Songs We Take for Granted: “New York, New York”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 15, 2008
Ryan Adams, you fucking hack
I didn’t get to do much to commemorate the MLB All-Star Game being in New York this week–the game and the HR Derby were prohibitively expensive, and I couldn’t drum up enough enthusiasm among my friends to go to the Club Fest or whatever. But it’d be somewhat remiss of me to not at least do something about it on this blog, and since I don’t have much to say about the game itself, I figured I could say a thing or two about the song unofficially adopted as the game’s theme–the Chairman of the Board’s version of “New York, New York,” possibly the most beloved song about an American city outside of Public Image Ltd.’s “Seattle” and the Drew Carey theme. The song has been used in numerous commercials and pre-game ceremonies for the game, most notably in a city-wide singalong, in which ex-Yanks like David Wells and Yogi Berra trade lines with local firemen, police, and other conerned citizens.
Now I don’t know if I’d say “New York, New York” is my favorite song about the Big Apple–the loner in me has a soft spot for both Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York,” and as I’ve previously written about, the Trade Winds’ “New York’s a Lonely Town,” while in terms of civic pride it’s hard to top Cam’Ron, Jay-Z and Juelz Santana’s “Welcome to New York City,” and for general ambiance I gotta give it to both Billy Joel and Nas’s “New York State of Mind.” But there’s no question that “New York, New York” is a classic, from those instantly can-can-inducing opening horns through to the final modulation. It’s the kind of song that feels like it’s been around for as long as the city itself, even though in reality it first hit the top 40 around the same time as Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu,” and was originally written for the Martin Scorsese mega-flop of the same name three years prior.
There’s all sorts of great stuff going on with the song’s lyrics. There’s the classic opening line, one of the all-time great song-starting pronouncements. There’s the punny wonder of the “I wanna wake up / in the city that never sleeps” line, whose irony I didn’t even realize until remarkably recently. And I really dig the song’s rhyme scheme, which remains consistent throughout multiple verses (“I wanna be a part of it” / “I’ll make a brand new start of it,” etc), a device I feel was used far more in Sinatra’s era than is currently, but which creates a neat little string of continuity throughout the whole song. And it’s one of the many songs that Frankie was born to sing–frankly, I’ve never even heard Liza’s version, but could it possibly compare to the sheer authority of Sinatra’s belting? (Yankees execs certainly didn’t think so, as old Blue Eyes’s rendition muscled out Lucille #2’s when the latter put the team to an ultimatum between versions).
Most interestingly to me, though, is how weirdly foreign the song sounds. For a song New York has so adopted as its go-to anthem, it’s written from a pointedly outsider perspective. It’s not the kind of song that reflects a great deal of knowledge about its subejct matter, as it doesn’t do the normal city-song trick of naming specific things or locations in the city that enamors it so to the singer–in fact, not only is it obvious that the singer doesn’t come from New York, it basically sounds like he’s never even been there before. New York is used more as an ideal than as an actual city, more of a point of contrast from “those little town blues” than an actual electoral district. And as such, it becomes almost a song more about American Manifest Destiny than an ode to any particular city–the idea of anyone being able to “make a brand new start of it,” and of it being just as much up to “New York, New York” as the person itself to do so.
Meanwhile, though–how about this fucking game? Bottom of the 13th right now, and if Brad Lidge is robbed of a chance to close this sucker out, I’m gonna fly down to Florida and harpoon Dan Uggla.