History reduces the 2009 Video Music Awards to the big moment when Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift to talk about Beyoncé. This is one of the most important things that ever happened to Kanye West and Taylor Swift; for Beyoncé, it was something that happened on a Sunday.
I remember much more about the 2009 Video Music Awards. I remember that the show ended with Jay Z taking all the time in the world to get to the stage so he could duet with Alicia Keys on “Empire State of Mind,” a track that already felt destined to become a Hall of Fame New York anthem, insofar as it already felt like Jay Z would be performing some variation of “Empire State of Mind” for the rest of the 21st century.
Earlier in the show, Taylor Swift performed “You Belong With Me,” the first great Taylor Swift song, whereas “Love Story” sounds in hindsight like a great song that happened to be written by Taylor Swift. (“Love Story” is so old-fashioned that it’s not just about star-crossed lovers who are like Romeo and Juliet, it is literally a song about Romeo and Juliet. And it gives them a happy ending.)
The performance began with Taylor Swift singing in the Times Square subway station, before walking onto a subway train filled with young people dancing like a flash mob. (This was 2009, when everything felt a bit like a flash mob.) Eventually she leads the mob onto the street in front of Radio City Music Hall.
I had just moved to New York City. I had just started working down the street from Radio City Music Hall. At one point in the video, at the start of the second verse—”You’ve got a smile that can light up this whole town”—Swift sits down next to a guy, sings to him for a second, stands up, watches him move over one seat, then sits down next to him again. My then-girlfriend’s comment, nonchalant on the couch: “Oh, I know that guy.”
What I’m saying is: If you happened to be a recent arrival in New York City in early September 2009, and you happened to be the kind of person who ascribes a great amount of cultural importance to things that happen on a network whose key demographic is always half the age you want to be—then the 2009 Video Music Awards felt like proof that New York really was the center of the world. And you were there.
A little over half a decade later, Taylor Swift has released a song called “Welcome to New York.” It is one of the worst catchy songs ever, which I mean more as praise of its catchiness than as critique of its awfulness. Its lyrics are so generic that they border on abstraction. Modern pop music hyperbolized itself into abstraction long ago, probably with “Boom Boom Pow,” the musical equivalent of a Mad Libs page that nobody ever played. It’s maybe not accurate to call Swift a detailed songwriter, but her songs have always had the whiff of specificity. (We’re not just never getting back together; we’re never, ever, EVER getting back together.) Here’s as specific as “Welcome to New York” gets:
Welcome to New York
It’s been waiting for you
Welcome to New York
Welcome to New York
Welcome to New York
It’s been waiting for you
Welcome to New York
Welcome to New York
This chorus is important mainly because nothing else about the song particularly reflects anything about New York City. The singer is new in town. She’s putting her bags down on the floor. There’s a line about how “Everybody here was somebody else before,” which is true of everyone who moves to New York and also anyone who moves anywhere, and also individual identity is just an illusion and we’re all somebody different today than we were yesterday. (Everything is everything. I’m down with that.)
There’s a metaphor about how the sound of the city is a music she wants to dance to, which I think is also what happens in the prologue to The Silmarillion. There’s a stray mention of “the Village,” a confusing reference in some respects. There’s an East Village and there’s Greenwich Village, which has a West Village. (The West Village is Greenwich Village but Greenwich Village is not all the West Village; it’s a squares/rectangles thing.) At least two locals told me that “The Village” only referred to Greenwich Village and I was a fool for ever even accidentally calling the East Village “the Village.” At least two other locals told me that the East Village was just a fancy name for the Lower East Side. So Swift referring to “the Village” either counts as tourist confusion or deep-roots nomenclature, neither of which excuses her fateful decision to refer to whatever Village she’s in as “aglow.”
Taylor Swift just moved to New York. Taylor Swift was just named the Global Welcome Ambassador for New York. This does not sit well with a lot of New Yorkers, according to The New York Times, which is the paper of record for everything and is an important part of every young New Yorker’s experience, insofar as it’s fun to read what The New York Times says about young New Yorkers and laugh about how The New York Times got it wrong again.
