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Jay-Z’s “Empire State”: not the anthem to modernity we need


James Harkin’s recent comment piece in The Guardian, “Jay-Z’s hymn to modernity”, does not get the significance of this rap mega-hit exactly right. Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” does celebrate New York City, but falls short of upholding the challenge and potential of modernity - something that New York sorely needs today.

Harkin says that, “In trying to nail the essence of a city that defines itself by ceaseless change and reinvention, ‘Empire State of Mind’ becomes a hymn to modernity itself.” In an interesting move, he compares Jay-Z’s song to Marshall Berman’s history of the idea of modernism, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which was first published in 1982 but has been reissued this summer. Both are personal odes to New York, where both Jay-Z and Berman grew up. “What unites Jay-Z and Berman,” writes Harkin, “is their lack of nostalgia, their insistence on movement and mobility.” He concludes: “What this rapper and this Marxist seem to share is a conviction that cities and societies that stop moving forward, that don’t open themselves up to perpetual flux and that are not constantly on the move, are as good as dead.”

I especially like the sentiment in that last sentence, and I wish it was a more widely-held one today. However, I just don’t think Jay-Z’s “Empire State” really promotes the modernist notion of progress in its full sense.

Don’t get me wrong: I really like “Empire State”. It’s a very catchy tune. The contrast between, on the one hand, the thumping bass and Jay-Z’s rap, and, on the other, Alicia Keys’ piano and soaring chorus is great (Keys’ vocals in "Empire State" gave me goosebumps the first time I heard them). I’m also a sucker for anything that praises my native New York. “Empire State” first played last fall here in NYC, and for me and many locals, it formed the soundtrack to the Yankees’ World Series championship in October (Jay-Z himself makes reference to being a Yankees fan in the song).

Like some other aspects of life, you just want to enjoy the tune without thinking too much about it. Because, if I use my head instead of my heart, I ultimately find “Empire State” disappointing. One way to explain why I find its message unsatisfactory is to compare it with Frank Sinatra’s classic “New York, New York”.

Indeed, Jay-Z cites Ol’ Blue Eyes at the outset: “I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here/I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere.” And Jay-Z’s number, like “New York, New York,” certainly speaks about ambition and dreams. Alicia Keys sings: “There’s nothing you can’t do, now you’re in New York/These streets will make you feel brand new/Big lights will inspire you, let’s hear it for New York”.

But the two are propelled by different impulses.  This is best highlighted by the perspective of the narrator. Sinatra is an outsider, contemplating his upcoming move to the Big Apple: “Start spreading the news/I am leaving today/I want to be a part of it/New York New York”. He is from a small town: “My little town blues/Are melting away”. This perspective is what makes “New York, New York” unique: it is not from a resident simply celebrating how great his city is, but from someone who is about to go there. This distinguishes it from most other paeans to cities, including Sinatra’s own tribute to Chicago, “My Kind of Town”.

Sinatra clearly has big dreams: “I want to wake up in that city/That never sleeps/And find I’m king of the hill/Top of the list”. But there is an underlying tension, because he is a newcomer who has yet to achieve these great things. It is hopeful, but there is also some anxiety because the challenge is daunting and the outcome is uncertain.

In contrast, Jay-Z’s “Empire State” is from the perspective of a comfortable insider. Of course, Jay-Z has travelled far; in his song he tells of his rise from his roots in Bed-Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn). He may not have had “little town blues”, but his move across the East River to Manhattan is, in social mobility terms, thousands of miles.

Yet in “Empire State”, Jay-Z is looking backwards, from the standpoint of someone who has made it, and is now living the high life. He is riding in a Lexus, telling about the sports stars he hangs out with. I disagree with Harkin about Jay-Z’s supposed lack of nostalgia: Jay-Z’s tune is dripping with nostalgia about where he grew up (and this is made more apparent by the black and white images in the video – I love them, but they are nostalgic). Jay-Z cites his boyhood friends who form his entourage and join him for the ride, but this seems apologetic, as if to say he hasn’t lost touch with his roots.

