Monday, May 17, 2010

and since I made it here...

Writing about Jay Z's "Empire State of Mind." How there's only states of mind left, not states, when it comes to empire. The last gasp of the rap of American hegemony. The true end of the 20th century, the American century; thus the black and white, thus the Sinatra references, thus the vested heights for the final verse, thus the cloudy and overwhelming nostalgia of the whole thing. A dirge for place, for the era when place mattered, for the version of capital accumulation in which seats of power were physical and not financial, for the tangibility of monuments. "The upper-crust landmarks [Jay-Z] now references are a far cry from the grimy Marcy Projects sights that he once detailed, something that perhaps is to be expected from the self-described 'new Sinatra'" sez USA Today, by which Steve Jones really means that white people miss the financial bubble too, so we're feelin' it.

"Long live the world trade"—as in the best art the song gets it, precisely, and precisely does not. It is the living long of world trade as a system—of the age of globalization, we might say, or postmodernism, others might scoff—which sculpts all of the above. It was the spectacular death of the physical version, of the towers, that marked one version of the end of the American century. So it does and does not live long, just like the New York City of the video, in enough b&w for a Sinatra box set (I would've guessed sepia, though perhaps the case can be made that sepia intones 19th c., ceding the 20th to b&w). When, at the end of the video, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys spark into bright color, on a glowing red staircase in Times Square, they read not as suddenly contemporary, but rather just laconically aware that the second half of the 20th century is also over. "These streets will make you feel brand new, bright lights will inspire you," croons the hook, but it sounds like a plea. Alas, "make it new" was a directive for a different day; the song isn't about youth and vitality, and it isn't a song for graduations or bar mitzvahs. "Empire State of Mind" is a song for a retirement party, for the end of a good run, a song to remember you by. It marks, as I said, the true end of the 20th century—when New York as a place, when place as a meaningful marker and America as the center of something, finally shut down. It was Ford who said Drop Dead, but Obama presides now as the whistle signals the end of the shift.

This is where the conclusion, the final coda, of this dissertation begins—not at the beginning of the end, but at its end. The moment when art recorded again the ages-old historical inevitability that all empires shudder to a finale. Welcome to the 21st century! (And who else could be coming up the bright red staircase but China?)

1 comment:

Aaron S. said...

Word! Poetical even in a dissertation. Much more readable than mine. Folks, friends, and fam keep asking me to send them a copy of mine so they can read it, which I ignore because, having fallen asleep countless times reading it myself, I know there's no way they actually know what they're talking about when they say they want to read my diss. If this is an accurate sample of what the rest of your diss looks like, I might slap my name on it and start sending it out.