Why I Hate Alicia Keys' Empire State Of Mind (Part II)

How can a multimillion selling, critically-lauded global smash boasting seven writers be so woefully bad?
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How can a multimillion selling, critically-lauded global smash boasting seven writers be so woefully bad?

New York is magnificent. If you’ve been you’ll know that it’s majestic, manic, intense, exhilarating and arguably the most extraordinary city on Earth. If you’ve not been, go as soon as you can because you’ll come away wondering why you didn’t go sooner. It’s been justifiably celebrated, with great films, book, plays, paintings and songs created within it and about it. However, Alicia Keys singing Empire State of Mind (part 2) Broken Down – to allow it it’s full title – isn’t so much a celebration of New York as a kick in the city’s bollocks. And delivered by a native New Yorker, to boot. That the city is represented in any way by the song is a disgrace.

Straight off I should say that I’m not talking about the Jay-Z version of the song – never heard it, don’t want to. I’m not being ignorant its just that the bit of it I have heard (the chorus) enrages me to the point of insensibility, so I have to put the safety of myself and those around me above balanced commentary and not allow myself to listen to it.

The Alicia Keys version of the song (with the pointlessly over-extended title) is the subject of my ire, for it’s dire - and that’s a better rhyme than you’ll find in the song itself. The tune doesn’t bother me particularly, that’s just a hesitant piano riff, a half hearted string section, bland layered backing vocals, some symbol splashes and a few stadium drums thrown in at the end presumably so that the song doesn’t just fizzle out when played live – it never gets going and is the sonic equivalent of that feeling you get when you’re about to sneeze. Supremely ignorable. What bugs me is the lyric. They are possibly the most feeble, juvenile and illiterate words ever committed to song.

Also, to avoid a writ from the song’s publishers I have to be careful to not reproduce too much of the lyric (which suits me) but the words are freely available on the web and I urge you to spend a minute to find them because they are more damningly self-critical than I could ever be. They’re self-evident shite. The lyric contains some truly terrible rhyme, scansion and meter. Let’s take a sample line. In fact, let’s take the first line.

‘Grew up in a place/ that is famous as a place of movie scenes’

Right. I think we can all agree that that’s already fairly poor. Even Microsoft Word is giving me the grey wigglys. Basically the line is solely constructed so that the final word can rhyme with the end of the next line, ‘and the streets are mean’. Not horrendous but certainly lazy and clichéd.

The next part quotes New York, New York with the ‘if I can make it here’ line having its theft qualified by the addition of ‘that’s what they say’. Like that makes it alright, like I can claim Hamlet as mine if I tack the words ‘at least that’s what Bill reckoned’ on the end. This bit is actually only included so that it can be rhymed with this awkward, stuttering couplet:

‘Seeing my face in lights/ Or my name on marquees found down Broadway’

See? Rhyming ‘say’ and ‘Broadway’, genius. This illustrates what I dislike most about the song. The whole thing feels like a set of clichés and well known landmarks clumsily strung together. As if the words had been commissioned for $10 from a former Tin Pan Alley security guard who now lives on a bench in Central Park and was taken pity on by a passing tourist board boss who believed his drunken boasts about writing Star Spangled Banner. Or, more likely, as if someone sat a class of 8 year olds down and asked them to write a song about New York. Imagine that scenario while reading the next nugget.

Which New York-themed song has now has sold more copies and racked up more YouTube hits than any other before it? Which song effectively represents New York to the world? The very worst one of all. Like a two tonne turd floating down the Hudson.

‘Hail a Gypsy cab/ Take me down from Harlem to the Brooklyn Bridge/[and this is the one that gets me every time] Someone sleeps tonight with a hunger/ For more than an empty fridge’

*Hand in the air*

‘Miss? Miss?’

‘Yes, Felicia?’

‘Miss. Harlem down to the Brooklyn Bridge, Miss’

‘Very good, Felicia. Let’s write that on the board. Now, who can think of a rhyme for Bridge?’

*Long silence*

*Hand tentatively goes up*

‘Yes, Jobriath?’

‘Miss. Someone sleeps tonight with a hunger for more than an empty fridge?’

*Teacher stands up like Satan rising from Hell*

‘That’s fucking shit, Jobriath. Get the fuck out of my class and never darken this school’s door again, you illiterate little wanker

That scenario seems far more plausible than someone who actually writes songs for a living coming up with such an insanely turd-brained couplet.

And then, for me, the worst line in the song - the chorus:

‘New York/ Concrete jungle where dreams are made of’.

Sorry, but what the withering fuck does that mean? It’s not even English. ‘Where dreams are made of’? THAT MAKES NO SENSE. ‘Where dreams are made’ – YES. ‘Of which dreams are made’ – Yes. ‘Where dreams are made of’ – NO, NO, NO. Was there no other human being nearby you could run the line past before bellowing it into the mic? Could the producer not have stepped in and said, ‘Scuse me, Alicia love, not entirely sure what the bloody hell you’re banging on about there. Can you just read that back to me?’  It’s possibly the worst line in the annals of recorded music - and I count myself a fan of Lou Reed, the man who once actually wrote and proudly sang ‘And when I saw you kiss Robert Mitchum/ Gee but I thought you’d never citchum’.

The song claims a total of seven (7!!!) writers. What kind of tortuous creative process the poor thing was dragged through baffles the mind. Surely one of them had been to school? Surely someone at the publishers had been to school? Surely someone at some point could have taken an Emperor’s new clothes style stance and had the cojones to question the artistic and literary merit of this travesty against humanity? Apparently not.

Some of the greatest songwriters in history created some of the finest popular songs in New York. The finest tunes from the jazz, folk, disco, punk and hip-hop eras were written in New York. In the Brill Building you had Bacharach and David, Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King and Paul Simon churning out classics. Tin Pan Alley saw Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Scott Joplin, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter ply their sublime trade. Artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Blondie, Talking Heads, Leonard Cohen, LL Cool J and Run DMC have written their signature tunes in the five boroughs and many have written specifically about NYC. But which New York-themed song has now has sold more copies and racked up more YouTube hits than any other before it? Which song effectively represents New York to the world? The very worst one of all. Like a two tonne turd floating down the Hudson.

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