June 20, 2020

New York no longer cool or interesting enough to star in pop culture

Watching Gossip Girl for the first time, to re-familiarize myself with the late 2000s, I'm struck by how New York-centric it is. Every reference in the show is so hyper-trendy, localized entirely within the late 2000s, that it suggests the New York-iness is also something we haven't seen in a long time.

Below is my own brief history with the place, then a survey of pop culture specifically about the city, to see how its appeal has faded rapidly over the past 10 years, possibly for good.

I started going on group day-trips by car to New York, sometimes crashing at local friends' places, back in high school (late '90s). Our common activity was seeing They Might Be Giants, but we shared all sorts of other interests, musical and otherwise. Naturally our pilgrimage destination was St. Mark's -- back before it turned into Buddhist cafes, vegan cupcake bakeries, and other painfully uncool yuppie transplant crap. The old musical stores had stuff you couldn't find anywhere else in the country -- you had to visit there during a trip, or miss out for good. Now, it's just an overpriced version of places you can visit in any old suburban strip center (catering to foodie strivers).

During my anti-globalization and anti-war days in college, we made the occasional trip there for marches and protests, but never long enough to see the city. Senior year ('02 and '03), I started taking solo day trips about every month or so. I was scoring "edgy" finds at Tokio 7 when today's art hoe transplants were still doing homework with their TI-83 calculator. And that still left plenty of time to people-watch on Broadway in SoHo, savor a Reuben from Katz's Deli, track down rare albums on St. Mark's, and get lost in the Met for hours, before barely making it in time for the last express bus of the night back to college.

After graduating, I made two overnight trips, one in 2004 to hand out my resume to ESL centers, and another in the summer of '06 just for fun. Same haunts as always, though now committing my once-in-a-lifetime episode of shoplifting (from an unnamed store). It was more for the thrill of it than to avoid paying -- a mini-wallet by Costume National that reminded me so much of a close girl friend from college, who I sent it to. (She loved it, and sent some cool stuff of her own, while we were writing each other letters during those first few years after college.)

And after that... nothing. It's been nearly 15 years since I've set foot in New York, and honestly I've never even thought about it. I actually did consider moving there after undergrad, too, before setting my sights on Barcelona. But I'm sure I would've also been perfectly happy spending the late 2000s in Da City. It still held a powerful romantic appeal for Gen X-ers and the budding Millennials. And even though it's set among Upper East Side socialites, Gossip Girl captures the fascination with New York life at that time.

* * *

So was I alone in letting that city fade out of awareness, after having been so keen on it earlier? Looks like not. Although New York occupied prime real estate in the pop culture of the '90s and 2000s, it all but vanished over the course of the last decade. (And of course, it was popular before the '90s, but that portrayal was ambivalent and marred by soaring crime rates.)

For reference, see these lists of TV shows set in New York City, and songs about the city.

During the 2010s, there was not one TV show set in the broader NY metro area, despite many before (the Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, Who's the Boss?, Everybody Loves Raymond, the Sopranos, Gilmore Girls, etc.). There were only a handful of hit shows that drew from, and tried to contribute back to, New York's iconic status for its setting -- 2 Broke Girls, Girls, and Broad City. And even those mostly belong to the first half of the decade. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the only popular one still running (begun in 2013), and it's mostly interior shots filmed in LA, thus not so New York-centric after all. Blue Bloods is set in Staten Island, not the sought-after real estate in Manhattan or Brooklyn.

Tellingly, the only hit show to have begun in the past 5 years is the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel -- set back in the 1950s, when the city was halfway affordable during the New Deal era. It stars a Millennial woman, catering to an audience of Millennials who are consciously pining for a bygone time when they could've afforded to live there. That is also a central theme of one of the others, right there in the title -- being broke in New York.

Also, the 2010s shows are uniformly female-oriented and leisure class-oriented. Savvy men have given up on the city by now, while stubborn women (and their boylike gay BFFs) are still trying to keep it hip, relevant, and happening (to little effect, evidently). As recently as the 2000s, there were themes of career optimism and a life that guys could enjoy too -- the Apprentice, How I Met Your Mother, 30 Rock, Mad Men, Castle, and of course Gossip Girl. And the various Law & Order series offered something for responsible, fatherly men to vicariously enjoy, not just media deals and coke-fueled parties.

