Billy Bragg – To Have And Have Not

The melody seems to come from Rudy Can’t Fail by the Clash, or maybe their version of I Fought The Law. Like the Clash, Bragg is British, and his folk and protest music is punk-tinged.

This song communicates that the privileged aren’t better people than those less well off. It tries to correct a stereotype that those out of work aren’t in all cases lazy, but that they just have less opportunities than the upper class.  It came at a time of hardship for the working class in the 1980s, when even if industrious, may have found themselves struggling to get by, unemployed.

In politics “haves” and “have nots” are popular ways to describe economic classes of people in a fixed social structure. Here, the “haves” accumulate more and more wealth, at the expense of the “have nots.” In Marxist terms, these would be the bourgeosie and proletariats. Today, we have seen the division described as the 1 percent and 99 percent, from the Occupy Movement.

The title is also from the 1937 Ernest Hemingway novel, which became a film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

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The Everly Brothers – Man With Money

Phil (or Don) Everly complain in song that a girl whose affection is being sought only goes for rich guys.

Now, the narrator understands that money doesn’t make a man, and calls the girl a fool for thinking otherwise. Yet, he’s none too bright either, plotting to rob a store to win the girl.

The 1965 tune, also covered by The Who, certainly expresses some bitterness about poverty and social status in an America of opportunity. Decades later, such contempt for the so-called 1% of richest citizens wrought the Occupy Wall Street movement. In some incarnations in some places, this assemblage led to robbery and other lawlessness, although the Occupiers made important points about governments paying too much attention to corporations. The girl in this song – like social justice – remains at large.

R.E.M. – Finest Worksong

It can be hard to decipher R.E.M. given the singer’s deliberate mumbling, though gradually Michael Stipe came out of his shell. This song is from the band’s 1987 Document album. It appears to echo a familiar refrain from artists bemoaning consumerism – “What we want and what we need has been confused” – and has been interpreted as a dig at the free market, pro-capitalism administration of President Ronald Reagan. A reference in the lyrics to Henry David Thoreau, who took to a cabin in the woods for a few years, implies living simpler or rejecting this type of greedy society.

Well, one R.E.M. member went on to leave the band to take up farming, but do people see through rock stars bashing consumerism and capitalism? After all, there are no better examples of entrepreneurs than artists, who are self-employed, selling their art, and in the case of alternative rock giants like R.E.M., living comfortable lives as part of the 1%, not the Occupy 99%. Not to begrudge their success, of course.

If this is hypocrisy, R.E.M. would join a large crowd, so let’s keep their legacy intact. Take the song as a call to critically think through the status quo and not mindlessly follow whatever the dominant paradigm is, economically, socially and politically: “Take your instinct by the reins, your better best to rearrange,” Stipe suggests.

Pete Seeger – Little Boxes

You might know this 1963 song as the original opening music to the television program, Weeds, before protagonist Nancy Botwin literally burned down the suburbia criticized by the tune.

Given that so many people aspire to a detached home in a nice neighbourhood, the brief song is somewhat sanctimonious. Inside those copycat homes can still be vibrant families making contributions to their country. But the song does draw attention to the conformity wrought by urban planning and can remind us of the importance of not following the crowd. Going into business for martini lunches does not have to be the American dream, nor does a rambling folkster life in the vein of Seeger or Woody Guthrie cut it for others.

The dominant paradigm today in city planning is “mixed use” and density,” a shift away from the American Beauty-movie conception of suburbia which only hides so many problems; to combine residential living with businesses: to live on one floor, with a coffee shop and office space in the same building. The thought behind this also seeks to rectify the transportation needs of suburban commutes to downtowns, in the name of the environment. In short, Seeger’s song (actually, written by Malvina Reynolds), has been influential.

Now in his 90s, folkie Seeger continues his activism, at Occupy Movement marches. In decades past he has appeared before the House Un-american Activities Committee, opposed the Vietnam War, helped clean up the Hudson River… the list goes on. A self-described communist once called “Stalin’s Songbird,” in fact he adopts the argument that the atrocities of the Soviet Union were not about the ideology, as it was improperly applied.

Also by Seeger reviewed here: Where Have All The Flowers Gone

Cui Jian – Nothing to My Name

“Old Cui,” is considered the Father of Chinese Rock, with this, claimed to be the biggest hit in Chinese rock history. This mandarin language song from 1986 is considered one of the most influential tunes in modern Chinese history, for two reasons:

  1. because it was an advancement in rock music for the country (and broader scope is an effective alternative 80s tune anywhere), and;
  2. it became an anthem for protesters in 1989, at Tiananmen Square. Then, activists marched for further economic reforms, and also political reforms and freedom of the press (in other words, the kinds of liberties the Occupy Movement takes for granted).

The narrator of the song seems to be on the receiving end of a woman who believes he can do more with his life. “I want to give you my hope/I want to help make you free”: the song has also been interpreted to be for youth seeking ways to express themselves, and desiring more personal liberty to do so.

The song might just be about love, but we are free to re-interpret vague lyrics. It could become something more.

Opacity may be the only way to safely convey a political message in a totalitarian country that imprisons and executes enemies of the state.

The mixing of traditional Chinese sounds with modern pop may suggest the song is about more than romance. Significantly, Cui Jian (pronounced ‘swan jen,’ I believe) performed the song for protesters, and hid after the June 4-5 crackdown which saw (estimates really vary), a few hundred to a thousand killed by the People’s Liberation Army.

See also from this blog: A-Mei, Ting Hai

Nine Inch Nails – Letting You

From their 2008 release, The Slip, this Nine Inch Nails song is widely seen as a hard-hitting attack on George W. Bush as a warmonger. That many conspiracy theory minded types continue to hope the U.S. president can somehow be tried for war crimes, shows how polarizing the man remains, though he has been out of office for near four years now. The band refused to perform at the 2005 MTV Movie Awards, after not being permitted to do so in front of an image of Bush.

The chorus laments that we are letting the USA “get away with it,” which speaks to how so many citizens feel that the usual ballot box way of democracy is inadequate. We’ve seen the concrete manifestation of  this alienation with the Occupy Movement in the US, the Arab Spring in Libya, Egypt and elswhere, and even Quebec students demonstrating and rioting for months in Canada, protesting a postsecondary tuition increase proposal. It remains to be seen if such extralegal activities effect change beyond raising awareness. In turn the song itself does not suggest a course of action for U.S. imperialism.