Taylor Swift is not a New Yorker. I say that because I heard long ago that you have to live in New York for 10 years before you’re a New Yorker. I made it halfway there before moving to Los Angeles this summer. There is a part of me that completely understands the complaint about Swift-as-New York icon. When she records a New York song, it’s too easy to note how un-New Yorky it is. (Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z and Beastie Boys and LCD Soundsystem and Wu-Tang Clan and Simon & Garfunkel? Whatever: I’d settle for a line half as specific as that one throwaway bit in “Bette Davis Eyes,” the part about being pure as New York snow.) When she welcomes people to New York, it’s too easy to point out that she just arrived herself. Maybe you live in New York. Maybe you should be the New York Global Welcome Ambassador.
Then you watch Taylor Swift explain New York Vocabulary and you cringe just a little. But it’s hard to say why you’re cringing, precisely. “Authenticity” is a concept that comes up a lot in music and in cities, so “Welcome to New York” gets a double whammy. It’s always wrong to assume that the past was any different from the present, but authenticity and the lack thereof feels like a uniquely modern concern, insofar as authenticity is something you only have to worry about when enough generations of your ancestors worked hard enough to ensure you could spend your life worrying about stupid things like authenticity. The fear of a lack of authenticity powers the initial conceit of new hit sitcom Black-ish. The argument over authenticity powered the whole first two seasons of discourse about Girls.
Taylor Swift’s authenticity has always been called into question. That twang was just an affectation, they say: Swift, “country singer,” was a Pennsylvania wolf in Nashville sheep’s clothing. (Few musical genres freak out about authenticity more than the country genre.) Was Swift a carpetbagger? Is she carpetbagging New York now? Is she some sort of cultural super criminal, swooping in to briefly symbolize hyper-specific geo-cultural iconography, like the globo-pop equivalent of Carmen Sandiego?
Conversely, Taylor Swift has hosted Saturday Night Live, and you haven’t. Which means she knows Lorne Michaels, and you don’t.
And to the extent that New York is a city of aspiration, Taylor Swift is a model for those aspirations achieved. And to the extent that New York is transforming from a city of aspiration to a city that symbolizes aspiration—to the extent that New York is “a luxury product,” a description former Mayor Bloomberg once used figuratively but also kind of literally really—then Swift-as-pitchwoman makes at least a little sense. She might not know anything about whatever New York you want her to know about, but she gets the gist of the sales pitch: Dreams, excitement, CRAZY STUFF. (Also, close proximity to various headquarters of various media companies; also, the Hudson River location was supes key for the Dutch fur trade, bro.) Maybe “Welcome to New York” is just supposed to be a song about a vibe—sort of like how the “Skyfall” theme sounds like the vibe of a James Bond song, and then you read the lyrics and realize they don’t mean anything. (A better name for “Skyfall” would be “Welcome To James Bond.”)
Any conversation about what does and doesn’t define New York also comes up against an obvious but still oft-undiscussed problem. Call it the Staten Island Corollary, so named because any media-level conversation about what defines the New York experience will never mention Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, unless it’s in reference to the Staten Island Ferry, which is the rare exception that actually does prove the rule. (Pause to imagine a Taylor Swift PSA: “The glorious Staten Island Ferry: It takes you to Staten Island, and then immediately takes you away!”) It’s also rare to get a mention of the Bronx, unless it’s with regards to the Yankees, or Queens, unless it’s with regards to Spider-Man living there. Maybe Queens gets a mention because it’s the new Brooklyn, although “Brooklyn” as a concept always specifically refers to the part of Brooklyn everyone agrees is specifically not whatever Brooklyn used to be. Surely we can all agree that a much better New York Global Welcome Ambassador would be like, someone who’s lived their whole life in the Bronx, and ideally can trace their family line back at least a century in New York City.
