The trouble with gazing upward in New York.
About four minutes into Stevie Wonder’s 1973 classic “Living for the City”—a surging, seven-plus minute thumper track about racial injustice, migration, and the failure of the latter to cure the former—the song emerges from its second chorus and breaks down to its sparest parts. We hear the quizzical staccato of the synthesizer flit in and out like lingering sunlight; the dry drums, which just seconds ago were rolling out an elaborate fill, tap quarter-note rimshots on the snare; all the other instruments stop playing. Welcome to New York.
This interlude, barely a minute long but seemingly much longer, is a marvel within an already marvelous song. It’s an early example in popular music of that moment when a song recognizes its limits and turns, momentarily, into something larger and stranger. After all, Stevie could’ve just tagged on another verse about New York, keeping the song’s structure intact, but wouldn’t there be something thin and dreamy about that? New York collects anthems like medals: “New York, New York,” “On Broadway,” and “Empire State of Mind” are all, in essence, odes to skylines, with outsized grandeur to match. Their scale grows out of proportion; aphorism replaces emotion; the music hits its mark and no one gets hurt. The lesson for songwriters tackling New York has always been this: if you’re going to sing to the city, sing big. The skyline, as more than few writers have reminded us, can even look like musical notation if you squint hard enough.
But “Living for the City” begins far from New York and brings us there. We arrive not only by way of lyrical exposition, but by sensory experience. At that four-minute mark, the song, as though it needs you to see something you’d otherwise miss, turns into a radio play: the absence of instruments brings an elaborate soundscape. We hear an engine rev, a driver announcing that the bus is bound for New York, and Stevie—or his character—calling out and getting on board. This is, of course, the boy “born in hard time Mississippi / Surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty,” et cetera—an archetype. When he steps off of the bus into the typical bustle of Manhattan, the strange city encircles him in an uroboros of sound, an ekphrasis of sirens and engines with sudden moments of sonic sharpness.
You know what comes next: having spent a mere seconds in Manhattan, our hero is approached by someone who hurriedly offers him five dollars to carry a package across the street. Before our man can process what’s going on, the police have descended on him—doesn’t seem to matter that he’s not the guy they were after. Splice in a judge’s imperious voice: completely innocent, he’s sentenced to ten years in prison. Our protagonist is still in disbelief as he’s forced into his cell, the door closing on him as the correctional officer calls him a nigger. Then the verse picks up again, charging to its conclusion, Wonder’s voice full of snarl and flame.
This last part of the interlude seems to have stuck with us most, and understandably so: rapid, unjust incarceration with an n-bomb cherry on top. The barking dog protects its home. “Get in that cell, nigger” has taken on a life of its own, having been sampled by Public Enemy, Slick Rick, Eazy-E, Ice Cube. But the end of the interlude, for all of its catastrophe, obscures an important moment at the beginning. What happened to the protagonist could have happened—and without a doubt did happen—in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Wonder’s own Detroit, and so on. So why is “Living for the City” set in New York? What in particular makes it a New York song?
The lyrics, granted, have nothing to say about the Gotham horizon. But of the few sentences spoken by Wonder’s character, the longest is entirely concerned with the skyline: “Wow! New York! Just like I pictured it: skyscrapers and everything!”
His exclamation is in the same key as “New York, New York,” “On Broadway,” “Empire State of Mind” … and it may just have been the worst thing he could have said. Say you were to advise a visiting friend of a list of all the things not to say on a crowded street in the middle of New York—especially seventies-era New York. If this isn’t near the top of your list, you are a bad friend. There’s nothing wrong with awe, of course, until it makes you as a target. And given that Wonder clearly wanted the fall of his main character to be swift, dizzying, and brutal, the skyline was perfect. Just by being there, it starts the action.
Skyscrapers … and everything. That “and everything” betrays all possible meanings. We use “and everything” when we mean nothing. The only thing that matters in “and everything” is what’s said before it. It’s a form of emphasis, a placebo. This house has a pool and everything means this house has a pool and I’m very excited that this house has a pool.
So when Wonder’s character exclaims that his view of New York is everything he pictured it would be—“pictured it,” not imagined or dreamed, but “pictured,” recalling the skyline on postcards, as a thing bought and sold—he is seeing nothing but skyscrapers. He’s incognizant of life at the street level. (There’s a reason why those indoctrinated into the hard life of the city turn to synecdoche and call the city “the streets.”) He is picturing, but not seeing, and certainly not seeing how he is being seen.
What one learns quickly living in New York is that one looks up in awe at one’s own peril. The street-bound, skyward gaze is a guilty pleasure, something to be glimpsed in a hidden second. Inhabiting New York carries with it an indoctrinated indifference to what, from elsewhere and for elsewhere, most represents New York. There is little uncanny or sublime about it. Or, if there is, to show yourself basking in sublimity … well, that’s what targets do. Far more ideology than art, the skyline, as Stevie knew, signifies nothing. This is why you don’t look up. New York is what’s in front of you.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s new book of poems, Heaven, is out this month.