switched on pop

What Makes Cat Power’s ‘Manhattan’ a Classic NYC Anthem

Switched on Pop’s hosts have been seeing Carina del Valle Schorske’s name next to all their favorite pieces of music writing lately. A moving profile of Bad Bunny? There it is. A searing critique of West Side Story? There it is again. A contemplation on love and loss by way of an Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson duet? The writer and translator’s name was being committed to memory. We knew we had to invite Carina to participate in our Modern Classics series, to learn what song this brilliant writer would place in her modern pop pantheon.

Her pick, the 2012 track “Manhattan” by Cat Power, channels New York City’s rich musical history and presents an opportunity to analyze an artist we’ve never discussed on the show before. Cat Power released the song on her 2012 album Son, and the track — on which Marshall recorded every instrument herself — has become an unlikely sleeper hit in her catalogue. Perhaps that’s because, as Carina tells it, the song is a celebration and elegy at once, trying to pin down the beat of a city that is constantly in flux but possesses an indelible iconicity.

Nate Sloan, Switched on Pop co-host: Do you remember when you first heard the song? 
Carina del Valle Schorske: It’s so embarrassing and I knew that I would have to tell the truth on this podcast: The fucking Spotify algorithm gave it to me.

No shame in the Spotify algorithm game.
I did listen to a decent amount of Cat Power, but I really fell in love with this song. I heard it for the first time during my early years of living in Manhattan. I grew up in the Bay Area, but my mom grew up in Manhattan, and Washington Heights specifically. And my family lived there in Washington Heights, in the same apartment for 65 years, until December, when my grandmother passed away. So coming to live in Manhattan seven years ago or so to do a Ph.D. at Columbia, adjacent to my family’s neighborhood, setting up shop in my studio apartment and admitting to myself that I wanted to be a writer — that was the period that I was introduced by the Spotify algorithm to this song, and it was an immediate hit with me.

I love that kismet. I mean, Spotify recommends us a lot of songs, but not all of them connect in so perfect a way. Were there particular lyrics that resonated with you?
I actually wondered what counts as “pop” for Switched on Pop. And I think that “Manhattan” is probably on the indie side of pop, but to me it still counts. To me, almost every song about New York is a pop song, because it’s engaging with this iconic popular symbol, not only for the U.S. but for the entire world. And so you’re always going to be participating a little bit, even by saying the word “Manhattan,” in that kind of conversation. Other than that, the lyrics of this song are as non-pop-song as you can get in some ways. The chorus is “Don’t look at the moon tonight / You’ll never be, you’ll never be, Manhattan.”

It’s almost like a haiku, like an urban anti-haiku. But this idea that when we move to this city, the thing that we’re desiring to be is like the city itself. And that’s the thing you can never be, because you’re only one person. The city is the collective. And that collective is in a very cruel and false system.

Do you hear this song as a love letter to Manhattan, or is it hate mail? What do you make of Cat Power’s relationship to the city in this song? 
I think that this song is about the ambivalent attachment to Manhattan, it’s about the love and the hate. It begins with the first repeated lyric, “All the friends we used to know ain’t coming back.”

It’s a truism about the city and about urban spaces in general, but New York only more so, so that at first the sentiment feels kind of neutral, but I feel the song keeps deepening the loss associated with those lines and the impervious cruelty of the city.

And then it makes me start thinking, Why are the friends that we used to know not coming back? It’s because they’re forced out by capitalism or are rich, so they leave. And so right away, I’m thinking about the livability of Manhattan, why there’s so much personal loss in Manhattan, how rare it is to be able to stay. Obviously it’s connecting with my own thoughts and experiences about the city, but I think that the song sustains it. It has a little bit of an anthemic quality, even as it’s kind of sad.

When I researched Cat Power’s writing of the song, she was talking about coming back to live in Manhattan again, after some years away, and experiencing how much the city had changed and how many people had been forced out. And that she was still grinding. As she is to this day.

Why Cat Power’s ‘Manhattan’ Is a True NYC Anthem