Thursday, January 13, 2011

New York

This summer at Oxegen, I had the unexpected pleasure of catching Jay-Z's set while waiting for Arcade Fire. I'm not a huge rap fan, but I have to admit he puts on a great show. The only let down was his inclusion of the wretchedly overplayed 'Empire State of Mind' (okay, maybe the 20mph wind, rain, and near-freezing temperatures were also an issue, but not a deal-breaker). When I was looking for songs for the New York entry, most of them were about hopes and dreams and stuff. Feeling brand new, nothing like New York, etc., etc. A truly hilarious professor I once had used to dismiss comments he didn't like with "Well...all right." New York hopes and dreams? Well...all right. That's not going to make for a very interesting post, so instead I've found two truly heartbreaking songs about the Empire State.

My favorite song about New York is LCD Soundsystem's sprawling 'New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down." James Murphy produces some of the catchiest dance/electro out there, but what's surprising about his music is the way his lyrics are a total sucker punch of nostalgia and longing as soon as you stop dancing and start listening. The entire Sound of Silver album is, thematically, a look backward. The title track is a snide, retrospective brush-off of teenage emotional turmoil, 'Someone Great' a bitter torch song, 'All My Friends' a triumphant flip through memories. All my friends have never been able to agree on which track is the centerpiece of the record, but I think it's 'New York.'

'New York' is a strange track because it's a love song to a place, but not a happy one. It's the lyrical equivalent of the pros-and-cons conversation you have with your friends when you're thinking of breaking up with someone. "New York, I love you but you're bringing me down" could as easily be about the spouse you need to leave. It's a song about being completely lost in a place you know well. On one hand it's comfortable, you still love it--" New York, you're perfect/ Don't please don't change a thing." But it doesn't last. Murphy admits, "New York I love you, but you're freaking me a death in the hall/that you hear through your wall." Even horror is buffered. The entire song, from the lyrics to the dreamy tempo, is about a slow disconnect.

Murphy, however, never severs the ties. 'New York...' isn't a condemnation so much as a rumination. He's reconsidering the place he calls home without ever reaching a conclusion. "You're still the one pool where I'd happily drown," he admits. New York is the ex who you keep going back to because they promise things will be different, better this time.

The final, beautiful crescendo of the song deals with a syndrome familiar in writing about New York-- the sensation of feeling alone while surrounded by people. "Maybe mother told you true/ And they're always be something there for you/ And you'll never be alone/ But maybe she's wrong/ And maybe I'm right/ And just maybe she's wrong/ Maybe she's wrong/ And maybe I'm right/And if so, is there?" The lines ascend in tempo and pitch until the final question, and then the song drops off into a gentle instrumental, leaving the question unanswered. Murphy isn't even sure if he belongs in the city at all, how could he be sure if he feels connected to other people too? Maybe he does, and that's why the back and forth of questions is so crucial to the track. Each of us has to decide for ourselves. Do we look backward to familiar advice, to familiar relationships, for comfort? Do we take on the New York dream of stepping into uncertainty in pursuit of something better? New York holds a place in our national imagination, so we have a certain nostalgia for it that conflicts painfully with the truth. Is there a grain of hope underneath? Maybe. Is there?

The Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York' is another song about looking backward, though one that's certain in its unhappiness and regret. Incidentally, it's my favorite Christmas song. Also the only Christmas song to include the line "You're a bum, you're a punk, you're an old slut on junk," unless I missed some verses in 'Jingle Bells.' Anyhow, it's a song about two Irish immigrants trading barbs during a breakup. They meet on Christmas Eve in New York and make grandiose plans. "This year's for me and you...I can see a better time when all our dreams come true"-- Jay-Z, much? The next verse is a series of New York clich├ęs ("They've got cars big as bars, they've got rivers of gold") that quickly turn sour-- "the wind blows right through you, it's no place for the old." The promises that the city makes to them-- fortune, love, Broadway stardom, don't come to fruition and they quickly turn on each other. "You scumbag, you maggot, cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your ass, I pray God it's our last" is the bleak high (low?) point of the song. Not Jay-Z anymore.

The real kick of the song comes with the final verse. "I could've been someone," Shane McGowan laments. To which Kristy MacColl replies cooly, "Well, so could anyone." That's the truth of the matter. New York inspires dreams by the million, but not everyone has what it takes to achieve them. Or the city doesn't give what you need. The songs I've chosen to talk about New York make it fickle, harsh underneath the sparkle and skyscrapers. Maybe so many people dream about success in New York that the concept is meaningless. You think you can become an actor/Wall Street mogul/etc? Well, so could anyone.

The danger in New York is one and the same with what makes it so appealing. You can start again there, be anyone you want, but will you make the right choice? It's not a question anyone can answer with particular certainty, even with the benefit of hindsight, and these two songs capture that perfectly. New York is another place where the American dream falls through, despite the fact that it's the ultimate symbol of what we feel we can achieve as a nation, and the face we put on for the world.

So, New York is a place of hopes and dreams in the end. Well...all right. Sometimes the hopes and dreams succeed. Sometimes they get crushed and the result is amazing songs. And sometimes we feel, like James Murphy does, that we aren't sure about New York. Maybe it's wonderful, maybe it's too big and too uncertain and too imperfect. But everyone wants to write a song about it.

New York I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down
Fairytale of New York

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