Pop Music of the Great Depression vs. the Great Recession: Seems Bleak

In 1932, two years into The Great Depression, unemployment was at 23.6%. It’s been two years since The Great Recession started. According to federal statistics, unemployment is at 9.6%, and according to MSN Money the real unemployment rate is 16.6%. What were they listening to, back then? What are we listening to, now?

In 1932, the top song was “Night and Day” by Fred Astaire and Leo Reisman. Typical love song.

But if we look further, we find many top ten hits that reflect the misery of the Great Depression. “In an Old Shanty Town” by Ted Lewis – a sad song about living in a house falling apart. “Brother, Can you Spare me a Dime?” by Bing Crosby – a song about how people that once built railroads and skyscrapers were then starving and broke. “Underneath a Harlem Moon” – a strange song about being black in the south, moving to the north and not having to live in cabins in anymore. A song called “Willow Weep for Me” performed by Ted Fio Rito – a miserable piece about all of one’s hopes and dreams being lost (the Billie Holiday version on Youtube is beautiful).

The rest of the songs from 1932 were bubble-gum pop.

When we look at pop music now, the only song that even remotely mirrors the American people’s collective anxiety about the Great Recession is “Airplanes” by B.o.B. . But only remotely. It has no social meaning – it barely has concrete imagery. Or anything meaningful, for that matter. Mostly, it seems kind of sad.

Instead of a window into national morale, many of this year’s top pop songs are simply narcissistic-sexuality or decadent absurdity. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”, Rhianna’s “Rude Boy”, and all Lady Gaga’s songs aren’t anything but turning music into porn. But music has always done that, so we might give them a break.

But consider “Billionaire” by Travie McCoy featuring Bruno Mars, probably one of the worst of this year’s singles. The song is about a man who wants to be a billionaire because he’s poor and he thinks money will save him. He doesn’t think that hard work, patience, and education can save him. He only wants a lot of money. He’s so assbrained that he thinks having billions of dollars means having one billion dollars in your wallet, not having one billion dollars in net worth.

That’s a nice message to send during a recession: don’t do anything, just hope someone comes over and gives you a billion dollars. In cash. Here’s a line from the song: ”I know we all have a similar dream/ Go in your pocket pullout your wallet/ and put it in the air and sing.”

And this is the current American Dream. A country that fought a revolution to escape having to live under the Divine Right of Kings, that fought a horrible Civil War to end slavery; a country where women and minorities have fought hard for years to gain their rights, and where unions fought hard for workers’ rights.

Apparently America isn’t about freedom, rule of law, or an attempt at social justice. America is about becoming a billionaire.

And so there seems to be an absence of socially conscious pop songs, and this is bad. It shows that Americans might not care about — or might not even know how to care about — their own lives. It shows that Americans are so obsessed with escapism that they can’t even create art that resembles reality, that they’ve become so mentally deranged from years and years of hopes and dreams and life-is-great-everyone-can-be-a-millionaire indoctrination that they’re unable to produce art that gives meaning to their own lives.

We all know someone who’s been laid off, had their home foreclosed, lost money in the stock market, or had their 401k destroyed. Few of us have health care. And many of us are graduating college with student loans, only to find jobs that won’t pay off the loans.

But where is the art that represents that reality? How will we fix our problems if we refuse to admit we have any? TC mark


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  • a polar bear

    'life seems bleak'

    • BlkBansidhe

      I don't feel bleak, but I do feel a dystopian flavor developing and that's okay. Because that means we are coming through and maybe, just maybe we'll be tired enough to look towards something brighter.

  • http://staugustine2.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    Pop Music is Social Control. The News is at one end of the control spectrum and Popshit is at the other. Just because some middle-feeders are making a little money on Pop, don't be fooled into thinking that that's Pop's ultimate purpose. Funny, we have no problem believing in popular-culture-as-propaganda in Stalin's Soviet Union, but when it comes to Us…

    Also, the Civil War was not “fought to end slavery”… but your history books were/are part of the spectrum, too.

  • Madison Moore

    This is very exciting. Love the piece!

  • dan

    Hey There's art that represents reailty we see fit just not so just in the public

  • Caroline

    Amazing job.

  • http://theopenend.com/ herocious

    Nice, Noah.

    But does art have to be depressing… recessing? Sure, I can see how art should reflect reality, and I can see how the pop songs you mentioned are a serious distortion/denial of a very real situation,

    but is there a way to address our problems without being… cynical?

    Most people don't like cynicism.

    Most people like to listen to those pop songs because they make them feel like their on a seaworthy boat in the ocean, under the sun, riding parallel to the beach, looking at that blue fucking sky and sipping on something as they listen to those pop songs and feel that strong breeze hitting their face, pulling back their cheeks, and when they open their lips slightly, their cheeks pull back even more, and they sing along to those worthless lyrics.

    The challenge, I think, is to make art that plucks “reality's” heartstring AND makes you feel good, not depressed or recessed, but good good good.

    Sage Francis does it.

    I, on the other hand, have gotten nowhere. I like to write stories. I wouldn't say my stories make you feel good good good, they're not pop songs, they're not porn, but there are parts, snippets, that get inside and vibrate.

    • dave

      i enjoyed reading this, thank you, for sharing it; hit the mark.

      • dave

        that was for 'HEROCIOUS'

  • renew

    If you looked at the music of the underground you would know that people do sing about this kinda of thing. It is the same people who practice modern day gleaning (dumpster diving) ride frieght trains hitch hike learn about agriculture and live in a variety of communities. We look out for one another, share songs and art with one another and practically demonize most of the current american culture. Our music isnt heard because there aren't enough people who want to hear what we have to sing about or see the paintings we have to paint. If you want to know what this life is like, get rid of all the things you own and hit the road… learn to live without the things that we Americans are told we “need to have” to survive. Thats how i found out about an entire culture of people who live in hopes of something better. Thats how i found out about true music and art and beauty…”if you want to be perfect, sell all your things and follow me.” -Jesus Christ.

    • BlkBansidhe

      Renew … I hear you. See ya on the fringe.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NU7SI4QEX57NLBE76EJPEPNCFM brian

    have you heard Vaughn Trapp’s “Songs Of The Great Depression”?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NU7SI4QEX57NLBE76EJPEPNCFM brian

    have you heard Vaughn Trapp’s “Songs Of The Great Depression”?

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    […] grandparents grew up in a post-Great Depression era where the only concern was putting food on the table. If you were a man you needed to find a […]

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