Mini-Talmud: Empire State of Mind

Mini-Talmud: Empire State of Mind

What are those dreams made out of, again?

How many times have you heard “Empire State of Mind” in the past two years? A hundred? A thousand? But have you ever really listened to what Alicia Keys is saying?

New York!
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of,
There’s nothing you can’t do,
Now you’re in New York!

What the HELL is she talking about? “Concrete jungle that dreams are made of” would have made sense. Also acceptable: “Concrete jungle where dreams are made and/there’s nothing you can’t do.” As it is, that preposition is hanging out there in the breeze. What are the dreams made of, Alicia? Energy? Ambition?  Maltese Falcons?

But there’s another possibility: maybe the dreams are made of “There’s Nothing You Can’t Do.” Perhaps it’s not a sentence but a compound noun, completing the thought in line 2. If there’s was some sort of material known as “There’s Nothing You Can’t Do,” wouldn’t that be an awesome substance to build dreams out of? I’m imagining it as some sort of miracle product sold on late night informercials. “Have a stubborn leak? There’s Nothing You Can’t Do mends it like new! Sick of chopping all those pesky vegetables? Apply just two drops of There’s Nothing You Can’t Do, and these carrots are jullienned in seconds! Junior falling behind in school? Vigoriously massage There’s Nothing You Can’t Do into his scalp every night, and watch those C’s turn to A’s.” (Little boy turns towards the camera. “Thanks, There’s Nothing You Can’t Do!”)

Then again, maybe someone needs to add a copyeditor to his entourage.

11 Comments on “Mini-Talmud: Empire State of Mind”

  1. Genevieve #

    I actually like that interpretation. It gives the song a subtly cynical quality: on the surface, it seems like there’s *truthfully* “nothing you can’t do” in NYC… but really, that’s just the dreams people have about the place. They arrive all starry-eyed with these “nothing you can’t do” dreams, and come to realize that it’s just another cold, uncaring “concrete jungle.”

    Of course, I’ve never actually heard the song…


  2. Jesse M #

    I always wondered if there’s really an “of” at the end of that line. If not, it would be a grammatically correct lyric: “Concrete jungle where dreams are made.” Now, there IS a little noise at the end of the line, and it DOES sound like an “of”.

    This may sound strange, but I always thought that Keyes superimposed those two lines accidentally. Kind of like when you can’t decide between “How are you doing?” and “How is everything?” so you flub the sentence as “How are everything?”


  3. Brian #

    Having never heard “Empire State of Mind” and reading this post first I assumed the song would feel more cynical, but the Keyes live solo version changes the lyrics a bit and is pretty much full tilt optimistic. The album version has edge yet doesn’t feel stuck in cynical quicksand.

    Some fan made lyric sheet online lists it “oh” not “of.” I also hear an ecstatic “oh,” like a vocalized exclamation mark which surely has a complicated Italian music jargon term. But if some irony is lost changing it from “of” to “oh” there’s plenty left in every other line so it’s just a difference of degree. Really making it “of” compresses into one stanza the whole “build you up/grind you down” structure that plays out over the course of the song.


  4. Greg #

    Are we certain she’s not saying “up”?


  5. Hazbaz #

    An alternative reading of the line is that the second line is meant to be heard like an advertising slogan, sort of like:

    “New York: (it’s a) Concrete Jungle where dreams are made of New York!”

    Which, I’ll admit, doesn’t make a great deal of sense.


  6. Stokes OTI Staff #

    I like Belinkie’s interpretation here. Dreams are made of belief. What else would they be made of?


    • Gab #

      Ask Carly Simon.


  7. Brian #

    Thanks for overthinking this. It bothers me every single time I hear this song, and it’s good to see I’m not alone.


  8. Gab #

    If I had the time, I’d try to comb through other songs about NYC and look for hanging verbs or sentences ending with prepositions. And if I was talented, I’d do a mashup of them. But I’m busy and talentless, so I’ll just let the idea hang there in a way similar to that “of” up there.

    Jay Z originally wanted Mary J. Blige to sing for this song, though, and I wonder how different it would have turned out if it had gone in that direction. Would she have stood for such grammatical errors?


Add a Comment