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Music In The Meltdown

When all this is over, the economic crisis will take lasting form in the American consciousness as a video montage. The images are already familiar: traders gaping in horror at the Stock Exchange ... Paulson testifying before Congress ... A foreclosure notice tacked onto a front-porch door ... Obama selling the bailout ... The Chrysler headquarters posted for sale on Craigslist (well, not really, not yet). It is as easy to envision this string of images as it is to conjure a mental highlight reel of the visual iconography of the Great Depression: the Dust Bowl photography of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, newsreel clips of bread lines and Hooverville shacks--and all of it set to the sound of Rudy Vallee singing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" What, then, will play on the soundtrack of the montage of the current crisis? What is the music of our meltdown?

Last time around, popular culture moved a bit more slowly than it does in the Tweet era. The Tin Pan Alley composer Jay Gorney and the lyricist Yip Harburg did not write "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" until 1931, two years after Black Thursday. The song was not introduced until 1932, when it was inserted into a gently socio-political Broadway revue called New Americana, and it was not a hit until Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby took it on, in shifts of mode for them both. Vallee's and Crosby's records of the same song ended up among the top-ten hits of 1932.

This time, within a few months of the unraveling of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a dozen credible songs have taken up the collapse of the economy or its consequences, and at least twenty lesser efforts have been posted on MySpace and YouTube. "Brother" has a multiplying brood of great-grandchildren, including songs by old rock-and-roll grousers such as Neil Young ("Fork in the Road," from a new CD with the same title, and "Cough Up the Bucks" from that album), quasi-political hip-hop artists such as Young Jeezy ("The Recession," from a CD with that title), less-reactionary country singers such as John Rich ("Shuttin' Detroit Down"), and inveterately cranky indie-rock bands such as The Members ("International Financial Crisis"). Many more songs must be hatching. After all, Neil Young can dominate this terrain for only so long before we hear from Bruce Springsteen, and Young Jeezy cannot lay claim to this (or any) territory for long without an incursion from Kanye West. And where are Ani DiFranco and Billy Bragg when there is a topical song to be written?

Neil Young arrived early by taking short cuts, to use the kind of driving analogy, tossed-off and corny, that is common to the material on Fork in the Road, including the economically themed title song. The record is something of a concept album about car love, biotech, and the recession. Hastily composed and recorded with a ragtag little band in the vein of mid-1970s Crazy Horse, the album reaffirms Young's devotion to the old hippie precepts of indeliberation and zeal, simultaneously applied. Most of the songs--such as "Behind the Wheel," "Off the Road," "Hit the Road"--have interchangeable titles, chords, tunes, and words, and the general idea is to pay tribute (occasionally tempered) to those hoary symbols of American freedom and gluttony, heavy vehicles and highways, while advocating the use of biofuels.

Two of the songs deal explicitly, if simplistically, with the meltdown. In the title song, "Fork in the Road," Young sings, in his wonderfully preserved screechy whine, "There's a bailout coming but it's not for me/It's for all those creeps watching tickers on TV." He goes on:

I'm a big rock star
My sales have tanked
But I still got you--thanks
Download this
Sounds like shit

In "Cough Up the Bucks," he sings, at full croak:

Where did all the money go?
Where did all the cash flow?
Where did all the money go?

He makes a good point. The music does sound like shit, although its unabashed shittiness, its rude willingness to go wrong for good reasons--that is, in service to the whims of its creator and the moment of creation--help to give Fork in the Road (and much of Young's better work) its bite and its guileless veracity.

Neil Young's positions on the meltdown amount to puzzlement and bereavement. He does not question the primacy of capital in America or the glory of wealth; he wonders only why he isn't as rich as he used to be. In setting these thoughts to music, he is carrying on a tradition begun with the first songs to capture the country's reaction to the Great Depression. One of the biggest hits of 1929 turned out to be Bessie Smith's record of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," a song composed six years earlier by Jimmie Cox, a second-card singer and comedian in black vaudeville. As Smith sang,

Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spending my money, I didn't care
I carried my friends out for a good time
Buying bootleg liquor, champagne and wine
Then I began to fall so low
I didn't have a friend and no place to go

The sentiment of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" is umbrage at betrayal--not only betrayal by the singer's good-time friends, but also betrayal by wealth itself, with its promise to keep good times and friends in ample supply. The song was one of the first major crossover hits, and it has become a standard of Tin Pan Alley-style blues, recorded over the years by every blues-loving singer from Alberta Hunter and Big Joe Williams to Eric von Schmidt and Eric Clapton. Among the songs of the Great Depression, it is immeasurably significant, probably more consequential than "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" in that it played a major role in establishing blues, music of the black experience, in parity with white music in America.

Indeed, the lasting musical legacy of the Depression is not polemical songs overtly fixed on economic matters, but songs that express in vivid, idiosyncratic, personal terms the discontent of people with little hope--and the most potent of those songs were black, sung by African Americans or by whites imitating blacks, composed by African Americans or by whites drawing heavily from black music. In the year of the crash, Charlie Patton, one of the early masters of Delta blues, made his first recordings for Paramount, and they sold fairly well; the following year, he had a national hit with "High Water Everywhere," a story-song about the Louisiana flood that suggested the economic storm of the time as well. By 1933, the number-one record of the year was Ethel Waters's recording of "Stormy Weather" (by the blackest of the white Tin Pan Alley composers, Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Ted Koehler, another white writer who had worked on Cotton Club shows), and versions of the same song by Leo Reisman (a white bandleader) and Duke Ellington were numbers eleven and twelve.

