I’ve had Journey’s 1978 ode to San Francisco, “Lights,” stuck in my head for the past several weeks. It doesn’t help that I’ve probably listened to the song on repeat approximately 387 times as a result, much to my neighbors’ chagrin as they hear me attempting to belt along with Steve Perry while I shower. But how could I resist the visceral passion, the seamlessly layered harmonies so reminiscent of the greasy-haired 1970s, and the heartfelt dedication to the city in which I currently reside? It’s a ballad written with such intense admiration that one wonders if Perry views the hills of San Francisco like the curves of a woman.
To listen to this song while strolling down Divisadero in the present day is to wonder where the strong identifiable character of San Francisco has gone. As I trekked up the street’s steady incline toward my destination, a vapid and ridiculously overpriced coffee shop, I craved the that certain unnameable nostalgia for the San Francisco Perry adored, the San Francisco of our collective imagination – The City by the Bay that harbors a tangible charm and attracts the wacky and the bright.
Admittedly, the nostalgia I feel is for a city I never actually knew, one that preceded me by 30 years and may never have existed as I imagine it. I envision San Francisco’s heyday as the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the city was the center of America’s counterculture movement. Artists, poets, musicians, activists, intellectuals, hippies all flocked to the city. For every lost soul in Haight Ashbury, there was a Bob Dylan, a Joan Didion, an Allen Ginsberg. The City by the Bay I imagine is one whose culture is as rich and reliable as its marine layer. This is the city I imagine Perry longed for.
It seems that my idealized San Francisco is all but gone (if it ever existed), with the city having a bit of an identity crisis with the shadow of its glimmering past still looming large. In the years after Journey’s “Lights,” Dianne Fienstein transformed the city much in the way the once respected Rudy Guiliani, America’s Mayor, did to New York in the nineties and early aughts. As a result, the city was no longer a bastion of free love and Ginsburgian poetry, though marijuana smoke still wafted through the air. Rather, as the Dot Com era began in full swing, the city became a haven for the future of the economy, and paved the foundation for Silicon Valley to thrive, transforming San Francisco into a place of technological innovation. In recent years, though, as the once starry-eyed tech underdogs like Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey rose to prominence, the organic grit of San Francisco has shaken away as if rocked by the San Andreas.
The idealized San Francisco outright rejects that of the mainstream – The Man, if you will. But somehow, the locale that once actively rejected The Man became The Man with the influx of tech and social media companies whose products have infiltrated and increasingly dominated every nook and cranny of our lives. Maybe I’m an utter Luddite, but the grassroots authenticity seems to have been replaced by silicon, causing the city to lose that something.
In trying to still bask in the glory of its heyday, San Francisco now presents a false and confused image. No longer is it a hub for creatives like its reputation may suggest. Rather, in being transformed into an economic hub, the city draws in a highly-educated, anxiety-ridden, insecure, youthful bourgeoisie, buzzing about the Financial District like bees in a hive. Perhaps the influx of aggressively career-minded 20-somethings has contributed to the lack of a distinct identity and culture. The transience of youths unsure of where to land, taking a job simply because it seems like “a good opportunity,” allows this uncertainty to fester. Compared to the youths of the mid 20th century, the young professionals of today appear to maintain a similar level of motivation, but to an obscured end clouded by corporate neuroticism, the burning desire to prove one’s worth in the world.
This, and the domination of social media platforms (many of which are based in the Bay Area) that foster a hyper-real monoculture have extinguished the lights Perry sings about. Instead of local cultural scenes popping up around the country and bringing a special atmosphere to cities like San Francisco, increased connectivity via social media has perpetuated a vapid, pleasure driven, “like” obsessed, hive-minded culture that produces hauntingly dystopian relics like HBO’s Euphoria, Marry Me, hyperpop music, and songs generated solely to achieve popularity through a viral TikTok dance. Thanks to the platforms the city has rewarded in its new economic era, San Francisco now lacks the urgency of change, the desire to think outside the box, plagued by the “social media gaze,” if you will. The passion to amplify the human experience – which once defined the culture and identity of the city – has been lost to this hyper-real, online monoculture. Now, the passion for profit and popularity, with a dash of the underlying corporate neuroticism, electrifies the city more than PG&E.
Despite my analysis, I’m unsure if I am simply romanticizing the past, or am truly capturing the essence of the city as it stands today. In trying to determine how I feel about San Francisco, I often imagine myself in the city in the 1960s as history unfolds around me. I imagine myself among men with mutton chops in bell bottom jeans and bra-less women with tangled hair in Golden Gate Park. I imagine what it would be like to hear the Beatles White Album for the first time after its original release, and the impact that would have made on me. I ponder how the San Francisco University or UC Berkeley student protests would have made me feel, whether they’d excite or terrify me, or if I’d fully appreciate their historical gravity. I compare this to my current experience, surrounded by women dressed like the 1999 Spice Girls and men in Patagonia windbreakers who are somehow all entrepreneurs creating the next big app.
Truthfully, I can never know what San Francisco of the past must have been like. Maybe the City by the Bay of Perry’s imagination was just as troubled as the city seems today. Perhaps there was a woman sitting in the Fillmore District in 1972, reminiscing about a time when San Francisco was decidedly more, well, San Francisco. Is the next Bob Dylan frequenting City Lights Bookstore as I write? Will the George Floyd protests be remembered as significantly as the Civil Rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s? Or is San Francisco’s apparent lack of character actually a symptom of a legitimate, larger problem? Only time will tell. Either way, I’ll still be listening to “Lights.”