Now, I realize it’s a leap to talk about gentrification in the context of a catchy dumb song produced by a millionaire pop songwriter. But gentrification is a part of “Welcome to New York,” too. You hear a lot about the past when you live in New York City; the location of one thing is invariably the place where something more interesting used to be. I realize that this not unique to New York: Time passes everywhere, the eternal dance goes ever on, Midnight in Paris, yadda yadda yadda. Still, there is in New York a strong nostalgia for a time that most people would argue was worse, insofar as it was dirtier or more dangerous or less expensive or whatever euphemism for “Not Safe For Taylor Swift” you want to come up with. This is true of a lot of cities today: The sense that something has been lost. And yet, many of the people who move to New York—many of the people responsible for the gentrification, even the people who pay millions for an apartment in Jay-Z’s neighborhood—move there specifically because their dreams are wrapped up in the bad old New York.
It becomes an endless game of telephone: People pretending to be the much cooler people they’ve always wanted to be. Maybe this is just what life is; maybe the development of personality is just an imitation game. (I’m pretty sure that’s what John From Cincinnati was about.) Eight years before Taylor Swift was born, playboy French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay called “Simulacra and Simulation,” which is filled with important ideas that barely anyone understands. The most explicable and most important idea: Reality as we understand it is actually an elaborate construct, a pale imitation of reality. This was a heavy concept back in 1981; now it’s something that everyone kind of vaguely understands, partially because there are enough people who are young enough to live part-time on the internet who are also old enough to recognize how weird that is, and also partially because “Simulacra and Simulation” inspired all the boring parts of The Matrix.
In his essay “Big Bucks and Fake Tears,” a writer named Zachary Snider—which we’re all going pretend is a homophonic pseudonym for Sucker Punch director Zack Snyder—references Baudrillard in his lead-up to a fascinating modern-celebrity treatise:
In the twenty-first century, many (but not all) famous people who are considered “celebrities” are more Everymen or Everywomen—or Everylosers or Everynerds or Everygirl-next-doors—rather than the glittery, glamorous 1950s-esque celebrity personas. Much of the American public nowadays wants their celebrities to reflect an imitation of “reality” that is identifiable and relatable to them. In many cases, viewers prefer mirror image-type celebrity archetypes and images of themselves, so that, in our age of obsessive reality television fandom, the viewers themselves feel like celebrities…
Update “reality television fandom” with “social media fandom.” Now look at Taylor Swift, a star who has presented herself as an everyloser and an everynerd and an everygirl—who, in fact, plays all three of those roles, plus the “-next-door” kitchen sink, in the “You Belong With Me” music video. Yet Swift is also an avatar of glittery, glamorous celebrity persona—maybe not quite 1950s-esque, but the whole central conceit of 1989 conjures up a throwback nostalgia for an era of bright pop music and one-hit-wonders, for the specific moment in American history when “Taylor” became a girl’s name. In “You Belong With Me,” Swift also plays the glamorous popular girl. Which is the simulation? Which is the simulacrum? New York is, for a certain young media-oriented globo-American personality, symbolic of whatever authenticity is supposed to specify. Is that concept of New York just a conceit, too? And so isn’t Taylor Swift the perfect vehicle for that concept—an abstract person for an abstract city? “Houston Street is pronounced Houston Street!” she declares. “I’m a New Yorker now!”
Maybe Baudrillard predicted this. I wouldn’t know; to be honest, I never read Simulacra and Simulation. (I did read his The Gulf War Did Not Take Place; say what you will about French philosophers, they give good title.) I flew into New York this week with Swift on my mind, and tried to find “Welcome To New York” on Spotify. I forgot that Swift doesn’t do Spotify; the only thing that came up was something called “Welcome To New York (Originally Performed by Taylor Swift) [Piano Karaoke By Ear]” by someone named Melissa Black. It is a piano instrumental with a backing electric percussion; to the extent that we can trust anything in brackets, it was apparently recorded by ear. I have been listening to it on repeat; I already like it more than Swift’s version.
I wonder if Melissa Black lives in New York. I wonder what her dreams of New York look like. I bet mine used to look the same.