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?