TIME Music

In Semi-Defense of “Brooklyn Girls”

Catey Shaw isn't really singing about Brooklyn

If you saw the video above, Catey Shaw’s “Brooklyn Girls,” on the Internet yesterday, you probably figured out that it was instantly hated — and not because of the song or the singer, because of the subject matter. Its presentation of the much-beloved and much-maligned New York City borough is enough to make residents want to leave, apparently.

But Catey Shaw isn’t actually singing about Brooklyn the place. She’s singing about Brooklyn the adjective. She says so herself, in a teaser video for the song: “The whole thing about a Brooklyn girl is you don’t have to be from Brooklyn,” she states, with an actual bird perched on her shoulder. “It’s more the whole idea of the strong female.”

And Marc Spitz, author of the recently released book Twee, sees what she means. He says the song called to mind the idea of “très Brooklyn,” the supposedly trendy French terminology for coolness — to the point that he first guessed the song and video were Swedish, with non-Brooklynites just imagining the place. (Though “Brooklyn Girls” is definitely not twee, Spitz writes about the relationship between the two, saying that “Brooklyn” and “twee” are often confused these days.) The reason why there’s been such a backlash, says Spitz, is that “anything that’s ‘Brooklyn’ is going to produce a backlash.”

“It’s an authenticity question. We haven’t really progressed that much since the ’90s; you have to be super sincere or else you’re going to get a lot of shit,” he says. “Now [Brooklyn] is kind of a faux neighborhood with a prefabricated culture.”

But once you see it that way — the faux neighborhood and the real neighborhood being different — Shaw’s song doesn’t seem worth the hate anymore. That’s because if you separate the idea of Brooklyn from the place where people live (myself included, full disclosure), Shaw is being authentic.

The pre-fab culture Spitz describes is a real thing, and she’s really singing about it with seeming sincerity. Though New York-based outlets are understandably upset (with some exceptions) that someone is capitalizing on their hometown in a such a lame fashion, it’s hard to be upset at someone commercializing an intentionally commercial concept. Moreover, it’s not like the idea-vs.-place struggle is new. Manhattanites figured out long ago that while feeling protective of your territory is one thing, getting upset about other people’s ideas of what that place means is pointless.

“You have to remember that everyone since the dawn of time has bitched about New York and what it’s become, but nobody owns New York,” Spitz says. “When Bob Dylan came here, they said the scene was dead. When the Dutch came, they probably said the scene was dead. One of the great and terrible things about New York is that we expect the real, and this is clearly not ‘the real’ — but also it’s bullshit to think that we own it.”

Just as Manhattan — like Paris and Los Angeles and Tokyo — has had to come to grips with existing as both a place and an idea at the same time, it’s too late to take back “Brooklyn,” even if the idea’s existence is still novel. “Personally, I lived on Bedford and Grand in 1992 and there was nothing there, and I go to Williamsburg now and I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone,” Spitz says. “The fact that any of this is happening is rather strange to me, even though I wrote a book about it.”

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