In the Sonic Highways “Los Angeles” episode featured in this lesson, Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan reflects on the transient population of his adopted Southern California home. “To this day,” McKagan remarks, “I can count the people I know that are from here. It’s, like, six people. People come here looking for something.” Guitarist Joe Walsh emphatically adds, “people come to L.A. to make it.”
When one looks at population growth, the more than century-old lure of Los Angeles seems irrefutable. Between 1900 and 1910–before the rise of the film industry–the population of Los Angeles county tripled. The first Hollywood film was released in 1910, and by the 1920s more than eighty percent of the world’s films were created in Los Angeles. In 1930, the region’s population was over two million.
Some argue that the region’s long engagement with visual culture has shaped Los Angeles’ overall environment on a broader conceptual level as well, that if it came to be associated with the “spotlight” of stardom, Los Angeles was itself an experience of light and spectacle. In Sonic Highways, for instance, Dave Grohl refers to the city’s streets as “eye candy,” suggesting that they emanate a sense of “glitter, glam, fame and fortune” to a degree that it can feel as if a spotlight shines on everyone, all the time.
In Part One of this lesson, students use a clip from Sonic Highways, maps, and historical photography to contrast mid-19th century Los Angeles with the city of New York during the same period. They consider how the a quick farmland-to-city turnover, sudden emergence as a media superpower, and rapidly increasing population might have helped shape the overall character of the region. The included homework prepares students for Part Two of this lesson, in which they consider how the music of 1970s Los Angeles was shaped by the geography and visual culture they explored in Part One.