Like most writers, I am a tiny bit obsessed with music. Which is, admittedly, wholly unrelated to the fact I cover Wall Street and noticed this week that more than 10 million Americans remain out of work -- at least according to the latest blizzard of stunningly disappointing data from the U.S. Labor Department.
In the past, our tired, poor and huddled masses of unemployed could at least take some solace in not-happy-to-be-unemployed noises (think Irving Berlin’s Slumming on Park Avenue or Bing Crosby’s Brother Can You Spare a Dime?).
Not so this time around, despite the protracted pain in the labor market. Last month, unemployment rates fell in four-fifths of U.S. states, mostly due to jobless Americans throwing up their hands and giving up on their job searches. The change in numbers had nothing to do with employers adding jobs to the pool – in fact, there were only 74,000 new jobs added – a pitiful number, and the lowest in three years.
If nearly 7 percent of the U.S. population is not working – and that’s not even counting those who choose not to work – why don’t we see any Million Unemployed Man Marches on Washington? It has been more than five years since the credit crisis. Where are the songs of mass discontent, where is our version of Billie Holiday belting I Gotta’ Right to Sing the Blues?
It takes nine months, on average, for someone who has been laid off to find another job. That’s plenty of time to strike up a clamor with the other unemployed, if one feels like it.
Here’s the problem: these days, not making a lot of money — and especially being unemployed — is tantamount to wearing a scarlet letter. Professionally, it’s rough. But socially, it is a death sentence.
Which brings me back to popular music, the best reflection of our culture I can think of. During the money-crazed 80s we had plenty of songs about money, but most of them were ironic. (At least the best ones.)
Money For Nothing (Dire Straits)
Big Time (Peter Gabriel)
Money Changes Everything (Cyndi Lauper)
I Want It All (Queen)
All She Wants (Duran Duran)
How To Be A Millionaire (ABC)
Material Girl (Madonna)
In the new millennium, there’s different sentiment driving the Money Song, one that celebrates the unapologetic chasing of the dollar. We have a bumper crop of odes to the almighty dollar that are cravenly irony-free. Even the traditional love song has been replaced by a new kind of dirge devoted to romancing the size of one’s wallet.
Beautiful, Dirty, Rich and Money Honey (Lady Gaga)
In Da Club (50 Cent, from his Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ CD)
Give Me Everything and Hey Baby (Pitbull)
Ride Wit Me (Nelly)
Rich Girl (Gwen Stefani; “borrowed” from Fiddler on the Roof and stripped of all its depth)
Gold Digger (Kayne West)
Work B**** (Britney Spears)
And the list goes on.
The nature of money hasn’t changed, but we have.
Money has become our No. 1 priority -- and, what’s more, we have made those who are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs feel it is their fault. Not the fault of our leaders, who have long known the depth of our problems but fail to do anything about them. Nor of our society, which isn’t offended by members of Congress having fancy second and third homes while millions of Americans lose the only ones they have.
The worst part of all this is that to many of our unemployed do feel ashamed, although what has happened to them over the past six years is systemic. Feeling this way, who can blame them for not wanting to stand up and holler instead of remaining as invisible as possible until they have jobs again?
And then, along comes New Zealander Ella Yelich-O’Connor – the teenage sensation otherwise known as Lorde – with her black lipstick and Gothy sartorial flourishes, kicking open pop stardom’s gold-plated gates with her combat boots.
Her two Grammys this week marked a cultural turning point in a society exhausted by consumerism: Lorde speaks for the masses when she openly flouts “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece; jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash” in Royals, which was named song of the year this week. She also won a Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance.
A teenager has said what millions of adults could not. (And at the end of the show she dryly noted, “the weirdo had won out.”)
Lorde’s music is not ironic like the songs of the 80s. It is not worshipful of the dollar like so many songs at the turn of the millennium. Her songs are simply unabashedly disdainful of a culture that tells her what to say, what to think and, at the same time, would demand she, ahem, “Work B****” (as Britney exhorts) for that Maserati.
Not being a mindless subject seems to be a major theme of Lorde’s album Pure Heroine (clearly a reference to the pop singer herself). In keeping with her stage name, Lorde makes no secret of the fact she wants to rule, not be ruled. “You can call me Queen Bee,” she says in Royals, a sort of emancipation proclamation for anyone who “didn’t come from money,” as the song states, and shrugs off pressure to buy a Cadillac to instead “ride the train to the party.”
Lorde isn’t the first to put her finger on this societal pulse – remember torch singer Norah Jones, replying “Target,” when asked “Who are you wearing?” by a gushing red carpet interviewer at the 2003 Grammys? And at the latest Grammys, hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis received two awards for their huge hit poking fun at conspicuous consumption, Thrift Shop.
Lorde’s voice, however, has been the loudest, and clearest. Above the rising din that extols status symbols even as millions struggle to find jobs, she says, “We don’t care, we’re not caught up in your love affair.”
Now, with two Grammys in hand and millions bowing down to her, it will be interesting to see how Lorde will handle the fortunes that will undoubtedly be coming to her.