The realm of music is no different. To filter the list of songs by some measure of broad resonance, I checked out only those with their own Wikipedia page. There are loads of them as recently as the 2000s, and going back even into the '70s when crime rates were soaring. One of them, "Nolita Fairytale" from 2007, was prominently featured on a first-season episode of Gossip Girl, because audiences just couldn't get enough references to New York at that time. But all of a sudden in the 2010s, they all but disappear. There are so few that we can list all 6 of them below:

"Marry the Night" by Lady Gaga (2011)

"212" by Azealia Banks (2011)

"Ho Hey" by the Lumineers (2012)

"Don't Leave Me" by Regina Spektor (2012)

"Welcome to New York" by Taylor Swift (2014)

"New York City" by Kylie Minogue (2019)

Again, notice not only how few there are over the course of 10 years, but that they are almost all from the first half of the decade. Only the Kylie Minogue song is from the second half, and she was 50 years old when it came out. Among the younger generations, the city has lost its resonance. Taylor Swift actually included a song about Cornelia Street on her album from last year, but it was not a single and did not become a cult classic either. It's part of the "Millenial leisure-class woman in New York" genre that had already died in the second half of the 2010s, along with the Girls TV show.

So far there are no entries in either the TV or song lists for this decade, and that was before Da City became the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, further degrading whatever was left of its you-just-gotta-be-there appeal. Now it's the city that never stops coughing to death.

* * *

What accounts for the overnight extinguishing of New York dreams? It's not enough to blame it on the Great Recession, since it only lasted a little while, and the central bank then pumped trillions of dollars back into the finance sector, and its media and tech beneficiaries. New media outlets were sprouting up one after the other during the 2010s in New York. None of those people who were fascinated by New York in the 2000s were working-class stiffs, they were all professional-class strivers, who barely felt the brunt of the Great Recession. Downwardly mobile, perhaps, but not in dire straits.

Plus, a deep recession in the informational sectors of the economy should also have killed off the romance for New York during the 2000s, after the Dot-Com bubble burst. Not to mention the real fear of terrorism in the wake of 9/11. And yet neither of those major recent catastrophes fazed young people at all about moving to the city.

Rather, the difference is generational turnover. Recall this foundational post on the generational structure of status contests. Boomers competed over material wealth, and hoarded it all for themselves, locking out younger generations from the wealth contest. That left Gen X-ers with competing over lifestyle / hip activity points, which does require money, but not nearly as much as owning desirable real estate, multiple cars / boats, etc. Millennials have less wealth still, so they can't even compete over lifestyles. They compete over the construction and presentation of personas, struggling to max out their stats on social media platforms. All they need is a smartphone and wi-fi.

Facing these pressures on their status-striving, why would Millennials want to join other transplants in New York? The primary distinction of that city is its career opportunities, i.e. as a portal into the wealth contest. But Millennials will never be able to compete over wealth or income in any city, let alone where the cost-of-living is so high. So scratch that motivation.

How about lifestyles? There certainly are lifestyle activities that you can only do in New York -- or, only accrue major points by doing them in New York as opposed to some other city or suburb. Which cafe you lounge around at, which bar you hit up after work, etc. Still, Millennials don't have enough wealth to blow on these activities regularly, so they won't be competing in these contests either. Scratch that motivation.

That only leaves persona points. Sure, you can try to brand your persona as "New Yorker," "Brooklynite," "Meatpacking District party girl," etc. But again, where do you get the money to pay the rent to live in or frequent those places? You can't leverage your social media stats into cold hard cash with which to pay the rent for living in that neighborhood, or getting into that club. You can't pay your landlord or the club owner in likes, retweets, or followers.

A few might get a sponsor deal, but because that is informational, it scales up infinitely for free. To reach millions of eyeballs, the sponsor will pay one influencer a hefty amount, rather than pay a million influencers a moderate sum apiece. Influencing is not labor-intensive -- they don't go knocking doors, or standing around stores. Ditto for crowd-funded endeavors -- one podcast will suck up thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of small donors, rather than a bunch of podcasts receiving moderate-sized audiences and donations apiece.

There is simply no way for Millennials, or late Gen X-ers for that matter, to live in New York while pursuing the all-important project of our neoliberal era -- striving for higher status. They can't compete for wealth, for lifestyles, or even for persona points, while paying the cost of living-and-striving.

They might as well take a stab at shooting a viral selfie in a 2nd-tier neighborhood in a 3rd-tier city, where they won't be homeless and starving. Meticulously compose ironic tweets for fellow lib-arts failsons -- in a flyover suburban subdivision. Nobody has to know. As long as your social media stats keep increasing, who cares what geographical background it's taking place in? For, it is not taking place in physical reality at all -- your status contests are entirely online, where zip code prestige is immaterial.

