New York has been much celebrated in song. In recent years, these songs have tended towards the unpleasantly grandiose; New York as an arena of near-unlimited personal fulfillment and narcissistic referentiality.
There is a rich seam of song dealing with the seamier, less salubrious side of New York – tapping into a cultural depiction of the city as a circle of hell, part of a wider tradition of depicting urban life as profoundly distressing dating back to Juvenal. In recent years a certain sanitising of New York has taken place, both literally and metaphorically. Having spent the summer of 1999 there it is a city I love, but also find the somewhat fawning tone of much Noo Yawk discourse rather parochial.
The modern template of the New-York-is-amazing-and-so-am-I song is New York New York, or more properly “Theme From ‘New York, New York’. Ironically, the original cinematic deployment of the song, with Liza Minnelli’s vocals, in Martin Scorcese’s movie was as a devastating moment of personal crisis:
In a more recent depiction of New York as a glossy hell, Steve McQueen’s Shame, Carey Mulligan sings the same song to similar effect:
Lou Reed’s album New York is perhaps the ultimate riposte to the grandiose New York song. It is almost parodically intense and focused on New York as a hellhole. The music was straightforward rock – derided by some as “truck driver music”, but the lyrics were tight punches of pure dyspeptic anger:
The Clash’s “The Right Profile” is a tribute to Montgomery Clift, but makes it here for the lyrics evocative of New York sleaze with an appropriately spikey musical counterpoint:
New York, New York, 42nd Street
Hustlers rustle and pimps pimp the beat
Monty Clift is recognized at dawn
He ain’t got no shoes and his clothes are torn
Finally, I am not that averse to the New York is great genre, and Elbow’s “New York Morning” is a more wry and amused take on this genre than most. I particularly love the line “In the Modern Rome/where folks are kind to Yoko”. Lang Lang’s recent album “New York Rhapsody” has a certain amount of Noo Yawk bombast for my taste, but I enjoyed his take on “New York Morning”: