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Present Unreal Conditional: Why the New York, New York Song Depresses Me Sometimes

(Ed. note update 2.6.2008. A reader left a comment on this post suggesting that I need to brush up on my "conditionals." Please read the comment, because I'm willing to concede to a higher authority on parts of speech. So, this post should be titled "Real Conditional Present." But the song still makes me depressed sometimes.)

As the holidays arrive, I get hung up like everyone else on the greeting- card expectations of the season. Large cheerful families gather in warm and toasty homes, everyone hugs, and husbands surprise their wives with diamonds. The Budweiser Clydesdales wait just outside the door.

Popular songs fuel many of these images of holiday expectations. I can't begin to tell you how disappointing it was for a little Texas girl, basking in the heat of a December day, to wait around for someone named Jack Frost. More like waiting for Godot. So I've come to define happiness during the holidays in modest, personal ways.

Though not a holiday song, New York, New York by Kander & Ebb conjures an urban fantasy that may be as equally difficult to fulfill as snow on a Texas Christmas morning. Originally conceived as the theme for the eponymous 1977 movie (but not the first choice originally), New York, New York has been repurporsed as the anthem for countless New York-related events. Interpreted in slightly different popularizations by Liza and Frank, this willful anthem about finding personal success in New York can stand in for everyone's optimistic journey. The song can resonate just as loudly, however, if expectations aren't met.

I can't go into the lyrics here, because some music copyright people will attempt to wish ill upon me, so I will paraphrase the key elements.

New York, New York begins with the narrator announcing his/her imminent departure to everyone, explaining that he/she is metaphorically wearing the footwear of a wanderer and, tellingly, that a new beginning may be necessary. So, right at the outset of the song, we have the prospects of a person who has already met with disappointment but thinks that moving to New York will solve everything.

The next line speaks of waking up in a city that does not get a sufficient amount of rest. As I have explained in countless posts, this is false. Furthermore, our now delusional narrator fantasizes waking up already supremely successful, with all the memories of small town disappointments disappearing. "Brand new start" can also be read as "recent failure."

The narrator then sings, and I believe the use of this snippet falls under the Fair Use doctrine, "If I can make it there, I'll make its anywhere." Deep sigh. The phrase, aptly, is an example of the part of speech known as the Present Unreal Conditional. (ed. note - see above). The entire New York, New York song, I believe, is present, unreal, and conditional. Thus, if you are applying for a job in New York that you want but do not get, or if you're searching for the apartment that you desire but cannot find, you do not want this song in your head. The attainment of success defines the New York experience.

But, wait! Your ability to meet success in New York, according to the final words of the song, turns out not to be your responsibility at all - "It's up to you, New York, New York." What a relief! If NY, NY means Mayor Bloomberg's office, I'm sure his people will be happy to help you. You can blame the mayor if things aren't working out.

Image: Pensive, charcoal on paper. WOTBA. 2006.

Personally, I love hearing New York, New York after a Yankees game but only when they win.









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