Westwood, Los Angeles, California

City by Sara Bareilles

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In these deep city lights
a girl could get lost tonight Read full Lyrics
Anybody older than 21 understands what the phrase bar scene refers to, and even more so if you've been to college within the past 50 years: smoky rooms, jam-packed with well-dressed (and overdressed) patrons standing shoulder to shoulder, most of whom have been drunk or on the way there for hours. Sure, it's fun for a while, but by the time you're in your mid-20s, drinking alcohol until last call loses much – if not all – of its appeal. The Sara Bareilles song, "City," paints just such a picture.

Bareilles grew up in California, listening to the likes of Billy Joel and Elton John. It's no wonder when she was ready to go off to college she chose a school from her home state and joined a coed a cappella group, Awaken. Between 1998 and 2002, Bareilles sang with her a cappella group all over campus and the surrounding neighborhoods; they even had professional recordings accepted on to collegiate a cappella compilations. One of their songs, "Gravity," was released in 2004 with Bareilles having both sung the lead solo as well as written and arranged the tune herself.

The Westwood area of Los Angeles
Photo: Manuel Hurtado Ferrández, Dreamstime

Following her graduation, she toured around Southern California as a solo artist and was eventually picked up by a major record label. Her debut, Little Voice, dropped in 2007 and the final track on that album is one many of you will be familiar with. It's called "Gravity," although it isn't filled with vocal harmony. This version is simply Bareilles and a piano. I still remember the first time I heard it after having purchased the album. I knew I'd heard it before. The melody and lyrics were far too good to miss. Eventually, it came to me: I had owned the Awaken version for three years already.

Bareilles (along with the other members of Awaken) obtained their undergraduate degrees at one of the most prestigious and well-known public universities in the Golden State: UCLA, University of California, Los Angeles, which is nestled right in the heart of the greater Los Angeles area. The main campus is in a section of the city called Westwood, directly between West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. It was perhaps her years spent touring the local bar scene that led to the inspiration behind the lyrics of "City." Listening to the hauntingly heartfelt words, it becomes easy to put yourself in Sara's shoes and know exactly how the half-drunk bar crawlers made her feel.

"There's a harvest each Saturday night at the bars filled with perfume and hitchin' a ride." Bareilles' use of the word "harvest" is brilliant in that it captures, with a single word, the idea that the individuals – whether male or female – are being viewed as crops; the best ones, the most ripe, picked first, leaving the less desirable ones until the end of the night. College bars often share characteristics with wild jungles, 20-something vultures hovering over the physically superior specimens in an effort to quell their raging hormones. Sara is obviously no stranger to being viewed as a piece of meat, a symptom in any bar in every college town, let alone Southern California.

Westwood is one of the youngest and most ethnically diverse populations in the Los Angeles area. Previously a ranch, the land was developed in the early '20s alongside UCLA, and the area soon experienced a boom that has never dwindled in the decades since. Both modern and historic, Westwood features the Hammer Museum, motion picture theaters, restaurants, and the famous shopping districts called the Village. It is also one of the wealthiest sections of the city.

Bareilles has frequently returned to her alma mater for tours and other charitable reasons, so the bar scene must not have traumatized her badly. Thankfully for her, and for us, she rose high above the rest of her classmates to become one of the most successful female recording artists of all time. Little Voice debuted on the Billboard 200 at #45 and sold 16,000 copies the first week alone. The album was certified platinum a few years later and, as of 2014, Bareilles has been nominated for five Grammys. Her talents as a vocalist, pianist, and songwriter are a gift to us all – even those of us who've had a few too many.

Justin Novelli
August 14, 2016
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