Hip-hop, which deals with lingering issues of racial, social, and economic inequity through caricature and overcompensation, infamously reveling in bravura displays of material conquest and in overweening pride in its own infamy, does not do suffering or despair very well. The Southern rapper Young Jeezy, who recorded The Recession last year, before Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch fell, is atypically tentative on this, his third CD. The music is simple and blunt, built around lo-fi synth effects. The title track opens with a sound collage of overlapping bits from financial news broadcasts--"No one's whispering about the 'R' word anymore"; "The government has failed. ..." Young Jeezy enters the track in his usual persona of everynigga, rapping about gas prices and not having enough money to buy a bigger truck. In the concerns of his lyrics, he sounds unnervingly like Neil Young. Then comes the chorus, a set of declarations as simple and blunt as the music:

It's a recession, everybody broke
So I just came back to give everybody hope
Just looking out for folk, a gift and the whole nine
Nah, you don't owe me shit, and you
keep the whole nine

Keep in mind: when read on the page, Young Jeezy's language, like a lot of rapping, appears considerably more stupid than it feels when it is taken in as it is meant to be, as one element in a soundscape of beat, flow, and attitude. Jeezy's take on the recession is elementally optimistic, even boosterish. That positivity is of a piece with Jeezy's vanity. Jeezy makes clear--here and in several other songs on all three of his albums--that he feels a paternal, somewhat demeaning sense of duty to lift his fans' spirits through the "gift" of his attention, and he acts out of a faith in the self-reliance that helped make him rich and famous. As he sings in "My President," another topical song on The Recession, "History, Black history, no president ever did shit for me." Young Jeezy's self-reliance is such that it has no need for Barack Obama.

Over the past several months, the hard times have prompted hip-hop radio stations to rediscover "Hard Times," a Ludacris track from his 2003 album, Chicken-n-Beer. It is a loosely woven patchwork song with ragged-edged sections about common struggles of many sorts--a lover departs, the money is low, friends turn away. A plaintive, melancholy song about timeless hardships, its sentiments unspoiled by self-pity, "Hard Times" is a hip-hop inheritor to Charlie Patton's "High Water Everywhere," a piece of twenty-first-century blues.

Wherever one stands on the music of Young Jeezy and Ludacris, one should not confuse them with the various stunt rappers who have released songs about the economic crisis: Neal Fox, who wrote and performed "F**k the Fed," and Michael Adams, who did "I Want My Bailout Money." Both songs are parodies and employ hip-hop for its amenability to caricature; they are the musical equivalent of political cartoons, and what Ludacris is to Charlie Patton, Neal Fox and Michael Adams are to Ray Stevens and Weird Al Yankovic.

Not that there's anything wrong with a good laugh in bad times, of course. An expression of despair is scarcely the only legitimate artistic response to the experience of despair. In fact, this whole business of considering music in the context of economic upheaval grows unmanageable in scale when one considers the value of sheer entertainment as an escape from hardship. During the height of the Depression, in March 1932, Herbert Hoover called a meeting with Rudy Vallee in the White House, at which Hoover told Vallee that if he could "write a song to drive away the Depression," he would "rate a medal." Vallee demurred, instead recording "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" While the song became one of the biggest hits of the year, it was not at the top of the list. The number-one song was Cole Porter's silky "Night and Day," in a recording by Fred Astaire, who had sung it that year in Astaire and Rogers' glimmery, vapid farce, The Gay Divorcee. The number-two and number-three songs were "All of Me" and "Dinah." In a real sense, every song that provides release during a depressing time is a song of that depression.

On those terms, we could think of any number of contemporary pop hits as meltdown music. The most popular tunes of our day--the Black-Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow," which is number one as I write, and Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," which is number two--are dance tracks, social music of physical and emotional release, just as "Night and Day" and "All of Me" were in their time. (This is just a coincidence, and I don't mean to make too much of it, but the biggest hits of the two eras, "Boom Boom Pow" and "Night and Day" have, as the musical hooks of their title phrases, nearly identical three-note figures.) We certainly could think of songs such as "Boom Boom Pow" and "Poker Face" that way; but let's not.

Instead, let us consider a possibility we cannot yet see. If the events of the Great Depression have bearing on our time as precedent, they demonstrate how the collapse of prevailing economic, political, and social structures--the end of a kind of hegemony--cleared the way for historically disenfranchised people, African Americans and others in the underclasses, to give voice to their discontent in creative forms previously held in disrepute. The Depression brought blues to the pop charts and led to the rise of folk and country music. If new forms (musical or otherwise) emerge from the current meltdown, they might well be ones now held in such low esteem that we cannot begin to take them seriously yet. I do not know what they might be.

For informed counsel, I turned to a colleague whose taste I abhor, and he pointed me to a new genre of intolerable noise constructed either electronically, with computers, or with electrified instruments. Its purpose, he said, is to challenge prevailing standards of normalcy by "sounding as awful as possible." Its early advocates have given it a name, derived from the rock genre "shoegaze." It is called "shitgaze." I tend to doubt that it will blossom to become the dominant music of the coming years, though music critics for publications such as The New Republic felt the same way about blues a hundred years ago. For now, I am kind of tickled by the idea of shitgaze, as much as I am maddened by the sound of it. Maybe Neil Young is onto something. Perhaps the music appropriate to this shitty time should properly sound like shit.

David Hajdu is The New Republic's music critic.

By David Hajdu