Sophie Straat’s songs of new Amsterdam
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Nov 18th 2020
by M.S. | AMSTERDAM
IT IS AN iron law of cinema that a montage sequence of Paris must use an Edith Piaf chanson for its soundtrack. For Berlin, a music supervisor might go with Marlene Dietrich or a bit of thumping Schlager music. But what about Amsterdam? Few outside the Netherlands would have any clue. For the Dutch, however, the answer is obvious: the tunes of Johnny Jordaan, Zangeres Zonder Naam (“singer without a name”, the stage name of Maria Servaes-Beij) or any of the other singers who, in the years after the second world war, created the style known as levenslied.
Literally “life-song”, levenslied is a kitschy folk genre traditionally arranged around an accordion, though by the 1980s it had morphed into radio-friendly pop. It features tales of love lost and found, family tragedies and odes to the city, all delivered in a thick local accent and an exaggerated vibrato. Pubs in the city’s working-class districts used to swell every evening with the sound of patrons singing along to tunes such as Jordaan’s “Geef Mij Maar Amsterdam” (“I’ll take Amsterdam”).
Sophie Straat, whose real name is Sophie Schwartz, grew up in one of those districts: De Pijp (“the Pipe”), a stretch of 19th-century tenement blocks surrounding an open-air market. Ms Straat, 26, is just old enough to have caught a taste of the old working-class Amsterdam before it was swept away by gentrification. This year, as part of her graduate thesis for art school, she teamed up with Wieger Hoogendorp, a guitarist and producer, to write a cycle of levenslied songs for the millennial generation. The tunes have caught on. Over the summer Ms Straat and Mr Hoogendorp played sold-out shows (at reduced covid-19 capacity) in the country’s most prestigious venues, and last week they released the album “’T is niet mijn schuld” (“It’s not my fault”).
“People were hungry for it. They wanted to sing [these kinds of songs], but there hadn’t been anything new in a long time,” says Ms Straat. Her songs adopt the levenslied form, but their subject matter is contemporary. Many concern those twin fixations of today’s under-35s, gentrification and the property market. “Groen Amsterdam” (“Green Amsterdam”) mocks the way the city’s left-wing environmentalist pretensions go hand-in-hand with status-conscious consumerism. In “De Pijp”, Ms Straat returns to her old neighbourhood to find that the delicatessen has become a hipster bar obsessed with its Instagram account.
In one sense, the resurrection of levenslied resembles the way that Americana artists such as Gillian Welch have recycled the perceived authenticity of bluegrass and early country music. But there is something especially clever about Ms Straat’s songs, with their focus on the new Amsterdam of yuppies and expats. Gentrification, after all, is a process in which first artists and then professionals colonise a neglected historic area. To sing levenslied is thus a sort of gentrification itself: the educated professionals renovating tenement apartments in De Pijp are trying to drink the ambiance of a vanished Amsterdam in much the same way Ms Straat is.
Such renovation projects risk turning their source material into empty facsimiles. And in a city where more than half the population has an immigrant background, implying that levenslied captures Amsterdam’s authentic identity is touchy. Ms Straat is aware of the dangers. “It has this singalong character, in that way it’s inclusive, but it’s also exclusively white culture, so not everyone can really join,” says Ms Straat. Typically for an artist rediscovering an indigenous genre, she herself has an immigrant background, with a mother from Britain and a father from New York.
The songs on “’T is niet mijn schuld” form just one part of Ms Straat’s fine-arts thesis, which also includes photography. The thesis’s overarching theme is the Dutch child-transport bicycle known as the bakfiets. Her mother was among the first to get a child-carrying version; a clunkier sort had long been used by delivery boys. At the time they were built by tinkerers as a cheap option for parents who could not afford cars. They have since grown into a status symbol, with chic high-end models costing up to €5,000 ($5,800)—the urban Dutch version of the SUV. The bakfiets threads through the songs’ lyrics, encapsulating Amsterdam’s transformation from working-class bohemia to yuppie playground.
The album is also about exile, in a tongue-in-cheek way. Ms Straat now lives in The Hague, driven out of Amsterdam by high rents. Her song “Geluk” (“Happiness”) recounts her fruitless quest for a flatshare in the city she loves. The tune recalls the schmaltzy piano-ballad style of Andre Hazes, the greatest levenslied singer of the 1980-90s, who grew up around the corner from Ms Straat in De Pijp. Ms Straat does not claim to be some sort of refugee: “I’m very privileged,” she says. “We weren’t poor.” But the song’s desperation is sincere, and its refrain feels like a generational update to Jordaan’s anthem: “Amsterdam, Amsterdam, where am I supposed to live?”