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How music has responded to a decade of economic inequality

Popular music has always delivered social critique. But it’s struggled to grapple with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Culture, especially popular culture, always has some relation to the conditions that surround it, and these days, there is no shortage of music that reflects our economic reality.

But that reflection isn’t always quite what you’d expect. During the Great Depression, which saw widespread homelessness and US unemployment reaching 25 percent, popular films showed the very rich drinking cocktails in formal dress; cheery songs like “Pennies From Heaven” charted. And in the post-2008 decade of recession, instability, and income inequality, blockbuster acts spent a lot of time telling us the incredible time they were having.

The real story of the past decade has been harder to hear. A decade ago, as some Americans remember all too well, the US economy began to crumble, and took the rest of the world’s markets along with it. First housing prices started to slide, revealing a nation caught in a deflating real estate bubble. Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers came next.

The cascade of damage was worldwide, but it took on an especially fierce pitch in the world’s largest economy: Beginning in late 2008, the US was losing more than half a million jobs a month. By 2009, the Great Recession’s first full year, national unemployment reached 15 million people, or 10 percent — the first double-digit rate since the early 1980s. Trillions of dollars of wealth disappeared from the economy, and 4 million Americans lost their homes in just two years.

Meanwhile, the nation’s biggest songs in the year after the crash were numbers by Flo Rida, Chris Brown, and Coldplay that had little to do with economic strain. It takes any cultural form — movies, books, visual art, whatever — months, sometimes years, to respond to social, political, or economic change. But pop music has less lag time than most other genres.

(In previous centuries, folk songs about hangings or train crashes could appear almost instantly. And it wasn’t for nothing that Public Enemy’s Chuck D once called hip-hop black America’s CNN.)

By the end of 2009, though, the biggest-selling singles were songs like Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” and various party-hearty numbers by the Black Eyed Peas. And so it went, into the teeth of the recession.

Lady Gaga performs “Bad Romance” during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards on September 13, 2009.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Popular music, of course, becomes popular partly because it takes people away from their lives. Be it the blandness of affluence or the pain of personal difficulty, there has always been an element of aspiration and fantasy to popular culture.

But from Woody Guthrie singing about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression’s devastations in the 1930s to rock and soul bands of the ’60s and ’70s writing about war and civil rights to British punks shouting about unemployment and the working class to rappers spitting about injustice and racism, popular music has always also delivered social critique — much of the time including economic issues.

What we see in the decade following the 2008 stock market crash, though, is a relatively tame popular music world in which best-selling artists and left-of-the-dial “alternative” musicians share an apparent lack of interest in the nation’s economic state.

“Most people in the mainstream music world — whether it’s pop, indie, or country — don’t want to offend any of their fans,” says Margo Price, a country singer-songwriter who has been outspoken about economic structures. “Their big labels don’t want them to, either.”

After the pain of the ’08 crash, the nation experienced an economic recovery that shifted a massive amount of income from the poor and middle class to the very rich. The big banks got bigger; huge bonuses returned. Just two years after the crash, the nation’s Gini coefficient, the standard measure of wealth distribution, was at 46.9, making the US among the most unequal of modern democracies.

We can call the past 10 years the decade of inequality. So what, then, does the music of inequality sound like?

The tropes of mainstream pop music are far removed from audiences’ economic realities

Part of the paradox here is simply that monetary wealth gives musicians — at least, the tiny minority experiencing material bounty — something to sing about.

Musicians are not unique here: In the years since the Reagan administration, a reveling in what used to be called heartless materialism has become de rigueur. (The shift in personal style from an old-school rich man like Warren Buffett, who made his early fortune in the 1950s, to Donald Trump, a product of the gilded ’80s, is hard to miss.)

Artists singing about how much wealth they had accrued fit cleanly into a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous culture. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Marvin Gaye were filthy rich, but it’s hard to imagine them crooning about their money and mansions. Nor can we imagine Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, or Liz Phair posing in a bath of diamonds, as Taylor Swift does in the 2017 video for “Look What You Made Me Do.”

Many of the songs about luxurious possessions and lavish lifestyles — the sonic equivalent of Keeping Up With the Kardashians — are the descendants of “Mo Money Mo Problems,” the 1997 Notorious B.I.G. song. But in many cases, there seem to be no serious problems besides having too many women or possessions to choose from.

Notorious B.I.G. performs at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago in September 1994.
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

“When inequality is high, it’s driven by the superrich, because [the poor] can’t go lower than zero,” says Keith Payne, a University of North Carolina psychology professor and author of The Broken Ladder, a recent book on wealth disparity. “People feel poorer but aspire to higher standards. This leads to a risk-taking kind of life: People are more likely to gamble, play the odds, use drugs or drink, commit crimes. It also orients people to the very wealthy as opposed to the poor.”

These are the classic tropes of hip-hop, a musical style that, Payne points out, surged in ubiquity in the same years as the rise in inequality. A mixtape of conspicuous consumption and runaway consumerism could be assembled from songs like Post Malone and Ty Dolla Sign’s “Psycho” (“got diamonds by the boatload!”), Lil Uzi Vert’s “Money Longer” (“money got longer, speaker got louder, car got faster”), and Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” (“Spend 10 racks on a new chain / My bitch love do cocaine.”)

