Seems ATL's not the kinda town bold enough for a hip-hop anthem

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 11/07/2005
Atlanta is suffering, as Frank Sinatra might say, from the little town blues.

The City Too Busy to Hate apparently has plenty of time to publicly agonize over Dallas Austin's new song, "The ATL," a commissioned work that's part of an $8 million Brand Atlanta campaign to market our burg.

Shocking no one who follows popular music, Austin gave the song a hip-hop flavor, reflecting the dominant sound of the time. (Seven of the top 10 singles on Billboard's current Hot 100 chart are hip-hop or R&B.)

A 30-second clip of an early version of Austin's song, which is all that's available until Thursday, sounds like innocuous pep rally fodder. But online, on the radio and in these very pages, Atlantans have agonized over what this tune, deemed "nearly unintelligible" by former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, says about Atlanta.

Of course, the complaints say something about Atlanta, too, highlighting the metro area's continuing racial, generational and urban/suburban tensions.

One letter-writer said he's so embarrassed by the song that he'll "no longer identify with being from Atlanta," adding that "The ATL" is successful if "the intention was to let everyone know that Atlanta will no longer be tolerant of family values and is instead interested in identifying with gun-blazing, Ray Lewis-admiring thugs."

On the AJC's message board, the Vent, one posting suggested that Neil Diamond should've written the Atlanta song. Another said: "Forget that stupid rap song; try our city's new slogan: Atlanta, gateway to Sandy Springs."

Bless our hearts! Who do we want to be?

Before we talk about who we'd like to be, perhaps we should remember who we are. We are, according to 2004 census data, 31.9 years old — 3.4 years younger than the national average. We are a majority minority city, less than 40 percent white. Study the numbers, and the city of Atlanta looks more like Buford Highway than Buckhead.

Diversity has proved to be a major obstacle in branding the metro area — brilliant minds are stumped by the concept of creating a coherent identity for an incoherent place, a place that gets older and whiter in its outlying communities.

No one seems to realize that, here in the capital of the New South, diversity is the brand.

Yes, Atlanta's diversity makes Austin's job challenging. Great art of any kind is rare. Great commissioned art, rarer still. Great commissioned art that speaks for a conflicted group of people, perhaps rarest of all.

But it can happen, has happened. Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall remains the gold standard, having withstood initial criticism as "a black gash of shame and sorrow" to become one of the most universally acclaimed works of our time, commissioned or not.

Here in contemporary Atlanta, "The ATL" — a much more modest project than Lin's wall — hasn't even been released, and already it's being pilloried.

Austin's commission seems to reflect an impossible task, creating a unifying anthem for a city that's clearly not ready to be united by music. We're so skittish about speaking with one voice that we asked the guy to record multiple versions of the song to please our various constituencies. You know, separate but equal.

Other big-league towns can claim great songs. Sinatra sang two: "My Kind of Town," the great ode to Chicago, which was written for the 1964 motion picture "Robin and the 7 Hoods," and "New York, New York," which was written for Martin Scorsese's 1977 film of the same name and which former Mayor Ed Koch proclaimed the city's official song in 1985.

These are indeed pop classics, but they work because of an attitude that polite Atlanta would be loathe to express: irreverence. "New York, New York" takes on a kind of arrogance that even the haughty Big Apple might not accept if taxpayers were footing the bill. And "My Kind of Town" name-checks the Union Stock Yard, reminding us of the epic slaughter that took place within — not exactly an inviting image for all of those sensitive tourists whose dollars we so crave.

Today, if commissioned by city boosters, these songs would likely be vetted, focus-grouped and corporate-sponsored until everything provocative was sufficiently whitewashed.

Branding is expensive, see. You can't afford to offend anyone. Which is why New York City's recently commissioned song, Frank Wildhorn's alleged tourist magnet "New York: For the Time of Your Life," was seen as corny cheerleading compared with Sinatra's.

More to the point, it's why existing (and decidedly noncommissioned) songs about our fair city, namely Jermaine Dupri's saucy "Welcome to Atlanta," could never become city-certified ATL anthems.

For whatever it's worth, the only recent city branding effort that really seems to have worked is the infamous phrase — concocted by two 20-something dudes — that captures the essence of Las Vegas: "What happens here, stays here."

"Anybody who wouldn't come to Vegas because they don't like the slogan, I don't want them here," Mayor Oscar Goodman told the media. "It's not a place for little old biddies."

With those words, Las Vegas has made the only kind of statement that matters when you're trying to brand a city: a bold one. Too bad Atlanta can't do the same.