One day in the 1970s, the young Giacomo Bottà was sitting in his grandparents’ living room in Lombardy, Italy. The boy was watching TV, and came upon a programme in which four men were sitting in the back of a limousine. The foursome were browsing through the stations on their car radio. When they found a rock song, they would look at each other and nod approvingly.
“My grandmother walked in at that moment and said in her thick Alpine-accented Italian that those are the Beatles and they make a racket,” Bottà reminisces.
This is Bottà’s earliest musical memory – the Beatles on the television. Fairly soon after this formative experience, the boy began to see more and more images of new kinds of exciting, outlandishly decked out musicians: punks.
“The New Wave of the 1980s had a powerful impact on me. I was fascinated by its visual and carnevalistic aspects.”
On a family trip to Vienna, Bottà got to see some real punks in the wild. His home back in Morbegno couldn’t be further from such excesses. The exciting riffs of punk were being played somewhere else, in the big cities, in London.
THE ALPINE OUTSIDER
As a teenager, Bottà had had enough of the idyllic Alpine village of 10,000 inhabitants that was his home.
“It was 140 kilometers to Milan where all the interesting bands would tour, not exactly walking distance,” says Bottà.
Today, he is a docent of urban studies at the University of Helsinki, researching and teaching the impact of popular music on urban space.
Is he indulging in the thing he was deprived of as an adolescent? The docent admits that this may be the case.
“I became intensely interested in subcultures at a very early age. I think it’s because I felt like an outsider due to growing up in such a small village,” Bottà muses.
A person growing up in a large city becomes accustomed to seeing everything all the time, and even major events seem commonplace.
“In a small village, everything relating to cities comes via the media. I’ve really only encountered subcultures as a researcher, not as a participant. I’ve found out about them by studying them, but I’ve never had direct access to living in their midst and inside them.”
CASSETTE TAPE REBEL
As a teen, Bottà started a band, so he does have personal experience of making music. Named Caven, the band of 16-year-old friends was rebellious and dreamed of stardom.
“We wanted to get a record deal, get famous and get fans, but we were particularly committed to the DIY attitude and anarchist ideology of punk.
“We distributed our cassette tapes to our friends and protested commercial music. We wanted to play in venues that were as independent as possible – which was very easy in Morbegno, not exactly a hub of commercial gig venues,” laughs Bottà.
Thanks to the hard gig work of Bottà’s generation during the 1990s, Morbegno has since become home to the Morbo Rock festival, so the hills are still alive with the sound of local rock.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO BERLIN
The career of an anti-commercial punk was not a lucrative one. Fascinated by the bright lights and music of the big city, Bottà headed to academia. He completed his Master’s degree on cultural studies at the University of Pavia, and worked on his doctoral dissertation in Milan and Berlin.
In his dissertation, Bottà studied the descriptions of social and urban space written by contemporary Berlin authors between 1990 and 2000.
“I studied how authors interpreted the change to Berlin’s character after the reunification of the city – how they handled the new social borders and gentrification of various districts and the city’s complex historical layers.”
Bottà became interested in the impact of music on urban culture while he was working on his dissertation.
“For a while after the reunification of Berlin, music had the incredible power to keep the city-dwellers equal and to generate a sense of unity. The locals would dance in the city’s hottest techno clubs, equal despite their respective backgrounds.
“This power of the clubs made certain districts so trendy that the echoes of this time still influence the cultural tourism and gentrification of many districts as well as Berlin’s reputation as a hotbed of creativity.”
Giacomo Bottà is convinced that it is possible to predict social change in cities by studying popular music.
“If you notice an area of town rapidly accumulating new popular music spots, that district is in for a change. This stage is typically followed by gentrification.”
Electronic music has an impact on urbanisation, and active clubs are a boost to the night-time economy. Music is also a tourist draw, says the researcher.
“For example, the Flow Festival has made tremendous leaps forward and is now an advertising factor for Helsinki. Every other brochure for Helsinki has a picture of Flow.”
THE BEAT GOES ON
In Berlin, Bottà discovered not only his academic identity, but also his future wife, the Finnish Tanja, who was in Berlin as an Erasmus exchange student. The couple moved to Helsinki in 2004, when Kallio was already beginning to be the trendy part of town. After 2010, the changes in Kallio have only accelerated.
“Four of Helsinki’s most interesting live clubs are still in a small area of Kallio and Vallila: Äänivalli, Siltanen, Kaiku and Kuudes linja,” lists Bottà.
In the next stage of urban culture, the hottest clubs will probably be found somewhere else.
“The clubs may move away from Kallio once the area has been sufficiently gentrified. At that point, clubs typically face a torrent of complaints about their loud music.”
While dance clubs are interesting, nobody wants to listen to a thumping beat every night.
“These days, consulting on the soundproofing of buildings is a major business in big cities,” says Bottà.
Helsinki has been home to the researcher for many years, even though work takes the family, or one of the parents, abroad on a regular basis. Between 2010 and 2015, the family was based in Strasbourg as Bottà’s wife was working for the EU.
The researcher himself regularly travels to Germany and Italy for work. But they would prefer to settle down in Helsinki, if only for the children.
“We want to give our children roots in Helsinki. I have a sincere belief that it’s good to feel like you have roots in a particular place. That you can say that your home is somewhere,” says Bottà.
