Friday, March 17, 2017

Fourteen Floors: Hurray for the Riff Raff & The Long Journey Upwards

Buried deep in the second half of Hurray for the Riff Raff's wonderful new album The Navigator is a track called Fourteen Floors.

Gentle and slight, Fourteen Floors is not The Navigator's most memorable song by any stretch of the imagination.  It doesn't have the purposeful drive of pre-release single Hungry Ghost; it certainly doesn't scale the same spine-tingling heights as Pa'lante, the album's stunning climax; it's not even on quite the same level as Halfway There, the lovely little acoustic song that mostly stands out because it provides a gentle moment of calm between The Navigator's two fieriest tracks (The Navigator and Rican Beach).

Nevertheless, I find Fourteen Floors strangely intriguing, and so I'd like to take a closer look at this song today. What is it about? What does it add to the album? And what are the 'fourteen floors' supposed to represent?

Blind googling led me to this five-year-old CBS article about a woman named Sienna Edwards who died in 2012 after falling from the fourteenth storey of a high-rise in the Bronx. This incident was initially reported as a suicide, but Edwards reportedly called 911 shortly before her fall, and during that call, the police dispatcher heard a voice somewhere in the background saying, "you are not going to leave here alive". Another woman, Kenya Edmonds, was arrested and charged with murder and manslaughter, but she was later acquitted.

Now, Hurray for the Riff Raff frontwoman Alynda Segarra is from the Bronx, so it's quite possible that she knows the Sienna Edwards story. To be honest, though, I don't really see how a reference to this possible homicide that happened half a decade ago would fit in with The Navigator's overarching themes of identity and self-actualisation. Granted, it wouldn't be Segarra's first song about violence towards women, but...well, it seems to me that the pieces don't fit. I don't think that Fourteen Floors was specifically written about Sienna Edwards and her untimely death.

So what else could it mean? The phrase 'fourteen floors' also appears in The Navigator's second track, Living in the City, but in that song, it's simply there to evoke the towering, tightly-packed claustrophobia of life in a cramped NYC apartment; in the context of Fourteen Floors itself, however, those two words are shoved into the centre of the stage, where - one assumes - they take on a far more significant meaning.

To my ears, Fourteen Floors sounds like a metaphor for the slow social progress that has been made in the USA over the years. Every time the country takes a step forward - by legalising gay marriage, for instance - it ascends another 'floor' of the progress skyscraper, getting that little bit closer to becoming a perfect utopia of freedom and equality. Of course, progress happens at an agonisingly glacial pace ("my father said it took a million years," sings Segarra; "well, he said it *felt* like a million years"), and it can be undone instantly if the wrong person gets into power and signs that progress away.

The march towards equality is a long and arduous one - not unlike ascending a steep staircase. We in the Western world have come a long way from the days when women couldn't vote, homosexuality was a crime, and dark-skinned people were segregated from light-skinned people, but progress is a precarious thing, and it doesn't take much to force us backwards. It takes a long time to climb up fourteen floors, but tragically, it only takes a second or two to fall all the way back to the ground.

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