Of Many Odes to New York, What’s Really ‘Top of the Heap’?

A Broadway revival of the musical “Annie” is in the works, and after this past weekend there is a chance that the Belmont Stakes will produce horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner in decades.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

What these unrelated events have in common are catchy songs about New York.

And that is reason enough to invite you to an online conversation about what songs you might choose to capture a complex city’s many moods and guises. When you consider that the five boroughs have inspired hundreds upon hundreds of numbers over many decades, settling on one or two is not easy.

But first, the Belmont, which will be run on June 9. Interest is certain to be higher than usual because of a horse named I’ll Have Another, which early this month won the Kentucky Derby and then, on Saturday, the Preakness Stakes. If it can triumph at Belmont Park, on the Queens-Nassau border, it will become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Just before the race, the track will echo, as usual, to the bouncy theme from “New York, New York,” the John Kander and Fred Ebb tune best known in the Frank Sinatra version heard regularly at Yankee Stadium. You may be humming it right now after reading that last sentence. As the cabaret singer Steve Ross once said to me, those opening notes — da da da-de-dum — are “probably the most famous vamp of any popular song in the world.”

Except for one year, “New York, New York” has been the Belmont Stakes’ official song since 1997, when it bumped aside the classic but quite dated “Sidewalks of New York,” written in the 1890s. The exception was 2010, when the New York Racing Association decided that “Empire State of Mind,” the hip-hop number made popular by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, qualified as “the quintessential 21st-century theme song” for the city. It talks about “the concrete jungle where dreams are made of — there’s nothin’ you can’t do, now you’re in New York.”

Jay-Z, unburdened by modesty, has no problem proclaiming at the start of the song: “I’m the new Sinatra/And since I made it here/I can make it anywhere/Yeah, they love me everywhere.”

Not quite everywhere. More than a few racing fans booed the song at the 2010 Belmont Stakes, and demanded that Kander and Ebb be brought back. They got their wish the next year.

Back in 1985, Mayor Edward I. Koch had proclaimed “New York, New York” the official city song. After Sinatra died in 1998, the City Council considered giving that proclamation the weight of law, but then thought better of trying to name any one tune as embodying the New York spirit.

For what it’s worth, the feeling here has long been that this number is less about the city than about a self-involved out-of-towner who wants to be “king of the hill, top of the heap” yada yada yada. Good for him. But can’t we New Yorkers do better?

So what might your pick be? There are, as we said, so many to choose from.

U2 had a song called “New York” and there was a rap number, “We Run N.Y.,” though it is probably disqualified by lyrics that rely too much on Oedipal phrasing.

You might consider some classics, including, to name but a few, “Autumn in New York,” “New York, New York (It’s a Helluva Town),” “Manhattan,” “Take the A Train,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “New York State of Mind” and “The 59th Street Bridge Song,” which will mercifully not be retitled “The Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge Song.”

There’s a witty Rodgers and Hart number called “Give It Back to the Indians,” plus the staccato “I Happen to Like New York” by Cole Porter. It’s devilishly hard to sing, but it reflects a New York so self-confident that it can admit to having flaws: “I happen to like New York. I happen to like this town. I like the city air. I like to drink of it. The more I know New York, the more I think of it. I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it. I happen to like New York.”

And then there’s “N.Y.C.” from “Annie,” which is to be revived in the fall. It’s not the most sophisticated number, not by a long shot. But there’s a simple sweetness to its paean: “You snap, you fizz, the best there is, is you, is N.Y.C.”

Besides, the title is not a bad name for a newspaper column about the city.


 

E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

 

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