Here at Flavorwire, we’re seriously going to kill someone if we hear “in this economy” used much more as a catch-all excuse for just about everything. Still, there’s no doubt that we do live in straitened economic times, and with the NME‘s Listomania blog recently posting a bunch of songs about money, we got to thinking about songs about a much more familiar experience these days – not actually having any money. There have been some great songs written about being dead broke over the years, and we’ve pulled together ten of our favorites after the jump.
The Notorious BIG – “Juicy”
Strictly, this song is about not being broke any more, but the descriptions of Biggie’s childhood poverty in its lyrics remain evocative and moving: “We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us/ No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us/ Birthdays was the worst days…” Perhaps the best thing about this song, though, is that there’s no semblance of boastfulness about the way its composer’s fortunes have changed, just a sense of gratitude to have escaped penury and to be able to share newfound wealth with friends and family. Truly, he was one of the great ones.
Janis Joplin – “Me and Bobby McGee”
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” is surely a contender for the title of Most Bittersweet Line Ever Penned. You’re broke, you’re homeless, and Bobby has shot through and left you with a broken heart – well, things can only get better, eh? (And yes, before you jump all over our ass in the comments, we know Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster wrote this, not Janis – but her version is the definitive one.)
Nirvana – “Something in the Way”
This song chronicles Kurt Cobain’s time sleeping rough under the Young Street Bridge in Aberdeen, WA. The bridge has now become a de facto shrine to the late Nirvana singer, as we discovered when we visited last week.
The Clash – “Career Opportunities”
The Clash were always one of the most down-to-earth bands in music – it’s hard to imagine many rock ‘n’ roll outlaws writing about a trip to the job center. This song chronicles both the grinding tedium of the jobs you get forced into (“Do you want to make tea at the BBC?”) and the fact that, ultimately, resistance is futile (“If they want to get me, well, I got no choice”). There’s no I-fought-the-law-style romanticism here, just a sense of resignation and fatalism.
Patti Smith – “Free Money”
Anyone who’s read Just Kids will know that Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe did it pretty damn tough during the ’70s – although this song is apparently about Smith’s mother, who would habitually dream about winning the lottery without ever buying a ticket, it’s not hard to draw a connection between its lyrics and her own financial struggles. The worst thing about being broke is that you spend so much time thinking about it – an experience Smith evokes with the line, “Every night before I rest my head/See those dollar bills go swirling ’round my bed,” before cataloging all the things she could do, if only she had the cash. Still, ultimately this is an optimistic song – after all, as Smith observes, “When we dream it… we dream it for free.”
Pulp – “Common People”
It’s depressing enough being broke and having no prospects, but it’s even worse when you have to endure your poverty in the company of rich kids slumming it (something, perhaps, that might explain the crime spree in Bushwick of late). In his band’s breakthrough hit, Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics absolutely eviscerate one such vapid dilettante, building up to the dénouement where he sneers, “Laugh along with the common people/ Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you/ And the stupid things that you do/ Because you think that poor is cool.” SLAP.
Cee-Lo Green – “Fuck You”
The tune is deceptively jaunty, and the video’s great fun, but there’s a real undercurrent of bitterness in the lyrics to “Fuck You” (as the title would kinda suggest). It’s a pretty terrible scene being in love with someone who thinks spending a heap of cash on them is the way to prove the depth of your affection – it’s easy to tell yourself that someone concerned with material wealth isn’t really worth your time anyway, but sometimes, it’s not so easy to make yourself believe it. In the end, it comes down to a simple equation: “If I was richer/ I’d still be with you/ Now ain’t that some shit?” Ain’t it just.
Sonny and Cher – “I Got You Babe”
Pretty much the polar opposite to “Fuck You,” this is a charmingly romantic portrait of a relationship not only enduring poverty, but growing the stronger for shared adversity. Sonny and Cher might not have been the most harmonious couple in reality, but this song remains beautiful and heartfelt.
Woody Guthrie – “I Ain’t Got No Home”
Plenty of Guthrie’s songs were about the privations of being poor – unsurprising, perhaps, since by the time he was 14 he was fending for himself on the streets of the small town in Oklahoma where he grew up. You could include pretty much anything off Dust Bowl Ballads here, but we’ve gone for his portrait of the plight of the itinerant worker, a song that rings as true in 2011 as it did in 1944 – the details may have changed, but the underside of the American dream remains the same.
Eminem – “If I Had”
Another portrayal of the working poor, written some 55 years after “I Ain’t Got No Home” but containing pretty much exactly the same sentiments: despair and disillusionment. “I’m tired of jobs startin’ off at five fifty an hour,” snarls Eminem, “then this boss wonders why I’m smartin’ off?” The song reflects the experience of millions of people stuck in shitty dead-end jobs; Eminem eventually got his million dollars and got out, but the system hasn’t changed an iota.