The first time I heard Solange’s song “Cranes in the Sky,” I thought it was about birds. You know, cranes — the tall, leggy, dinosaur-looking flying things you look at in zoos.
But according to the singer, that's the wrong kind of crane. I should have looked to the Miami skyline instead.
“Cranes in the Sky” was one of the most critically lauded pop songs of 2016. Several major music publications ranked it high in their year-end lists: number seven in Rolling Stone and 12 in Billboard, with a debut at 74 on the Hot 100. Pitchfork not only put Solange’s ballad at number three, right between Frank Ocean and her sister Beyoncé, but also declared her album A Seat at the Table the year’s best.
Which makes it all the more ironic that such a successful song had its genesis in the leadup to the most infamous failure of the 21st Century: the 2008 financial crisis. As Solange explains in an Interview magazine sit-down with Beyoncé:
“I used to write and record a lot in Miami during that time, when there was a real estate boom in America... I remember looking up and seeing all of these cranes in the sky. They were so heavy and such an eyesore, and not what I identified with peace and refuge. I remember thinking of it as an analogy for my transition — this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us.”
All of that is explained in great detail in the Adam McKay film The Big Short, where, in one scene, a pair of hedge fund managers investigates the impending crisis by stopping off in – where else? – Miami. They find entire neighborhoods of immaculate, abandoned McMansions, spooked renters with deadbeat landlords, predatory realtors, and boneheaded lenders that put the “bro” in “broker.” One gloats about targeting immigrants with bad loans.
Somehow, the cranes stayed aloft. The catastrophe didn’t prevent another housing bubble from springing up in Miami. Developers tried to attract wealthy foreign buyers via luxurious condo developments that ended up unsold. The cranes were replaced by big, empty buildings that are doing nothing to alleviate the high-rent issue plaguing the city. There’s plenty of housing – 6,000 new listings in January 2016 alone – but none of it is the right kind, and now the market is in a free fall. Similar issues with high-cost housing trouble other large cities, including New York, San Francisco, and London.
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Solange's song — like the bubble bursting — is about the inescapable, about “not dealing with what’s in front of us,” as she puts it. The performance is really about avoiding something, but it is never clear exactly what. This hounds her, and she does anything she can to distract from it. “I slept it away, I sexed it away, I read it away...”
“It” is most likely an uncomfortable feeling. It could be inadequacy, depression, anxiety – take your pick. It could be the dread that we are at the height of something about to come crashing down, just like it did in 2008, that things will only get worse. That’s how The Big Short ends, by the way: a hedge fund manager predicts that “in a few years, people will be doing what they always do when the economy tanks: They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.”
Doesn’t it make you wish you could fly away like that other kind of crane?