Unlike Sinatra, Jay-Z is no longer striving. Instead, he adopts rap’s (depressingly familiar) mode of immature false bravado: he’s already deemed himself “the new Sinatra”, and he’s “made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can”. Brashness and, as Harkin says, a “refusal to know its place” is certainly a positive feature of modern urban life, one shared by both Jay-Z and Sinatra. But Jay-Z’s boasting feels complacent: it’s already happened, there’s little aspiration left. In contrast, Sinatra’s determination is all future-oriented.

In other parts of his song, Jay-Z is downright opposed to what we normally consider an ideal of modernity – the reinvention of the city via immigrants. He writes: “Yellow Cab, Gypsy Cab, Dollar Cab, holla back/Foreigners that ain’t fifty, they act like they forgot how to act.” This backward sentiment is nowhere to be seen in Sinatra; indeed, Jay-Z’s “foreigners” are exactly the kind of people who Sinatra sings about: outsiders who want to make it.

Despite his “there’s nothing you can’t do” line, Jay-Z’s vision of New York is not so bright. He writes: “Cities is a pity; half of y’all won’t make it”; “good girls gone bad, the cities filled with them”. This is of course more realistic than Sinatra's one-sided focus on the upside, but lends an air of pessimism to the song.

I love New York, both because I’m from New York (raised in its suburbs, spent a majority of my adult years in the city) and for what it represents as an ideal. It still has a recognizable buzz to it, and I’d like to think that it remains an inspiration to the world (which may even partially explain the global popularity of “Empire State of Mind”). I see and support New York’s dynamic process of changing and becoming, and I credit that most of all to its striving newcomers.

But in my dark nights I worry that New York has seen its best days and has effectively forgotten about its modernist dreams. Already in 1982, Berman’s All That Is Solid highlighted how, by the 1970s, the city's modernist growth aspirations had been replaced with austerity. Since that time, the city’s economy has become more and more beholden to Wall Street, and after the financial crisis, this looks precarious. The dependence on shifting other people's money around carries an odor of decadence that is akin to London's reliance on its City financial district.

Visually, New York’s architecture has not kept up with the times: during last year’s Olympics I looked upon China’s new gems with awe and, I have to admit, a little envy. As I walk around Manhattan today, too often I feel I'm in a museum to modernism – which, of course, is directly counter to the spirit of modernism. The tallest symbol of modern architecture in New York is the Empire State Building, which only serves to remind me how low are horizons are today. The Empire State was built during the Great Depression of the 1930s – and who is recommending that we tackle today’s economic downturn with a new, ambitious New York tower?

Of course, when it comes to towers, what’s most notable is how the Ground Zero site remains undeveloped almost nine years after the terrorist attack brought the Twin Towers crashing down. Instead of modernist-style redevelopment – combined with a spirit of determination to fight back – we seem to be stuck with living with a reminder of the past. Jay-Z writes “Long live the World Trade” (and in the video makes a sign of the cross), and that’s the problem – we’re in a reverence mode, rather than a rebuilding mode. This is one of the roots of today’s conflict over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” (which I wrote about here). We’re supposed to be frozen in awe of “hallowed ground”, and allow that supposed sacredness to excuse all sorts of irrational feelings about Muslims in the vicinity. A true New York attitude would be "get over it". We ought to be more worried about the fact that for far too long the site has remained hollowed ground. Moreover, our obsession with 9/11 means that we are focused on the past, on what was done to us, and we wallow in a persecution mentality. It is the opposite of embracing the progressive “perpetual flux” and “constantly on the move” features of modernity.

To Jay-Z and the rest of New York, I say: our past shows we can do much better than this. What’s great about the modern ideal of cities is not just their constant change per se, but the ambitions of their people, and how those people drive and shape what the city becomes. New York still has that resource in abundance.

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