* * *

One final thought: just because New York (and similar cities) has lost its romantic appeal does not mean it will vanish altogether from the culture. It will simply become a niche elite obsession, by and for those who are stubbornly clinging to it, in order to justify their wasted time, money, and effort. Still, it will not be romantic -- it's too late for that charade to convince even the bitter clingers. It will turn toward the abject and pathetic existence of the wannabes, who will have no other option than prostitution of one kind or another, to avoid homelessness and starvation.

Oh, how dramatic and full of meaning to be coughing to death, after mass-texting the latest series of pussy pics to my Only Fans paypigs! I'll never leave the most dramatic and meaningful city in the world! (Unless, of course, some STD-riddled oil sheikh wants to host me on his yacht in Dubai...)

If you doubt this endpoint, just look at the last time we were in a status-striving Gilded Age -- did elite niche culture give up on downwardly mobile, decadent urban strivers? And focus on whom, exactly -- normies with lower persona points than the wannabes? Yeah right! No, it was glorification of consumptive degenerates who were committed to racking up persona points, long after it had become impossible to compete over wealth or leisure-class lifestyles. This time will be no different from the last fin-de-siecle zeitgeist.

You just won't know about it outside of the culture consumed by the 1%, unlike the pre-crisis culture where the popular fascination with top-tier cities could not have been more palpable.


  1. Empire State of Mind by Jay Z was on the cusp, 2009

  2. If the East Coast is more wealth and career-oriented, this begs the question if the Western U.S. is more lifestyle and persona-oriented.

    Remember the old TGIF sitcoms?(Full House, Family Matters, Step by Step, and another one I forget)? Two of those were set on the West Coast: Full House in San Francisco, Step by Step in Portland, OR.)

    In both those shows, while the fathers and uncles tended to be accomplished professionals, the kids were lifestyle or persona strivers. For instance, in Step by Step the bitchy blonde girl was an outspoken feminist, the pretty dark-haired girl wanted to be a model and singer, the tomboy girl ends up becoming interested in acting, the son is a slacker who is interested in sports, etc. Plus, the unemployed, goofy nephew who lives in a van in the garage.

    In the original "Full House", the dad and uncles all had lifestylish careers - Bob Sagat's character was a news anchor, John Stamos was a struggling musician(who becomes popular in Japan), and the blonde guy was a stand-up comedian.(though according to Wikipedia, in the reboot series they made the daughter a full-time veterinarian - perhaps as a backlash against lifestyle-striving).

  3. "Selfies from a 2nd-tier neighborhood in a 3rd-tier city," my alt-country album now available for pre-orders.

  4. L.A. / California, Vegas, and the Southwest are better represented. The song of the year, "Blinding Lights," is about Las Vegas, and so was an early hit of Katy Perry's from the late 2000s ("Waking Up in Vegas").

    There aren't too many songs in any period, so it's hard to judge increasing vs. decreasing, but there is no clear fall-off like with New York, especially considering "Blinding Lights" in 2020.

    Ditto for TV shows -- not too many in any period, but still going at that small rate. Mainly reality shows like Pawn Stars, though.

    L.A. still has a fair number of songs about it, or California in general:



    I'm not checking the list of TV shows set in L.A. because they don't list the year, and I'm not hovering over each entry individually to find out. But here it is:


    The West is different not so much in having fewer opportunities for wealth striving -- there's loads of wealth generation along the West Coast, just like back East.

    It's more the rootlessness out West, which makes it easier to craft a persona -- no one will know, since your family is nowhere nearby, none of your childhood friends are either, and everyone else is a transplant like you.

    Rootlessness also makes it more necessary to craft a persona, since you're not just letting a rooted identity express itself. Nobody has deeply rooted identities out West, aside from old-school Mormons (and even their church has tons of in-flow from poorly rooted converts). So identity has to be constructed on-the-fly.

  5. My 2013 report on Vegas being phone-free in public places, unlike other cities, including touristy ones like New York:


    Already you can hear the disdain that I and others had for New York and Brooklyn. This was the backlash against hipster losers, but judging from pop culture since then, the sentiment generalized to all of New York and from everyone's POV, not just mine. New York was over.

    Ah, fond memories of trolling / bullying that one crowd in Vegas who actually were staring at their screens while seated at an outdoor restaurant patio on Friday night in summertime.

    That was only one of many episodes of IRL trolling and bullying in the early 2010s (always in a pro-social direction, of course). So much more satisfying than being a snarky fag on the internet.

    Unlike New York, I'd gone to Vegas 3 times in the past 4 years when I wrote that. Haven't been back since 2013, but it's something I've at least considered, and would still consider. I would never move there -- the most rootless state and city, throughout its history -- but cool place to visit, or hear a new pop song about.


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