Taylor Swift has as much to do with New York as alfalfa sprouts and kidney-shaped pools. Now that her song “Welcome To New York” has been anointed as some kind of Gotham anthem for the ages, we locals have to revolt and “shake it off” in favor of some way more appropriate numbers — stuff with actual grit, realness, and NYC flavor.
Here are 10 songs I’d way rather have be the NYC theme song:
“New York, New York”
Broadway songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote this stirring, glitzy belter for the underrated 1977 movie of the same title, in which Liza Minnelli sang the living daylights out of it. Yes, I’m only referring here to the Liza version, not the Sinatra one, in which the one-take wonder messily repeats a lyric. Liza gets it right and should definitely be the queen of New York, not Taylor freakin’ Swift!
“New York Tendaberry”
Sweetly soulful white girl Laura Nyro was the heart of what makes New York quirky and profound. Her 1969 intimate vocal musing, done merely with her own piano accompaniment, is a slow and personal ode to the city, full of weirdness and feeling. And the lyrics! “Sidewalk and pigeon/You look like a city/But you feel like religion to me.”
“Native New Yorker”
The disco group Odyssey scored big in 1977 with this lilting, shimmery dance-floor hit, which was kind of elegant and a little bit trashy at the same time. Everyone loves the part that goes, “You’re no tramp, but you’re no lady … You’re the heart and soul of New York City.” The song exudes so much more understanding of my town than any former country star ever could.
Ben E. King debuted this classic in 1960, but it was the 1971 Aretha Franklin version that was the hit with its spiky vocals and rich resonances of uptown life. Aretha changed “Spanish Harlem” to “black ‘n’ Spanish Harlem” to make it more inclusive, and the result is a bonafide beauty. And our gal Laura Nyro covered it to perfection on her “Gonna Take a Miracle” album.
“Walk on the Wild Side”
A stunner off Lou Reed’s 1972 “Transformer” LP, this one unexpectedly brought transsexuality, drugs and hustling to the Top 20. The deadpan lyrics (backed by “colored girls” going “doo-do-doo”) span various Warhol stars and their colorful, outrageous, touching treks to NYC. If Taylor Swift’s even heard of this back-room classic, I’d be deeply surprised.
“New York Groove”
In 1978, the members of the heavily made up supergroup Kiss took a big gamble and came out with four solo albums. What an overreaching idea, even on paper! But surprisingly, it was guitarist Ace Frehley’s album that got the most attention, mainly because of this percolating pop song which was catchy and hard to resist. Russ Ballard wrote the song, which actually made the Top 20, but believe me, that was the end of the Kiss solo albums.
(tie) “Manhattan” & “Empire State of Mind”
The legendary team of Rodgers and Hart wrote “Manhattan” — which most people think is called “I‘ll Take Manhattan” — for a 1925 show, and the song went on to survive decades of reinterpretation, becoming a true anthem to New York’s wonders. Ella Fitzgerald did it, and so did Mickey Rooney, and Rod Stewart and Bette Midler even tried it as a duet. But the best version is the 1960 one by Dinah Washington, who captures the deep-seated affection and wit.
“Empire State of Mind,” Jay-Z’s sincere tribute song with vocals by Alicia Keys, intricately mentions places Taylor Swift is probably unfamiliar with — Brooklyn, Tribeca, Harlem and Bed-Stuy — with details that only a true-blue resident could conjure. And when Keys wails away with, “These streets will make you feel brand new/ big lights will inspire you,” it’s clear that this is a New-York-state-of-mind song that joins the ranks of the best.
This jittery, peppy and lovable Ramones song from 1977 was their highest-charting hit ever. Dee Dee Ramone wrote it in the spirit of the Beach Boys and other surf rockers, making it an ode to the Queens beach he loved. (And not including at least one Queens song would be wrong. The borough gets forgotten too often. I might even go there in a few days if I can figure out what train to take.)
In the middle of the smash show “Annie” — the one about that darling orphan who’s taken up by that kazillionaire — comes this percolating, joyous, brassy Broadway tribute to the wonders of the great metropolis. Building and mounting, it chirps stuff like, “You crowd, you cramp, You’re still the champ/Amen for NYC.” The song was written in 1977, which was obviously the high watermark for New York songs. It was the same year as “New York, New York,” “Native New Yorker” and “Rockaway Beach”!
This is quite different from the Liza song. German songstress Nina Hagen belted it on her 1983 “Angstlos” album, with all kinds of scale-jumping flourishes and other wacky trillings, making for a wonderful paean to New York at night. The most memorable lyric is probably “And New York City has for sure the horniest crowd,” but Hagen also gets props for immortalizing various super cool ’80-s nightclubs (“AM/PM, Pyramid, Roxy, Mudd Club, Danceteria/The newest club is opening up.” She should be First Lady to Liza’s Queen.
Michael Musto is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.