Sunday, June 6, 2010

Deal with Drosselmeyer later; now, about that song ...

Sticking with a musical theme for this blog over the past couple of days, I'm ignoring the winner of the Belmont Stakes for the time being to comment on its organizers' choice of anthem.

I have to say that the New York Racing Association's selection of "Empire State of Mind" to replace "New York, New York" as the theme of the Belmont Stakes was an even dumber decision than it seemed at first blush.

I must admit, I didn't know the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys song just by its name. I had to look it up, give it a listen, and hunt down the lyrics before commenting. (And I actually missed the race today, so I didn't hear the version sung by 16-year-old pop star Jasmine Villegas.)

All I can say after is -- what in heaven's name was NYRA thinking?

It isn't that "Empire State of Mind" is a bad song. It's actually a pretty good one; I'm not a big listener of hip-hop, but upon hearing it, I realized that I had heard it a few times before and generally enjoyed the tune.

Trouble is, it's a horrible choice of song as introductory music for the Belmont Stakes.

My first criticism is that the song has to be considerably cleaned up for television. The original version is laced with profanity -- and, seemingly to the detriment of NYRA, Belmont Park, the race and the city -- uncomplimentary imagery of New York. I'm sure that Jay-Z loves his home city, but the song includes references to "corners where we sell rock" and "good girls gone bad." The lyrics warn that "Jesus can't save you." And my favorite among lines that almost certainly must be redacted: "Mommy took a bus trip, now she got her bust out; everybody ride her just like a bus route."

NYRA's marketing director, Neema Ghazi, has called the piece a "quintessential 21st-century theme song for New York City."

But, Mr. Ghazi, is this really the song that you want millions of people scrambling to look up and listen to online after they've heard only the sanitized version during the race broadcast?

How did hitching the Belmont Stakes' wagon to a song that mentions crack cocaine ever seem like a good idea?

Yeah, some people out there loved it. But some people out there don't have any sense. And some people out there work for NYRA. ... And clearly those three circles overlapped on the Venn diagram of life, with this lamentable result.

Besides, even if the new song were completely clean, "New York, New York" is (and maybe always will be) more widely recognized around the world than "Empire State of Mind," which was only released in October of last year. And while "Empire State of Mind" did hit No. 1, it's unrealistic to consider it a "classic" song befitting an American classic race; the darned thing has only been on the market for eight months.

Since I missed the race, I didn't see how ABC handled the song. But friends have commented that the network cut to commercial during Villegas' rendition. Was it that bad, or just too long? ... More pertinent, have you ever seen a network cut away from "My Old Kentucky Home" on Derby Day? And if ABC didn't see fit to air in its entirety the supposedly "quintessential" song chosen as Belmont Park's marquee race's anthem, is anyone in the halls of NYRA having second thoughts?

If NYRA wanted to replace "New York, New York" -- which it's still highly debatable that it should have -- a much better choice would have been a different native New Yorker's tune, one with considerably more history than the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys latecomer (which has an eerily similar title), with lyrics that don't need sanitized, and written by a man with an equally undeniable love of the city ... Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind."


  1. Well Glenn, you know how I feel about this one. I had the broadcast on TiVO and rewatched it a few times to see if my reaction upon learning the news on my blog was justified or maybe I'm just getting old. Turns out it was awful in practice as well as theory. Sure the song is OK, but it was so out of place it seemed silly and unbelievably contrived. Reaction among friends has been universally sour and these are 30 - 45 year olds, not exactly golden agers. Some traditions are in need to change - this wasn't one of them.

  2. No War on Drugs for NYRA, I guess. Is there something they want to tell us?

    Apart from the questionable lyrics, what ever made NYRA believe that hip-hop is a good fit for an event that markets itself as a slice of Americana (and rightfully so)?
    If you want to attract a younger set of customers, why not target them on racedays during the week or on special days (like CD did) when it doesn't have a passive-aggressive feel for the majority of your existing customers? How much did the 14-29 attendance increase as a result of this rather transparent pandering? Are gangstas now spreading the word about Belmont's Pick 3? Are "I be a Thoro-Ho" halter tops selling like crazy on the streets of New York? If not, what's the point? (I'm sounding like a grandpa here, but the fact is that mainstream hip-hop does promote values which I certainly don't want to see associated with the Sport of Kings, or any sport really)

    I have always felt that this kind of pandering to a younger audience seems more contemptous than inviting.

