I was talking today with a work colleague – who is also a music journalist – about songs that embody life in New York City. It made me reflect on the emotional connection that people have with life in Manhattan as expressed in various elements of popular culture.
Since I once visited New York for a few days when I was a student, I’ve always harboured had a life ambition to live here at some point in my life. I can’t tell you exactly why. It was that same gut reaction that people get when they check out a new house to rent or buy. The feeling that says ‘this could be home’.
Through my twenties this emotion was summed up concretely in three things – a song, a poster and a movie. Let me explain.
The song that, to my mind, overwhelmingly symbolized this life ambition was This Must Be The Place by Talking Heads. This was the song that, bizarrely, formed a major part of the soundtrack to the 80s movie Wall Street and accompanied the grounding of the main character in his first apartment. For years I had this on my iPod as a symbol of this wish to live in Manhattan. It certainly kept this distant dream alive in my mind and heart!
The poster that embodied this dream I picked up at the once ubiquitous British poster store, Athena (yes I know; no class). It was a black and white framed photo of the Manhattan skyline. Aged 24, this was once proudly displayed in my living room, but as I grew older and moved around it got lost along the way. One of the first remarks I made on moving into my current apartment in New York (which has a great view of that same skyline) was that I didn’t need that poster any more – I just had to glance out of the window.
The movie which also amplified the siren call of New York City was Robert Stigwood’s disco classic, Saturday Night Fever. I first saw this while I was at university. The tale of one man’s ambition to transcend life in Brooklyn for the bright lights of Manhattan also inspired me – as did John Travolta’s ability to snag women while wheeling around precariously on platform heels.
It’s easy to look back on the symbols of this ambition with a smile. But they were all very real and meaningful for me, each in their own way and in their own time. It reminds me of the neighbour I grew up with who expressed in a letter that she wanted to ‘live with her mates like in the TV show Friends‘. Or the enthusiasm with which people sang along to New York, New York at the new years party I went to in Times Square. Or reaching even further back, the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty for millions of would-be Americans.
The arts have played a huge role in popularizing the allure of New York across the globe. I was certainly sold. And amid the trials and tribulations of surviving life in this place, it was uplifting for me to remember today that 10 years ago as I glanced at that cheesy Athena print on the wall, I would have given my right arm to be where I am today.