The Empire State Building, New York City

New York City by They Might Be Giants

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The streets are paved with diamonds
And there's just so much to see
But the best thing about New York City
Is you and me. Read full Lyrics
New York City gets covered a lot, in song, film, and stage. Frank Sinatra may be the first singer you think of in association with it, for his version of "New York, New York." That's the image more commonly associated with songs about New York: classy, upscale, sophisticated. The other end of the spectrum is to make fun of the town, dwelling on the traffic, crime, pollution, rude citizens, and various pitfalls. See the two parodies in the short-lived animated TV series The Critic for just one example.

So They Might Be Giants really broke the mold on New York songs with this refreshing number from their Factory Showroom album. It's upbeat, naively optimistic, cheerful, and even starry-eyed. It's not at all the martini-sipping mature treatment that New York usually gets; this is a youthful song. The key line in the chorus is "everything looks beautiful when you're young and pretty," which firmly seats us within this point of view.

Empire State Building, New York CityEmpire State Building, New York City
"New York City" is not a TMBG original, but was first recorded by an all-girl indie-rock band called "Cub" which disbanded in 1997. The song, as given by Cub, was a thrash-metal rendition. John Flansburgh heard this version on the radio and loved it right away. He sought Cub's record label's permission to cover the song. However, they did not have access to the sheet music and lyrics; instead they simply bought the album and listened to the song. This accounts for their botching of the line "Empire State where King Kong lived" as "The Empire State where Dylan lived." Even the original version isn't too accurate, since anybody can tell you that King Kong actually died there.

Incidentally, Cub's band members weren't even aware that the song had been covered until they heard it on the radio. They were quite flattered, anyway.

The song rattles off references from New York in almost every line, most of which have more meaning if you're familiar with the area. "We kissed on the subway in the middle of the night," for instance, takes on a new meaning when you consider how scary a New York subway ride at night can be. The rock-and-roll show "on the Bowery" is supposed by many to be a reference to the famous blues-club-turned-hardcore-punk-club CBGB. Which is an ironic place for the story to start, since this song completely breaks the punk rock genre over its knee.

"Co-Op City" is actually a nickname for a middle income housing project in the Bronx just off Interstate-95. "Katz's" is a deli on Houston street, which is just around the corner from where TMBG used to play; amongst its many claims to fame is one scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally.

And of course, we come to the world's most famous building, the Empire State Building. For a long time, this 102-story Art-Deco-style skyscraper was the tallest building in the world. It has one of the most famous profiles, and has played a pivotal role in movies ranging from the aforementioned King Kong to Sleepless in Seattle.

Are the streets "paved with diamonds"? They might well be for those who see opportunity to fame and fortune there. Is there "just so much to see"? Why, it's one of the most famous cities for sight-seeing. So there to the cynics and critics! It's a perfectly lovely city, if you look at it the right way.

Shawna Ortega
February 12, 2010
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