Thursday, October 13, 2011

Six Song Six-Pack - Pictures From Life's Other Side

This week has finally seen the media start to recognize and give full weight to the protests of economic inequality which started on Wall Street but have spread throughout the nation. Any rational measure would show that most Americans have a lot to be angry about. Currently we enjoy the most unequal distribution of total wealth since 1929. Indeed, the top 23% of Americans control 80% of assets and the richest 400 people in our great land have as much wealth at the poorest 150 million.

What makes this especially galling is how separated the worlds of the haves and the have-nots have become. The current recession (which may have technically ended, but, let's face it, still grasps the throats of most Americans) has pushed tens of millions of families to or over the brink of ruin while leaving those in the upper echelons of society relatively untouched. These separate worlds can be seen in microcosm with trends such as shelters being flooded by abandoned pets while elsewhere organic foods and doggie beds sell like hotcakes.

It is with this in mind that On Warmer Music offers up a six-pack of songs looking at the difficulties of life faced by those on the bottom of the economic ladder. Since honestly, indie (or whatever you wanna call it) music is the realm of a mostly educated (not necessarily a precursor to wealth) and originally well-off (bingo!) audience, it's helpful to remind those who are doing well (or at least getting by) about the realities faced by those a lot, or a little farther down the economic ladder. These are songs that don't preach but merely offer a window into what people suffer through, the solutions are up to you.

1. To Have And Have Not - Billy Bragg  Buy Back To Basics.
As with so much of Billy Bragg's work, he wrote this song over two decades ago but reads like it was penned last week. "To Have And Have Not" was written about Maggie Thatcher's Britain in the early 1980's, but, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Bragg sings about the loss of opportunity and the betrayal of those who worked hard and sent their kids to school over a simple guitar riff that cuts to the bone.  Lines like "the truth is, son, it's a buyer's market / they can afford to pick and choose", "I've come to see in the land of the free / there's only a future for the chosen few" and "just because I dress like this / doesn't mean I'm a Communist" ring sadly as true today as ever. At least anyone with knowledge of four guitar chords and decent snarl has the perfect weapon to fight these trends.

2. A Picture From Life's Other Side - Woody Guthrie  Buy Ramblin' Round.
The song from which this post takes it's title is a classic example of one of the legends of political songwriting who was able to write deft sketches that bled conviction without boring or preaching. In "A Picture From Life's Other Side", Woody Guthrie humanizes the often faceless mass that is casually referred to as "the poor" or more likely euphamized as "the less fortunate", "the working people", "the less well-to-do" or some other whitewashed phrase. He talks about the familial connections and human hopes that all of us share and show how poverty can randomly and cruelly squash them for those without means. A brother forced to kill his own kin for money, a mother unable to feed her child, a man forced to gamble away his mother's wedding ring - these are examples of situations that many never contemplate while others live with daily. It's a powerful argument for Marx's claim that "all history is the history of class warfare".

3. We Don't Care - Kanye West  Buy The College Dropout.
Kanye West is an asshole, but that's not the point. Whatever the man's flaws (by which I mean the boundaries are debatable, not the existence), he's always had a keen eye and an ability to understand and articulate the modern black experience in a way that is both personally empathetic and analytically astute. The lead (musical) track from his breathtaking debut album showcases this in style. 'Yeezy's raps show why drug dealing is often a last resort for those born with few options, why traditional schooling fails to speak to desperately poor black youth and how the disintegration of social ties (like nuclear families) and societal ties (like strong communities with role models) perpetuate a cycle of poverty and violence that saps people's hearts and souls. "We wasn't 'sposed to make it past twenty-five / joke's on them, we still alive" West sings behind a tinkling, singsong score, turning mere survival into an act of defiance. This is as good a diagnosis of America's inner-city decay as any I've seen. Plus, you can sing along to it.

4. Johnny 99 - Bruce Springsteen  Buy Nebraska.
Any one of the ten tracks on Bruce Springsteen's dark and masterful 1984 album Nebraska could have fit into this playlist. Written in the teeth of Reaganomics, it was a document of the searing pain caused by economic hardship and the violence and mayhem that that inevitably leads to. Lines such as "it was more than all this / that put that gun in my hand" are repeated in different songs, as if to show that economic pain echoes across lives and across the country. "Johnny 99" is a traditional outlaw song about a man who loses his job and becomes a criminal (see below). He is quickly caught and gets hauled into court where he makes a dark confession. He admits that he'd "be better off dead" and could be killed for "the thoughts that are in his head". He admits this freely but notes that he was unemployed and faced with losing his house. Although the hero is sent to jail for life, the message that despair can turn good men dark echoes throughout the harshly strummed lyrics.

5. Bankrobber - The Clash  Buy The Essential Clash.
Speaking of folk hero outlaws, Joe Strummer (who originally renamed himself after Woody Guthrie) was always one to idolize them, and in 1980, he created an immortal one of his own. "Bankrobber" was perhaps the Clash's first full-on reggae song (no rock to muddle it up) and it's production from Mikey Dread gave it the sound of being recorded underwater. It was a single only release but it dominated Britain during the summer of its release, perhaps due to both it's mult-racial appeal as well as it's populist lyrics. The robber of the title is, of course, a man who "never hurt nobody" but decided to rob banks rather than submit to the demands and limited options that society gave him. He sees that inequality will always exist but, like the singer in "Cheat" realizes that following orders and rules is only agreeing to play a rigged game. Instead of "break[ing] your back to earn your pay" and groveling for the opportunity, he fights the system. It's a hard life that may end prematurely and violently, but the song celebrates burning out on your own terms rather than failing on someone else's. A case study in jouaissance perhaps?

6. The Righteous Path - Drive-By Truckers   Buy Brighter Than A Creation's Dark.
The Drive-By Truckers may have received some inspiration from The Clash, but their characters never populate worlds as idealistic as Joe Strummer's. In "The Righteous Path", Patterson Hood inhabits a man who's played the game that Strummer's bankrobber eschewed all his life and is only now realizing just how screwed that's made him. It would be easy for Hood to veer into patronizing caricature with lyrics like "I've got a couple of opinions that I hold dear / got a whole lotta debt and a whole lotta fear" and "I don't know God / but I fear his wrath" but he invokes pathos rather than condescension. The singer gets no real solace throughout the song other than the fact that, though these burdens are his, he's by no means unique or alone. Ultimately, his is not a life rife with pontification but that's out of self-preservation as much as anything else. Hood concludes that there's "no time for self-pity or self-righteous crap / just tryin' to stay focused on the righteous path" which, even if we do engage self-pity or worse, is probably the situation we'll all find ourselves in at some point. At least we've got a soundtrack for it.

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