Against Celebrity, In Defense of New York

(photo by Estitxu Carton, via Flickr)
(photo by Estitxu Carton, via Flickr)

I was wondering what would do it. I was wondering what essay by which person would send me into a fed-up frenzy. Turns out it was Moby, at Creative Time Reports, with this thing.

Based on the title of Moby‘s op-ed — “Los Angeles, The First City of the Apocalypse,” which, let’s be honest, I don’t know what that means — you’d think he had written something about LA. Ostensibly, it is. Except for the part where he spends the first half of the piece shitting on New York.

Shitting on New York is, of course, many a writer’s and famous-person-turned-writer’s (and daughter-of-famous-person-turned-writer’s) favorite pastime. Even when they’re not exactly shitting on the city, people are going around breaking up with it. And why not? New York is expensive. New York is difficult. New York makes you feel crappier when you already feel like crap. New York is also an easy target. New York can’t fight back, because, well, it doesn’t have hands or a voice. And so “leaving New York” has become a literary genre that every Serious Writer or Artist takes up in order to be Heard.

That genre began 47 years ago, when Joan Didion penned “Goodbye to All That,” an excellent essay and the unquestionable progenitor of the field. Sometimes I wonder, if Joan Didion had been able to see, back in 1967, the many thousands of words her essay would spawn in imitation and homage, would she have thought twice about writing it?

Probably not. But maybe she could have added a disclaimer, à la “do not try this at home” (do not try this unless you’re an exceptionally talented writer).

To return to Moby’s piece: although he says he doesn’t “want to create a New York-L.A. dichotomy,” that’s precisely what he does. Moby spends the first four paragraphs talking about New York and everything that’s wrong with it: it’s a “city of money”; it’s “Gremlin midnight” (yes, he actually makes this comparison, and yes, he means the movie); it’s a place “that people visit and observe and patronize and document, but don’t actually add to”; it’s “a victim of its own photogenic beauty and success”; it’s “exclusively about success.” He then spends six paragraphs talking about how great LA is “due to its singular pre-apocalyptic strangeness” and because it’s “relatively cheap” (relative to what?). And, sorry, one of those paragraphs is actually about New Jersey.

Here’s the thing: I like LA a lot. Unlike some people, I’m not here to smack talk the “other” city. But I take issue with how Moby portrays New York. His comments sync up infuriatingly with David Byrne’s from last fall, also writing in Creative Time Reports. (Side question: can’t Creative Time Reports find artists with far more interesting projects and thoughts to publish than these two lame op-eds?) Back then, Byrne said New York “doesn’t make things anymore,” and that “the cultural part of the city — the mind — has been usurped by the top 1 percent.”

Leaving aside the fact that this is a bit rich coming from David Byrne, the more important point is that Byrne and Moby are just wrong. New York may be many things to many people, but it is most certainly creative. It is weird and off-the-wall. This is a place where, at bare minimum, two costume parties, one themed burlesque show, three classes and lectures on some topic I’ve never dreamed of, not to mention dozens of art shows, plays, readings, and more, happen every week. I once watched a full-grown man dressed as a werewolf sing a David Bowie mash-up accompanied by a hipster orchestra at an illegal club. (It was awkwardly infectious.) We had a water tower speakeasy. If you honestly think New York isn’t creative, then you’re actively not looking for creativity.

Both Moby and Byrne contend they’re not just saying what they’re saying because New York was better back in the ’70s and ’80s, when everyone had an equal opportunity to be mugged and needles littered the streets. But that is, essentially, what they’re saying. Could it be that Moby and David Byrne are so stuck inside the bubble of celebrity that they have no grasp on what’s actually going on? Never.

Part of why these pieces — and as I said above, Byrne and Moby are not the only offenders, just the latest and most high profile — piss me off is because they dismiss out of hand myself and all of the creative people I know living in New York. But the other reason is that they’re completely self-indulgent, to the point of having a masturbatory quality. Does New York have a serious affordability problem? Yes. Are there currently more homeless people here than at any time since the Great Depression? Yes. Should the city do something about that, as well as try to accommodate creative people better? Obviously, yes. Does either of these articles say anything remotely valuable or constructive or insightful about any of these issues? No.

If you want to talk about New York’s problems, by all means, let’s. If you want to live in LA, by all means, do. If you want to waste people’s time by writing an unoriginal op-ed on a topic that’s been discussed to death (Moby twice acknowledges that he’s “stat[ing] the obvious”), further drowning it in myth and nostalgia, please don’t. There have been millions of words written on New York, and there will undoubtedly be millions more. Let’s at least make them creative.

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