Subverting discourses of the city

I love flashmobs. Here’s one of my favourite; I love the expressions of joy and wonder; the sounds of laughter and excited chattering mingling with the sound of the orchestra. I wonder how this interplays with the town, considering the drastic shift in atmosphere that the flashmob initiates. On a larger scale, do flashmobs, buskers, street orchestras and musicians have the power to change cities?

(I swear, I honestly get shivers when I watch this. I’ve watched it a countless number of times and I get swept up in it every time. And when you listen: feel how your body catches the beat).

Cities change and control us. From personal experience, I know London has certainly changed me – I was raised in Edinburgh, where the pace of life is a lot slower, and when I first came to London I found it impossible to navigate. I bumped into people, and felt so horribly out of place, yet it became easier week after week. Now, looking back on it I realise that when I first came, I had been doing London wrong: now, I get impatient with slow walkers, I get easily irritated by tourists; I know how to move through the street. I have learned; I have developed a habitus. Now, when I go back to Edinburgh I stick out. I’m more irritable and stressed, and have little patience for people who ‘city’ wrong – so much so that my friends and family notice and tell me to chill out.

Here’s a really nice video on the power of beautiful cities:

It’s a powerful theory. It shows the potential of aesthetically beautiful and ugly cities in shaping people’s emotions and well-being. With this in mind, and if music can play with our emotions, can buskers and flashmobs subvert this power? Can music make us feel less stressed in cities like London? Can it make is feel safer in oppressive feeling areas like Camden late at night? Can it make us feel calmer on our commutes? Slow us down? Can it play a role in changing and shaping the people inhabiting the city? Can it shape the very city itself?

Perhaps, spontaneous music in cities plays the same role parkour does, as described by Ameel & Tani (2012). They describe how the playful nature of parkour challenges the “tightly scheduled rhythms” of urban life (Ameel & Tani, 2012:18); parkour also challenges the habitus of a city, for instance, a  city can control our movements by directing us around a fence, and a traceur (a practitioner of parkour) subverts this by jumping over the fence. This is just one example, but highlights how cities have the power to control our movements.

Furthermore, parkour can be received with criticism from onlookers, which, argue Ameel & Tani (2012:22), comes from a sense of ownership over a particular space. Perhaps this is because parkour is considered, on a subconscious level, “dirt out of place” (Douglas, 1966) – on the peripheries of society, therefore considered taboo, yet more powerful because of this; in this sense, parkour has power in challenging the built environment.

Parallels can be drawn between the role of parkour in the city and the role of music: the introduction of busking licences in London could suggest that people consider spontaneous street music as “dirt out of place” (Douglas, 1966), and wish to control this by asserting ownership over public spaces. And similar to parkour, perhaps street music therefore has the same power to challenge the built environment, and subvert the control it imposes over its inhabitants. This can be seen enacted in the Street Orchestra of London, a group which makes use of public space in London by holding free street concerts around the city, sometimes planned and sometimes spontaneous.

Thus, music in public spaces, and the control over it imposed by onlookers and government policy, shows the power of music in challenging the way people conceive of shared public surroundings. This, in turn, shows the power of music in changinthis very space, and the people who inhabit it.


Ameel, L., & Tani, S., (2012). Parkour: creating loose spaces? Human Geography 94(1),

Douglas, M., (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London, ARK Paperbacks.

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