The style became so ubiquitous that the satirical trio the Lonely Island parodied the genre of gold-plated gloat with “I’m on a Boat,” a 2009 rap song featuring T-Pain that makes “yacht rock” numbers like Christopher Cross’s 1980 hit “Sailing” look modest and egalitarian.

More cutting is Lorde’s 2013 song “Royals,” which seems to be aware of how mismatched the music is to the times: “But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom / Bloodstains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room / We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams ...”

Lorde performs “Royals” onstage for the 56th Grammy Awards on January 26, 2014.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Part of what looking across the genres shows you is that the big-selling, celebrity-driven mainstream of just about every style of music offers very little social or economic critique. If that’s what you’re looking for, look to the edges.

Music engaging with inequality tends to be on the fringes of popular genres

Mainstream country music, a genre rooted in the rural red-state South, is no stranger to poverty or songs about risk-taking. But it very rarely deals with inequality, says Payne, a native of Kentucky. “The only economic theme is, ‘We grew up poor, but we didn’t know it at the time, and now we’ve got everything we need.’ That’s the theme of countless country songs,” he says.

The country songwriters interested in exploring economics more assertively don’t find a receptive industry, whether radio, country labels, or other gatekeepers. “They are so scared of coming out on an issue that offends Trump America,” says R.J. Smith, a music journalist and author of a recent biography of photographer Robert Frank. What you get, instead, is “good short story-ish songwriting about how people are living, but with little sense of why poverty happened.”

To the extent that there’s been a consistent protest, it comes, curiously, from the fringes of country. Despite its recent political and cultural conservatism, country has been the music of the poor and working class since the days of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. And the alt-country movement, which has co-opted the folk tradition, continued the grit and social criticism of the old days after the big-hatted mainstream moved into formula and political reaction.

This has led to what we could call empathy songs and plutocrat songs: The empathy song looks at the plight of someone crushed under the economic wheel, sometimes speaking in his or her voice; the plutocrat song is typically more overtly political, targeting the damage done by the very rich.

Honorary Americana artist Billy Bragg (who is British but has made several albums of Woody Guthrie’s music with alt-country pioneers Wilco) began performing Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” after the ’08 crash. (The song is explicitly class-based, describing a “rich man [who] took my home and drove me from my door.”)

And Margo Price’s songs are among the strongest economic critiques post-Great Recession: Numbers like “Pay Gap,” “About to Find Out,” and “All American Made” (“And I wonder if the president gets much sleep at night / And if the folks on welfare are making it all right”) sometimes combine feminism with scenes from the class struggle.

Veteran singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III worked in a vaguely country-folk tradition with his 2010 album, 10 Songs For the New Depression. The songs alternated from despairing to lighthearted (the number “House” is both), and name-check Alan Greenspan and John Maynard Keynes. (One cheeky number is called “The Krugman Blues.”) Peter Himmelman’s “Rich Men Rule the World” is a brutal song in the same vein.

Loudon Wainwright III performs in Copenhagen in December 1976.
Jorgen Angel/Redferns via Getty Images

Two classics from the edges of country actually predate the Great Recession, perhaps because the rural South never quite caught the postwar boom like the rest of the nation did. James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here,” from 2005, tells of a struggling, wounded Vietnam veteran, empty storefronts, a failing bar, and the pinch of a stagnant minimum wage. (The novelistic vision is appropriate for the son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry.) And while their most recent album is more about race and politics in general, Drive-By Truckers’ 2005 album, The Dirty South, is a forceful look at American poverty and inequality, highlighted by the song “Puttin’ People on the Moon.”

“In our hometown,” Drive-By Truckers leader Patterson Hood says of Florence, Alabama, “the economy collapsed in the early ’80s: During the so-called Reagan boom years, we were like Flint, Michigan. They closed the Ford plant, and there was a domino effect.”

Along with the songs of the late Merle Haggard, Bruce Springsteen’s work serves as a template for bands like the Truckers. The Boss has written some of the best work about the way economics shapes and limits lives — songs like “My Hometown” and the Dust Bowl-inspired Ghost of Tom Joad LP. He has not quite matched these since; his energies have largely been elsewhere. But the 2012 Wrecking Ball LP, with songs like “We Take Care of Our Own” and the Wall Street-dissing “Death to My Hometown,” is a solid stab at addressing what much of the country has been through.

And while the late, great soul musician Charles Bradley largely sang about racism and his personal travails, his “Why Is It So Hard,” from 2011, may be the single most emotionally powerful recent song about poverty and income inequality.