“My home is in Helsinki, and in Strasbourg I was very active in the Finnish community. I have to travel to other universities from time to time, so in that sense I’m an EU citizen and a European, but I would prefer to stay put.”
Bottà sees no particular glamour in nomadism.
“I hope that I will have a permanent job at the University of Helsinki.”
WOULDN’T CHANGE IT FOR THE WORLD
At the University of Helsinki, Bottà has taught more than 700 students over the years and got excellent student feedback every time. Nevertheless, he hasn’t received a single monthly salary payment during his 14 years. His teaching has been funded by foundation or project funding, or been paid on an hourly basis.
Bottà admits to feeling the stress of being a freelancer every now and again.
“I ask myself why I don’t do something completely different. How do I justify my work when I still haven’t reached a permanent position? Should I have made different choices? Many of my colleagues have the same problem.”
But what can you do when you’ve found a job that you love.
“My musings always end with the same resolution: I would not change my job. I love doing research and teaching – they make me happy. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and researcher. I don’t have job security, but I get to do what I love and what I feel I know best to do.”
As a father, Bottà is grateful for his wife Tanja’s permanent position at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. If he were a single parent, or married to another academic freelancer, the family’s finances would be precarious.
We’re chatting at the café in the University of Helsinki’s Kaisa House, which occasionally plays the role of Bottà’s office.
“I come here to write or to read when working at home feels too lonely,” says Bottà.
“When I first came to Finland, I was in my thirties, so relatively young. I could still blend in with the students. Now that I’m over forty, I sometimes wonder if I’m a freak at the University, an old man hanging out at the student library,” Bottà laughs.
What does Bottà think about his "namesake" in Helsinki, Restaurant Botta?
“When I was younger and going out, I tried several times to skip the line at Botta because of my name. It never worked, not even once!” reveals Giacomo Bottà.
Botta is the nickname of Ostrobotnia, the bar and building owned by the Ostrobothnian student associations and a popular nightspot on Helsinki’s Museokatu.
THATCHER AND MUSIC
Bottà is currently working on a book on how popular music has shaped the way we think about old industrial cities. His first research focus was Manchester, the world’s oldest industrial city, which has given rise to two musical revolutions: the breakthrough of New Wave bands, such as Joy Division, in the early 1980s, and the techno rave culture in the early 1990s.
“After Thatcherism caused the industrial crisis in the cities of northern England, a tremendous amount of music was created. Cities would specialise in heavy metal, post punk, electronic or avant-garde music. Each city developed a distinct musical image.”
Suddenly these places were trendy. Manchester’s red-brick industrial city image became cool.
“I wanted to find out why something like that would happen – how these incredibly untrendy, grey cities became so attractive.”
THE SECONDARY CITY TRIES HARDER
Bottà began to look for equivalent cases elsewhere in Europe to gain perspective on the topic. In his book, he will examine the musical cultures in Manchester, Düsseldorf, Turin and Tampere, and the impact these cultures have on the cities. In Tampere, Bottà is focusing on the hard core punk subculture of the early 1980s, but he mentions the traditional rock the city is more commonly known for.
Industrial cities have a certain attitude that is lacking in capital cities, believes Bottà.
“The capital is typically a centre for creative industries. It has all the record companies, managers and the best gig venues, and all bands tour there.”
These secondary cities have fewer cultural events. This means people have to make things themselves, and this practical approach begins to generate a distinct musical style for the cities. Once one band becomes successful, it will pull others along with it, and a trend is born.
“I see this practical do-it-yourself attitude as the working-class heritage that industrial cities pass on to their musicians. Turin was a car manufacturing city. People didn’t think about cars, they made them. Punk musicians from Turin thought that if we can make cars, we can make records.”
THE JOY OF GIGS
Today, young people listen to music alone on their phone. Is music losing its community element?
Perhaps in some sense, but the researcher emphasises that live concerts are very much a rising trend. More gigs are being organised than ever before.
“There are a lot of gigs because bands can’t make money on record sales anymore, but people will still come to concerts. A gig is still an attractive way to spend your time.”
In big cities, people have more of a need for social interaction. Music festivals and gigs are a chance to feel communal joy.
“You’re not alone, you feel like you’re in the right place at the right time, living in the moment.”
However, the production of music seems like a very different process for the young smartphone set than it does for the generation of middle-aged rock fans, says Bottà.
“Young people see music as a product to be downloaded, not as a process in which a group of people make music with very specific implements. You can make good electronic music alone in your room with a laptop.”
UNSETTLING A CONTINENT
Bottà can reasonably be called a product of European unification. Born in Italy, he defended his doctoral dissertation in Berlin and has now settled down in Helsinki. But now the continent’s unification is in jeopardy. The researcher finds this troubling.
“As an EU citizen it was easy for me to immigrate to Finland when I did. Now I see similar opportunities being snatched away, and it is a problem for many international people. Many of my academic friends in England are worried about Brexit.”
The change has been significant, as British and EU citizens were on an equal footing on the work and residency market until recently. The political turn is worrying.
“I wish nothing but the best for Europe, and I would like its unification experiment to continue. At the same time, I would prefer a Europe that is not the bureaucratic monster it currently is. In any case, I sincerely hope that we Europeans don’t start closing our borders to one another.” //
This article was published in Finnish in the Yliopisto magazine in September 2017.