafts a soft yet sincere reflection on youth and losing oneself in a love that centers around road trips, specifically a drive to Chicago. “I fell in love again / All things go, all things go,” he sings, acknowledging the ebbs and flows of time and relationships. Just as love comes into one’s life, it can slip away. Like Djo in “End of Beginning,” Stevens pinpoints the awareness and embrace of ephemerality to a moment spent in Chicago. A quintessential refrain you hear from folks who have lived in the city is, “The winters are brutal, but the summers make it worth it.” Far too early each year, the sky turns gray and the temperature plummets. There isn’t a respite from the bitter trenches of winter until late April at best. But on that first sunny, 70-degree day, the lakefront is full of people basking in summer’s return. Like the love Stevens sings about, the are seasons transient, making you appreciate the sunny days even more.

The first verse of “Homecoming” looks at West’s adoration and respect for the city he grew up in. “In the nighttime her face lit up, so astounding / I told her in my heart is where she'll always be,” he raps. The second verse pivots, tracing his path out of Chicago as he pursues a career in music. But he stays true to his promise to keep the city in his heart: “Every interview I'm representing you, making you proud.” “Homecoming” shows that even when you leave the city behind, Chicago still lingers in your heart and mind. A past version of West’s self still exists in his memories of Chicago and comes alive when he returns to the city—something that Keery, too, recognizes in “End of Beginning.” I also feel that stirring of who I once was when I visit Chicago. Don’t we all when we’re back where we grew up?

Memories associated with place are core elements of the three songs highlighted here. They inspire the feelings that the atmospheric TikToks attempt to capture in visualizations of nostalgia. No matter how much time I spend away from Chicago, it’s a city that embraces me upon return—something like reuniting with your childhood best friend after years apart. We assign personality traits and qualities to places, though these places themselves are simply a collection of buildings, infrastructure, and natural environments. We speak of cities like they’re alive because ultimately, it’s the people residing in a city who make it what it is. We are part of that urban symbiosis. We look back on the selves we were in these places with affection and maybe a touch of pensiveness. Musicians write sentimental songs about Chicago because it cradles memories in the palm of its hand, nestled in that curve along the Lake Michigan shoreline. 

Listen to Amelia’s playlist of Chicago-centric songs here.