Broke(n) Records
The Recession's in Every Refrain As Pop Music Reflects on Hard Times

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

For Neil Young's next release, "Fork in the Road," the venerated, if occasionally vexing, rocker has created a concept album about electric cars. But Young takes a detour on at least two tracks to work with a suddenly popular songwriting topic: the cratering economy.

On "Cough Up the Bucks," Young wonders, in his high, nasally whine: "Where did all the money go?"

And on the title track's chorus, he turns indignant: "There's a bailout coming, but it's not for you/It's for all those creeps hiding what they do."

Young's contributions are just two of the more recent entries to the rapidly expanding recession-music playlist. It's a mix that's spilling over with tunes by artists who sound dejected, determined, enraged, anxious and, occasionally, sort of amused by the financial meltdown.

Indeed, the global financial crisis is providing fodder to all manner of musicians, from rock legends and country singers to folkies and rappers. Contributions from rappers are especially notable, with more and more hip-hop artists forgoing, or at least decreasing, lyrics about excessive materialism in favor of ones about the common man's economic grind, as heard on recent songs by Jadakiss ("Hard Times"), Cam'ron ("I Hate My Job"), Joell Ortiz ("Bout My Money") and Willie Isz, a Georgia duo whose "In the Red" imagines a world without money.

The members of Willie Isz have called the potent song a cross between John Lennon's "Imagine" and the epochal Great Depression song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" But it sounds more like a Southern-rap update of the Carter Family's enduring 1930s anthem "No Depression in Heaven," with Jneiro Jarel rapping: "If everything was free, the world would be a better place/For you and me/Don't you agree?/No more poverty/. . . There would be no bank robberies/The crime life would stop/America would be at peace."

There's also "Circulate" by Young Jeezy, the Southern rap star who last year released a chart-topping album loaded with lyrics about economic struggle. Called "The Recession" (although at the time of its release, in September, economists hadn't declared that the U.S. economy was in a recession), the album marked a departure for the Atlanta rapper who became famous -- and, yes, rich -- spinning tales of dope boys living large.

Although Jeezy didn't actually strip his lyrics of references to his Lamborghini, he was suddenly questioning his free-spending ways, rapping: "Looking at my watch like it's a bad investment." In an interview with XXL magazine, he explained that he was something like a hip-hop Suze Orman: "When money was plentiful, I was the first one to tell you to stack it. Live your life with it. Now that money's slowed up, I'ma be the first one to tell you to save it like they ain't gon' make it no more."

And yes, a wealthy rap star can still relate to the plight of the common man, Jeezy insisted. "I got family members, aunts, uncles and cousins and friends that still live their life," he said. "It definitely affects me when I get the phone calls and somebody's about to get put out of their house . . . somebody can't pay their bills and there ain't really a lot of opportunity out there for you."

In January, Nashville star John Rich dashed off "Shuttin' Detroit Down," a rant about the government's hesitation to save the American automotive industry. "In the real world, they're shuttin' Detroit down," Rich seethes. "While the boss man takes his bonus pay and jets on out of town/And D.C.'s bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground."

Country singer-songwriter Phil Vassar seemed to have presaged the housing crisis when he was working up the title track of his 2008 album, "Prayer of a Common Man." It's a country-gospel ballad on which Vassar sings almost pleadingly: "This house of cards I built is mortgaged to the hilt/And it's sinking in the sand/Lord, hear the prayer of a common man."

The old folkie Tom Paxton took a different approach in writing about federal bailouts, turning satirical on "I'm Changing My Name to Fannie Mae," an update of his topical 1979 song "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler." In the new version, Paxton sings: "I am changing my name to Fannie Mae/I am going down to Washington, D.C./I'll be glad they got my back/Cause what they did for Freddie Mac/Will be perfectly acceptable to me."

Todd Snider, an alternative-country artist from Nashville, sings about money woes throughout his upcoming album, "The Excitement Plan." But the economic theme was accidental.

"I didn't mean for it to be about money, but when I got done with the album, it seemed like it was," Snider says in an interview. "I didn't realize how much I was mentioning how poor we are. I think that's because I'm not like a rich singer, and I'm going through it, too. You can kind of hear a person saying to himself, 'Keep your chin up.' "

The recent proliferation of songs about the economy is no surprise, given the long and rich history of tunes about hard times. During the Great Depression, musicians summed up the prevailing sentiments of the struggling country, whether it was Woody Guthrie singing his Dust Bowl ballads ("Do Re Mi," "Tom Joad," "I Ain't Got No Home"), Blind Alfred Reed wondering "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" or Yip Harburg writing about the disintegration of the American dream in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Although record sales weren't exactly thriving during the period, Harburg's song became a hit for both Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. The work resonated because it served as a musical mirror, reflecting people's experiences and sentiments.

"People definitely identified with songs like that and 'One Meatball,' which are like sonic pictures of that period," says Smithsonian Folklife Collections archivist Jeff Place, who two years ago produced the album "If You Ain't Got the Do-Re-Mi: Songs of Rags and Riches" for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. "They're songs about a bleak time," Place says. "A lot of people could identify with them because they were about what was going on."

In the intervening years, there have been plenty of songs about financial struggle, from growing up poor (Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors"), being surrounded by poverty (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message") and working hard to stave off poverty (Merle Haggard's "Workin' Man's Blues") to the plight of the homeless ("Another Day in Paradise" by Phil Collins), class warfare ("Kill the Poor" by the Dead Kennedys) and the devastating effects of shutting steel mills and factories (Billy Joel's "Allentown," Bruce Springsteen's "Johnny 99," James McMurtry's "We Can't Make It Here Anymore").

Of course, not every artist writing about the economy is making somber music. "I'm Broke and Proud," by New York rapper Rugged N Raw and New Jersey's Hasan Salaam, adds much-needed levity to the recessionary playlist with a humorous approach that suggests Weird Al making like an underground backpack rapper.

Over a galloping reggaeton beat, Rugged N Raw decides it's better to celebrate his empty pockets than to cry about them, rapping playfully about eating mayonnaise sandwiches, washing his clothes in the sink, taking dates to free museums, drinking off-brand beverages and taking a vacation cruise on the Staten Island Ferry.

"There's not a lot I can make possible/Only cheap ideas in the arsenal," he rhymes. And, later: "When my food falls on the floor/I yell 'five-second rule!' and kiss it up to God."

Then comes the kicker, in the "I'm Broke and Proud" video: Salaam and Rugged N Raw "make it rain," co-opting an ostentatious move that became de rigueur in high-gloss rap videos when times were good. But instead of throwing stacks of cash in the air, they throw coupons.

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