    When I started following American racing regularly, NYRA's circuit used to be the gold standard, rated well above the rest. Now, about a decade later, it's not even the gold standard of racing in the NY Metropolitan Area. It's a constant barrage of farcically ill-advised decisions like this one that, more than anything else, has caused the decline. But no, once Aqueduct gets its VLTs (two weeks before being closed and making way for a 10-month meet at Belmont) all is gonna be just swell.

  3. Glenn
    Could not agree with you more.Strange choice.
    I am still scratching my head and wondering.
    Thanks for writing this.

  4. With everybody else not reading the congressional bills... NYRA probably didn't read the lyrics to this song....

  5. She didn't sing the Jay-Z version and those weren't the lyrics. Look up the Alicia Keys version. Try doing some research before wasting your time writing this nonsense.

  6. Anonymous ... I know of the Alicia Keys version, it is sanitized (and changed in several other ways) and STILL includes a line about "on the corner selling rock" that I hope was removed from the version sung on Belmont Day.

    I contend neither is suitable. Nor classic; the Keys version was released in December and is somehow an iconic New York anthem that will stand for all time -- six months later?

    Somebody at NYRA figures the song would appeal to a different generation of fans (I guess) without considering the fact that NOBODY is going to tune in to the race broadcast to hear half a song (interrupted by ABC) if they don't care to see the races and the coverage before or after.

  7. Jay Z? I found it humorous they trotted some 16 year old girl out to sing some song only to have the network awkwardly cut away to a commercial at the mid point. I'm all for finding new fans but why is it always done at the sake of the base demographic? Am I so bad no one wants me in their demographic? I learned the first verse of My Old Kentucky Home and I can hum along to the Maryland song, but darn it I knew New York, New York cold. What is Neema Ghazi's background with the sport? Who hires someone to market something ey don't understand themselves. Ok, done ranting. Good take as always Glenn.

  8. I was gonna crack on Mr. Ghazi at one point as perhaps someone who doesn't understand or appreciate racing the way others do. But that was an impulse on my part. From what I've read about him at NYRA's Web site, he's paid attention to racing for a good, long while.

    I think -- just like many who believe they know what's best for newspapers and whose recommendations are being followed even as circulation dwindles away -- that this was a superficial attempt to broaden the event's appeal. A clear case of hyping style over substance. Little about the event changed except the song during the post parade; that's supposed to draw in a new demographic?

    I suspect Neema Ghazi likes the song, knows that a lot of other people do like the song, and figured, "How can we really go wrong by playing this song?" Let us count the ways.

    (In the case of newspapers, consultants these days insist on changing the design of the page, colors, fonts, visual elements, etc. -- something I don't at all oppose when done well and that I also enjoy the creative aspect of perfecting -- but seem to believe such "improvements" are what bring in readers. They ignore the fact that it's the combined quality and quantity of content -- simply the stories and pictures -- that grab and hold reader interest. Meanwhile, newspapers everywhere are laying off the people who gather and produce that content. While having both is best, a flashy page with nothing of substance on it will sell fewer papers than a boring-to-the-eye page chock-full of information. I guarantee it. But I digress.)

    I'm not completely talking (or writing) out of my posterior on this. My college degree isn't in journalism, but communications with emphasis in public relations, and I have a modicum of experience in marketing both for the newspapers at which I've worked, and in a few freelance gigs ranging from local businesses to globally accessed Web sites.

    Changing the song generated media hype. That's what NYRA was after, far more than that the song itself would be appreciated when played. I'm sure they hoped that, too, but they wanted the week or two of coverage prior. Yet, when it comes down to viewership, who sings a four-minute song, and what that song happens to be, are of infinitesimal importance to bringing someone on board to view a several-hour broadcast of a sport that has a declining fan base.

    It's worth mentioning that Belmont Stakes' track-attendance and viewership are always going to be tied to a factor that NYRA will never be able to control: Who won the Preakness? If the Derby winner backs up his victory at Pimlico, the Belmont will have solid appeal (an 8.2 overnight rating when Big Brown had a shot in 2008). When there's no Triple Crown on the line, the ratings (and attendance, guaranteed) will dive: 5.0 in 2009 and just 3.5/3.2 in 2006/07. I haven't seen this year's yet.

