Across the ’90s, few pieces of music were more ubiquitous than a winding slap-bass jingle composed by studio musician Jonathan Wolff. Every week, tens of millions of Americans heard it open and close Seinfeld, a sitcom so beloved that even its kitschy theme song has become iconic. At the beginning of Season Three, creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David tried to touch it up with some modulated female scatting; this was immediately understood to be a terrible idea, and a precursor to the disastrous advice Jerry gives struggling restaurateur Babu Bhatt six episodes later. This is a tune that can both mesh with Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” and subvert the Creatine rage of Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff,” but perhaps we can now admit that it only opened the show because Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” had yet to be written.
Built around a twinkling keyboard riff, “Welcome to New York” documents the singer’s arrival in a place filled with possibility, a place where even “walking through a crowd” feels significant. Even as the song announced Swift’s departure from Nashville and arrival here, its open-eyed innocence marked her as a country girl at heart. Last month, Dierks Bentley christened the city’s first large-scale country music festival by covering it during his headlining set.
When Swift released this Tumblr post set to synth-pop as the second single from last year’s industry smash 1989, the city’s Department of Tourism quickly named her its new “Global Welcome Ambassador.” Gentrification continued apace. But despite the tonal difference between Taylor’s bubble-girl naiveté and Jerry Seinfeld’s bleacher-bum sarcasm, both share an optimism about what it’s like to work, live, and be single in the city. When people who didn’t live in Manhattan imagined Manhattan, they often saw it through Seinfeld’s lens. No joke, the first time I visited New York, my 16-year-old friends and I left Grand Central and went directly to the gated storefront that once housed the original Soup Nazi restaurant. If there has ever been a place where “everybody wanted something more,” as Taylor puts it now, this was it in every sense.
But are these accurate portrayals of what it’s like to live, work, and love in New York City? The “love” part, at least, not so much. One difference between the way Jerry and Taylor chose to approach their time here? Jerry is way more obsessed with dating—at least on TV, the sneaker-wearing comic went through more Starbucks lovers in his last two seasons than Taylor has in her entire life. The official tally remains in dispute, but most count between 60 and 70 girlfriends in Seinfeld’s 177 non-clip-show episodes. And these are just the ones we see on camera—the ones that he liked enough to risk introducing to George, someone so vindictive that he once fed lobster to a kosher woman simply because she didn’t understand the mechanics of shrinkage. Those who accuse Swift of selling a fantasy world should remember that Marisa Tomei, playing herself, would eventually develop a crush on this man. (The shellfish thing is also on Jerry, though: The fact that George was cooking family breakfast should have tipped him off.)
But back to the 60 or 70 on-camera girlfriends: That’s a lot! Laura, the lip-reader. Marla, the virgin. Jane, who ate the lobster. Beyond making this quantity appealing, Seinfeld makes it seem emotionally and logistically feasible. Where is Jerry meeting these women? Why do they never stick around? What happens to the ones whose breakups don’t make for good comedy? Does our hero ever get lonely? The show’s refusal to answer these questions isn’t a failure; it’s what makes it fun to watch. Rather than deal with their actual problems, Jerry and George contrive pet peeves and manically obsess over the smallest of gestures. They can be serious people, but they often pick the wrong things to take seriously. That apparently happens a lot around here.
I began watching Seinfeld in syndication around the time that Taylor Swift wrote “Tim McGraw,” in 2004, when she and I were both freshman in high school. It occurs to me now that even then, she was the far better emotional role model. Then again, she and Jerry end up dealing with their life events in much the same way: by using them for material. Where Taylor turns her affairs into songs (then codes her liner notes to reveal their subjects—smooth!), Jerry turns his dating experiences—alongside all his other experiences—into comedy. When a woman, George’s ex, breaks up with him because she doesn’t like comedy, that too becomes part of his act: “Women need to like the job of the guy they’re with,” he goes on to tell an audience. “Which is why we make up the phony bogus names for the jobs that we have: ‘Well, right now, I’m the regional management supervisor.’”
In this sense, Jerry and Taylor depict New York as a place where work and personal life become inseparable. This isn’t a revisionist hot take, but exactly what Larry David and the real-life Jerry Seinfeld said when they pitched real-life NBC a show about how a stand-up finds his material: Anything could happen—even nothing—so long as fictional Jerry reproduced it as a bit by the final credits. In these early years, Seinfeld played out like the ’90s version of the far more subversive current-day Comedy Central show Review: Rather than grade life experiences, Jerry mines them for witticisms.
Maybe this—besides, you know, how well the jokes hold up—is part of why young people have embraced Seinfeld as much as any other old sitcom, memorizing dialogue and retroactively meme-ing the fuck out of it. Engaging with the parody Twitter accounts now means falling down a sitcom-within-a-sitcom–style rabbit hole of references-to-references and inside jokes, but all are united by a genuine appreciation for the source material. (Compare to Frasier, which young people are crypto-ironically revisiting largely as a totem of ’90s three-camera kitsch.)
If the new Hulu streaming deal represents anything, it’s the moment that the show is fully handed down to millennials and the age of the internet. Those starting from the beginning of Season One should note two things: 1) It doesn’t get consistently great until Season Three. 2) The realistic counterpoint to Jerry’s free-time fantasy doesn’t come until 156 episodes in, when George attempts to ditch the 9-to-5 himself.
At first, George too hears the kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats, but despite a budding frolf obsession, he can’t dance to this beat as long he thinks: By the end of the show, a doctor warns that after too much time watching TV, he has fallen into “state of advanced atrophy due to a period of extreme inactivity.” The would-be Summer of George has become a recliner-bound nightmare, work and life overlapping in the sense that he doesn’t have much of either. Now that all of us—even Taylor—can watch the whole series whenever we want, we might inadvertently share his fate.
Nick Murray is a writer in NYC. He’s on Twitter.
Lead art by Sam Woolley.