Most people understand "music tourism" to mean attending Coachella or Bonnaroo, or maybe visiting Graceland and the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. I, on the other hand, become unhealthily obsessed with songs and then visit the places they're about.
Enter Kanye West and my plane ticket to Chicago.
With the exception of myself, nobody will tell you "Homecoming" is West's magnum opus; it didn't even make the cut for Casey Johnston's end-all 32-song bracket to determine his best track. Buried on Ye's third studio album, Graduation, "Homecoming" is dwarfed by far more popular hits like "Stronger," "Flashing Lights," and "Good Life." "Homecoming" even features Chris Martin — as in the same Chris Martin who fronts basically my least favorite band, Coldplay.
Still. Still. Something about that punchy "Bennie and the Jets"-like piano and the crooning, universal question do you think about me now and then? worms its way into my ear and makes me feel all jittery.
Especially coming at it as a writer, I am enchanted by the clever turns of phrase: The song personifies the Windy City with the character "Wendy," making West's love for Chicago parallel the way a young man might fall for a more experienced woman. Cities teach us how to grow up, just like lovers do — and as with lovers, we can betray the cities we belong to.
"While West exposes his human side, rapping about the hometown he abandoned in pursuit of pop stardom, Martin supplies a pomp-filled piano riff with a hint of vintage Elton to it. This could quite easily have become a crass exercise in mutual back-slapping, but, thankfully, Martin seems to have brought out West's inner softie, making 'Homecoming' the bragging rapper's most affecting moment to date," Digital Spy writes.
For the past several years, whenever my cross-continental Southwest Airlines flights gave me my inevitable layover in the Windy City, I would blast "Homecoming" from my iPod while staring misty-eyed out the window and feeling sad about all the places I've ever left behind. (Admittedly, I do sort of the same thing with "Yonkers" when my Amtrak from Albany to New York City stops in the suburb, but it isn't nearly as romantic.)
"Homecoming" itself is a product of maturation and change, stemming from an older track, "Home," that West originally recorded with John Legend. After "Home" leaked, West re-recorded the song. "West takes a song from a four-year-old mix-tape and awkwardly rides heavy drums and piano taps with Martin replacing John Legend on the hook," complained The Boston Globe. (Like I said, everyone's a critic.)
In my opinion, "Homecoming" is the ultimate love song. It is about caring for a place so deeply and powerfully that leaving it feels like infidelity. People come and go but where we come from is a constant. Having abandoned my first love, Seattle, to pursue a career in New York City, West's chiding felt deeply personal: "If you really cared for her, then you wouldn't have never hit the airport to follow your dreams."
Last December, I finally decided I would spend more time in Chicago than the half-hour dash between flights. I insisted on going to the city over the Fourth of July solely because I wanted to experience the song in its fullest: If I couldn't go back in time to meet Wendy "when I was 3 years old," then I would watch "fireworks over Lake Michigan," just like Kanye West does:
Do you think about me now and then?
Do you think about me now and then?
Cause I'm coming home again
Maybe, do you remember when fireworks at Lake Michigan
Oh, now I'm coming home again
The vacation was to last five days, but other than booking a hotel and making a single dinner reservation, I didn't make any plans outside of the fireworks. They were my entire focal point. "I don't care what we do except watch fireworks over Lake Michigan," I told my boyfriend so many times he probably grew concerned.
Of course, "Homecoming" was playing from my headphones when our plane touched down in Illinois.
Some cities are exactly what you expect them to be, but Chicago wasn't that. I had anticipated the bouncy, poppy energy of the piano hook in "Homecoming," but the streets of downtown were subdued and quiet, even dark under the tracks of the L. Still, walking around the city, sometimes just the vibe of the place would jolt random lyrics into my head: "Now everybody got the game figured out all wrong/I guess you never know what you got till its gone" or "In every interview/I'm representing you."
It wasn't just that the song was stuck in my head; it was stuck in my entire perception of the place. Visiting The Bean, I saw Kanye West swaggering beneath its arch, like he does in the "Homecoming" music video; I also recognized the abstract bandshell of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
But other than a few random glimpses of Chicago from the music video and my highly anticipated fireworks over the lake, there aren't many visual landmarks in the lyrics of "Homecoming." The song is much more about a feeling, about returning to a place you have left. And as badly as I understand that particular pleasure and pain in my own context, Chicago wasn't my city to come home to.
Still, I had to see my fireworks. In order to watch the show, my boyfriend and I booked a kayak tour to paddle down the Chicago River and out to the lake for the Fourth of July. To my disappointment, the experience was nothing like "Homecoming," for the obvious reason that everything about it was new, every ripple of city lights on the water unfamiliar and surprising.
Our river guide instructed us to maneuver our pod of kayaks into position for the firework show. There was no music to accompany it; when the show started, I heard nothing at all beyond the soft ooohs of my neighbors, the pop of the explosions reverberating over the lake, and the lap of water against the plastic shell of the boat. Far off, a tourist boat tinkled patriotic anthems, but there weren't any lyrics in my head.
Why had I even come? I abruptly felt foolish for trying to insist that Chicago was mine.
"Homecoming" has a tricky outro, one that is hard to sing along to if you don't know it is coming. It repeats the refrain "Do you think about me now and then?/Because I'm comin' home again," but loops the lyrics back on themselves. Then Martin sings: "I'm 'in home again," dropping the first half of the word. Mixed in with the promise of returning home, the lyric sounds so similar to I'm in home again that you almost don't hear it, yet it's so different from the original line that after hundreds of repeated listenings, it stands out as a thesis.
Chicago, for me, was like that. For so long I had listened to "Homecoming," focusing only on the second two syllables of the word, the journey. But sitting in a kayak on the inky Chicago River as it shuddered with the emerald and magenta of the fireworks overhead, I realized that the song is really about that first word. Home.