It was 1928 in Germany … where else? … and Brecht/Weill tossed The Threepenny Opera and “Pirate Jenny” onto the doorstep of the looming stockmarket crash and Great Depression.
You people can watch while I’m scrubbing these floors
And I’m scrubbin’ the floors while you’re gawking
Maybe once ya tip me and it makes ya feel swell
In this crummy Southern town, in this crummy old hotel
But you’ll never guess to who you’re talkin’.
No. You couldn’t ever guess to who you’re talkin’.
Then one night there’s a scream in the night
And you’ll wonder who could that have been
And you see me kinda grinnin’ while I’m scrubbin’
And you say, “What’s she got to grin?”
I’ll tell you.
There’s a ship, the black freighter
with a skull on its masthead
will be coming in.
Or, as Spain Rodriguez’s Vietnam era underground cartoon character Trashman snarled as his automatic weapons went brakka brakka at the agents of the established order, “eat leaden death!”
We haven’t quite gotten to that rather dire level of backlash against the rich in general and, in particular, the high rolling execs of AIG who got the world into this mess. But there is plenty of dock space in Manhattan and the black freighter just chugged under the string-‘em-up strands of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The cultural backlash to the current financial crisis has barely begun, most notably in the Comedy Channel’s Jon Stewart’s unloading on Wall Street cheerleader Jim Cramer. The reaction of popular music is in its infancy, if it is occurring at all.
The greed, gluttony and venality of the American rich was precursed in 2006 by experimental, performance art, alternative rock band the Flaming Lips:
If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch, would you do it?
If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich, would you do it?
If you could watch everybody work while you just lay on your back, would you do it?
If you could take all the love without giving any back, would you do it?
Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.”
The band may have known something. But it also knew what was good for it, and shortly thereafter sold a snippet of its “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” to enliven a commercial for Kraft salad dressing.
Rock and folk has always been a staple of anti-rich sentiment, but not this time, at least not so far. This is not just me saying it. I polled my Facebook friends, most of who are in the media, and came up with nothing worth mentioning. I also asked a couple very close to me, both former record company executives. They also hit zilch. (By the way, both were recently laid off. She went to work for a human rights organization, which also laid her off a few months later. He’s trying to open a bicycle shop with two friends.)
During the Great Depression, the reaction took a few years to set in, but set in it did. Just talking about music, “Pirate Jenny” was followed in 1931 by the Harburg and Gorney classic:
Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
A few years after that, escapism set in, marked by goofy comedy and wishful thinking. Such as in another classic, that by Dubin and Warren:
We’re in the money, we’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression you are through, you done us wrong.
We never see a headline about breadlines today.
And when we see the landlord we can look that guy right in the eye.
The wishful thinking set in synch with some hard-edged leftist politics, but that’s not what’s on my mind today. I’m just doing pop culture today, and skipping around at that.
What’s clear is that populist protest as well as popular protest song rose most ardently when people’s daily lives were seriously threatened. That occurred during the Great Depression in the fear of breadlines and homelessness. It occurred during Vietnam in fear of the draft and being sent to die in a swamp. I was waiting for it to occur under Reagan and the Bush dynasty but it didn’t. And that was because the threat to the individual, to you and me, was minimal.
That has changed. There is a tangible threat now, and it’s much the same as during the Great Depression: the fear of loss of job, loss of house, and having to move back in with Mom, if in fact Mom hasn’t been evicted and moved onto the welfare rolls and into a Motel 6.
So where is the popular anger now? Where are the guys and dolls (speaking of revivals) with the guitars? Doubtless the reliably pissed off Springsteen and Bono are at this moment scribbling lyrics. I would be surprised if populist rocker John Mellencamp didn’t weigh in. I suppose it’s unavoidable that Billy Joel will take time out from mowing down Hamptons telephone polls to strike a few chords for justice. And I’m told that singer/songwriters Ani DiFranco and Steve Earle are likely to summon the requisite fury. But when?
As for the rappers, they’re mad enough but rarely against wealth. One out-of-left-field exception: reformed convict T.I. late last year slammed his gold-seeking confreres in “Live Your Life,” a duet with recently victimized singer Rihanna. All in all, though, rap has given up all right to populist rage. Maybe that will change when the price of gold, that classic depression safe haven, goes up. And the wearing of the bling goes down.
As for all those nascent populist stars optimistically seeking contracts from record companies that were in financial trouble before the crash of 08, keep strumming, keep seething, and keep your fury.
You'll need it.
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