Hip-hop, too, gets more political and anti-capitalist around the edges. The Coup, the Oakland hip-hop group led by Boots Riley, released a 2012 album called Sorry to Bother You, which would eventually lend its name to the new breakout movie. The album takes a far-left stance on issues of economics and inequality, heavily informed by Riley’s communist beliefs, with songs like “Strange Arithmetic” (“Economics is the symphony of hunger and theft / Mortar shells often echo out the cashing of checks / In geography class, it’s borders, mountains, and rivers / But they will never show the line between the takers and givers”) and “WAVIP” (“I am with the people on the bottom, fella / We gonna riot, loot, rob till we rich as Rockefeller”).

Meanwhile, much of mainstream hip-hop went from fierce anti-racist politics, decades ago, to celebrations of hedonism. Music historian Robert Fink of UCLA points out that in the years after the stock market crash, the nation experienced its first black president, who was widely popular, especially with black people. When Obama was replaced with a man with a reputation for antagonizing black people, alongside a rash of police killings of young African-American men, politically minded hip-hop and R&B artists increasingly focused their attention on Black Lives Matter and related movements, rather than economics.

“I can’t think of a single hip-hop song about people getting subprime mortgages or that kind of thing,” Fink says.

Inequality is not a natural driver for slick, commercial pop songwriting

“There is very little in the mainstream music business about economic hardship,” says music historian Ted Gioia. “Are Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift trying to shake things up?” Some artists sing about race and gender, he says, but economics has largely been overlooked in the slick and commercial pop mainstream.

Gioia characterizes the lip service the music industry pays to social issues as a decades-old problem: MTV and the rest of the business largely slept through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s; this time, Gioia says, economic inequality has become the forgotten issue.

But some artists have made an end run around these forces.

One of the most realized looks at the Great Recession and its discontents may not be a political piece of hip-hop or an angry piece of outlaw country, but rather a musical. Hadestown was an off-Broadway “folk opera” in 2016, relocating the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in a post-apocalyptic Great Depression with a wink toward the present. It’s based on an album by folk singer Anais Mitchell that includes contributions from Ani DiFranco, the Haden Triplets, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.

Finally, there was a four-disc compilation in 2012 called Occupy This Album: 99 Songs for the 99 Percent. The styles and quality range quite widely, from Michael Moore singing Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to songs by Yoko Ono, Toots and the Maytals, and Nancy Griffith. (The video for “United Tribes,” a song by Thievery Corporation with rapper Mr. Lif, captures the energy of the movement it emerged from.) Still, it’s hard to miss that many of the songs are old, or only obliquely related to Occupy itself.

One reason songs about the recession and inequality are hard to find may be psychological. The Brooklyn musician Pauline Pisano lost her job as a web designer when the recession hit, and has struggled financially since. But it wasn’t until an NYU course and an exposure to the books of David Graeber that she focused on economic matters and the corrosive effects of debt. (“I feel like the people who cheated won,” she says now. “And for the people who played by the rules, the rules changed.”) She’s since led a musical tour of the South talking to people across the political spectrum about the subject, and her work has been politically energized.

“I was hit by the recession very heavily — why didn’t I put that in my art?” Pisano asks. “Maybe I thought, ‘This is just the way things are.’”

As crucial an issue and as destructive a force as inequality is, it’s not a natural driver for songwriting. “Inequality is the ultimate abstraction,” says Keith Payne. “Art is not typically about abstractions — it tends to be about concrete images. Inequality is neither wealth nor poverty, but the distribution of resources. And who wants to sing about that?”

What does it mean when popular music does not really express most Americans’ lived experience?

One glaring irony here is that the past decade has also seen the vast majority of musicians struggling even more than they did previously: The collapse of the sale of recordings has made most of them all too aware of income inequality, especially when they compare themselves to one-percenters of the past (the Eagles) or present (Lady Gaga).

Alan Krueger, President Barack Obama’s chief economist, gave an important speech about the way the winner-take-all economy devastated many rock musicians in 2012, and there are few signs that the musical middle class has been restored.

The larger issue here — the lack of genuinely popular songs about the biggest economic event since 1929 — is pop culture’s claims of being a democratic art. What if popular music does not really express and describe what the mass of Americans is experiencing? And in an era when the phrase “check your privilege” has become commonplace, does it matter if the biggest hits are being made, in many cases, by fantastically privileged people?

Taylor Swift, for instance, comes from a long line of bank presidents; her father relocated to Merrill Lynch’s Nashville office and later bought a share of a record label to help her career. (See also “Uptown Funk” producer Mark Ronson, from one of Britain’s wealthiest families.)

”If it becomes clear that our popular culture is a rich kids’ project, it loses its legitimacy,” UCLA’s Fink says. “Even more than in Britain, we have Horatio Alger pretensions here.” Once we get a sense that our popular culture is the preserve of the very rich, it’s not quite “popular” in the democratic way we typically use the term.

But it also may be that the unpopularity of a president who himself comes from the plutocrat class will finally focus musicians and their handlers on inequality and other pressing issues. “I think that we are living in a very dangerous time,” says Price. “People as a whole are distracted by social media, celebrities, unattainable wealth.”

But things can change, and Price believes they might: “We’re in a turning point right now, and musicians and visual artists have a chance to move mountains with their words. If they would only use them.”

This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.


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