    Belmont Park, NYRA, TV networks, etc., can and should try to punch up the sport's fan following. The song during the post parade has to be one of the last considerations.

    Surely they haven't perfected every other aspect of providing the ideal racing and viewing experience, such that we're down to tweaking four minutes of the soundtrack.

    I think that might bug me as much as any other aspect of the decision. It seems like an ineffective, superficial effort to act like horse racing is keeping up with the times.

    Sinatra, after all, is so 20th century.

  9. If they can play the Jay-Z version at the MLB All-Star game at Yankee Stadium - then they should be able to play the Alicia Keys version at the Belmont Stakes. Not a big deal.

  10. They "sanitized" the Jay-Z version for playing in Yankee Stadium.

    And baseball isn't my interest or problem.

  11. I retract my comment on Neema. He was a TRNY member of the week in 2009, good enough for me. Still didn't like the change in song.

  12. This will go down as one of those "What were they thinking" moments. We won't see the song next year, trust me on that.

  13. If jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated, that sums it up for the song selected and the broadcasting opera boffe that ensued.

  14. I was sitting at the track waiting for the race to start on the simulcast feed, and as the song droned on and on, I turned to my friend and said, "Charlie, what did we do to deserve this punishment?". It was a painful 3 or 4 minutes that felt like 10 or 15 minutes.

    Unfortunately, the race was even worse. I turned to Charlie during the race and said, "Charlie, let's go handicap a pick 3 somewhere, since by the time we're done, they *might* have crossed the finish line." What a terrible race won by a mediocre colt.

    David H.

  15. I think a point well-taken on the NY Times blog is that people want to sing along with the song, and "Empire State of Mind" isn't very conducive to that. Beyond being long and perhaps otherwise stylistically (and such) an inappropriate match.

  16. Totally agree! If they really want to bring in a new "demographic" age group with new music they should use someone established (and talented) like Kelly Clarkson maybe, someone with a big name who has some really powerful vocals.
    They should definitely go back to New York, New York next year.

  17. John P. SparkmanJune 7, 2010 at 8:03 PM

    I remember when the Belmont song was "Sidewalks of New York".....The Sinatra song was an improvement on that...the 2010 song was execrable. Your comments were entirely appropriate. I had the sound off when they flashed up the name of the song and I mentally went, "wait, do they mean New York State of Mind or is it some weird takeoff on BJ's song, so I turned the sound on....and turned it back off after about 10 seconds.....and left the room. I'm confident there were thousands who changed channels and never changed was that bad.

  18. So I got to see a clip on YouTube. Yeah, that was dreadful.

    I don't blame Jasmine Villegas. But the song isn't suited to her. As someone commented at the NY Times blog, at points in the chorus where Alicia Keys' voice is soaring, Jasmine's is reduced to a soft falsetto and the song never reaches the heights anyone would have intended.

    And it certainly isn't suited to the race.

    Rather than singing along -- or even paying attention -- people in the crowd are talking, waving at the TV cameras, whatever. Surely that isn't what NYRA wants them to be doing while their marquee race's theme song is being sung.

  19. Amen. I don't even like New York, New York that much (but then again the only thing I could ever be bothered to go to NYC for again anyway is a race) but at least it can make an argument for being a 'classic', if not traditional. The combination of a frantically trendy song choice and ABC made me wonder if they were pushing Disney's next little pop tart and wanted to give her something 'relevant' to sing.

  20. I'm surprised that I didn't come back and comment after your thoughts, lucky. You really might have been onto something. ... Cross-promotion for ABC/Disney, a four-minute chunk in one of the biggest sports broadcasts of the weekend.

    Ed DeRosa, a blogger who was supportive of the song change, made note of Jasmine Villegas' ties to ABC/Disney, while also noting that the rendition ended up being, "one of the worst live performances (he's) ever heard."

    Performance aside, I'm still 100 percent against the song on merit. It isn't a classic song befitting a classic race, the style and lyrics aren't suited to the sport, and -- as more and more people have pointed out to me -- it isn't a sing-along song, which is what many fans seem to want.

    Let's hope SaratogaSpa is correct and the song won't be back in 2010.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.