New York’s new vibe

While the personality of a city can be defined by geography, climate or ethnic diversity, I believe also some cities, New York in particular, can be defined by the music that is born from the streets, cockroach-infested apartment blocks and dingy nightclubs.

New York City is the breeding ground of some of the best modern music today, so with that to lure me, I visited the restless metropolis the last weekend before Christmas.

What I find is a city overflowing with enthusiasm, like a steamy frothing mug of white chocolate mocha. There are plans for the new Freedom Tower, designed to commemorate the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, and fill the gaping hole left behind by the World Trade Center. At the same time, the government unleashes an ominous Orange Alert – the highest category of alert since 9/11 – and, once again, New York City is the prime target for a potentially disastrous terrorist attack. 

Undaunted by the alert, the lineups outside Toys “R” Us in Times Square continue to grow, and the chaotic hustle and bustle of Canal Street remains unperturbed by the latest offerings of fear that CNN, the New York dailies and countle pixel boards in Times Square blare in the faces of the people. 

Silver lining hides in musical expression
This seemingly oblivious attitude is perfectly represented in the music that is coming out of New York City at the moment. It is melancholic, weary and reflective, yet the tunes are groovy, danceable and full of a reclusive kind of optimism. 

Homegrown rock ’n’ roll bands, such as The Strokes, Interpol, The Rapture and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, are riding a wave of artsy, jangle guitar pop that is burdened by an uneasy shadow lurking dangerously overhead. Fuelled by a striking fashion sense and an ever-flowing arts scene that, in the past, influenced bands like the Velvet Underground and Talking Heads, these new torchbearers are painting the picture of a city under siege by an invisible enemy, yet the splashes of colour suggest that there is a greater power than fear and uncertainty: a lust for life. 

In his last two albums – Heathen in 2001 and Reality in 2003 – legendary poet of the times, British-born David Bowie glowingly pays tribute to his adopted city. Bowie’s ode to NYC is darker and moodier than his work in the ’80s and ’90s, trading in drum machines for haunting pianos, punchy saxophone choruses and some frantic and paranoid-sounding guitars.

All is not gloomy though. At the forefront of almost every song is a groovy base line that acts as the pulse and mood of the city that is savouring a raucous boogie. 

On the single “New Killer Moon” from his latest album, Reality, Bowie laments the nasty scar that hangs over Battery Park. On the morning of 9/11, that scar replaced the shimmering World Trade Center towers that championed the NYC skyline. Yet, the danceable bass line and minimalist guitars contrast that bleakness with NYC’s willingness to get better and move on.

Like Bowie, many notable musicians have made the trek to New York in order to attain a new level of enlightenment and inspiration. More often than not, the work produced is a combination of their own natural sound and engraved by a unique NYC experience and vibe.

The Stills (Montreal), Metric (Toronto) and Rufus Wainright (Montreal) have all benefited from NYC’s street noise and unshackled attitude toward life, art and freedom of expression. There is no Wal-Mart telling them what they can and can’t put in their lyrics, and there is no danger of settling in a lifestyle similar to that of their hometown.

It’s all about the people
So what inspires such vibrant and hip-shaking music to flow out of New York City like the spawn of some wicked deal with the devil? It’s the people. 

Despite terror threats and blackouts, the people go about their business as if the world around them does not exist. They quietly observe the threats but they do not succumb to the paralysing fear; instead, they grow stronger and more resilient. Every shimmering guitar and howling vocal represents the struggle between lingering fear, mortality and a burning fist-pumping optimism. 

Only in New York City can a paradox of emotions and thoughts be translated so beautifully into a collection of songs, and you have to go no further than Battery Park, Coney Island or take a stroll along Fifth Avenue to find the inspiration behind these gorgeous tales. 

As Rufus so beautifully puts it in “Oh What A World” from his Want One disc:

Still I think I’m doing fine
Wouldn’t it be a lovely headline
“Life Is Beautiful”
on the New York Times.