It’s a struggle that dates back to the Plebeians and Patricians of Ancient Rome. It was personified by the populist crusade of Robin Hood in the Middle Ages. And it was settled quite violently during the French Revolution of the Enlightenment, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and all the strikes and skirmishes in between.
It endures to this day, obviously, with the 1% vs. the 99%.
So it’s no surprise that a such a timeless conflict has its ballads.
Honestly, there are so many songs about the subject, the ones I list below are chosen practically at random.
And yet, it’s all so terribly one sided. Every single song written on the subject seems to come from the side of the poor/working class.
I couldn’t find any songs about suppressing wages, circumventing the tax code, or buying a vacation home.
I’m not going to speculate as to why. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
In any case, here is a small sampling of what’s out there…
16 Tons – Merle Travis
When I was a kid, we used to sing this song in music class. It’s kind of a weird thing for a bunch of kids to be singing in school, when you think about it. But I remember wondering back then what exactly the “company store” was.
Well, now I know that these were basically just stores that sold food and other daily necessities. However, they were owned by the company that employed you.
Not only that, most of the low wage workers rented rooms, beds and sheets from their employer as well, effectively sending their entire paycheck right back where it came from.
Eventually, this gave rise to the company town – entire towns owned and operated by a private company.
The most famous of those was Pullman, Chicago, which was owned and operated by the Pullman train car company in the 1880s. This ultimately ended in disaster.
The economic panic of 1893 crushed Pullman’s business. The company slashed wages, but kept prices in its company stores, as well as the rents on its houses. The result was one of the largest strikes in U.S. history – the nationwide railroad strike of 1894.
Some 250,000 workers boycotted Pullman, riots caused $80 million in damages and 30 people were killed before the government stepped in.
It’s easy to forget that people died striking for things like fair wages and an eight-hour work day. But it happened.
The roots of class warfare run deep in America.
Kill the Poor – The Dead Kennedys
They say punk is dead, and in a sense, it is.
But the dream lives on.
Never before, or since, has musical rebellion been so direct, so hostile, so abrasive.
As a movement, punk rock was a direct assault on contemporary values – one that eschewed capitalism in favor of a lawless anarchy.
It raises the stakes far above the battle for decent wages and a respectable living to a fight for our very souls.
It’s not just about capitalism now, it’s about materialism. To a punk, the working man is stuck on a treadmill – a circular pursuit of material excess meant to keep us all in line.
He is governed by unjust hypocrites. Social orders are established not for the public good, but to protect and expand the interests of the elite.
Hence the lament of Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys whose morbid, hyperbolic satire set the standard for punk rock class warfare.
In “Kill the Poor,” Biafra sings of a world in which the wealthy finally exterminate the poor using a nuclear bomb…
“The sun beams down on a brand new day
No more welfare tax to pay
Unsightly slums gone up in flashing light
Jobless millions whisked away
At last we have more room to play
All systems go to kill the poor tonight…”
You almost wonder why rich people don’t do it – just eliminate all the “takers,” “thugs,” “punks,” and “welfare queens” in one fell swoop…
Maybe because if they did, there’d be no one to pick the crops, scrub the toilets, and clean the dishes.
Thatcher Fucked the Kids – Frank Turner
At the height of the 1980s U.S. punk movement, Ronald Reagan was the living embodiment capitalist excess, cronyism and inequity. As such, he was and a frequent target of the U.S. hardcore punk movement.
So too was his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher.
In fact, you could make the case that Thatcher was even more loathed.
This woman was so hated that when she died in 2013, “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” topped the UK iTunes chart for online downloads. (Punk song “I am in Love With Margaret Thatcher” got the number six spot.)
The Iron Lady has some very famous haters, too.
In his song “Tramp Down the Dirt,” Elvis Costello – who I always thought of as a mild-mannered guy – tells Thatcher: “There’s one thing I know I’d like to live long enough to savor. That’s the day when they finally put you in the ground. I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”
Where does all of this animosity come from?
Well, as with President Reagan in the U.S., there was a push towards privatization and away from government services. Public housing was sold off. The social safety net was scaled back. And the tax burden was shifted from the rich to the poor and middle class.
All of this created a situation whereby the late 1980s a small portion of U.K. was enjoying a boom, while the rest was suffering.
And so a lot of British people hate Margaret Thatcher.
That includes Frank Turner, a musician whose song “Thatcher Fucked the Kids” falls into the small “fuzz folk” or “folk punk” niche. It carries the same angry punk ethos but shifts the focus from ripping guitar chords to melodic arcs and lyrical story-telling.
It’s a satisfying melding. Sometimes, punk can be too grating and folk too boring. So you mash the two together and there’s a nice middle ground.
Changes – Tupac Shakur
It goes without saying Tupac died too soon.
But in addition to that obvious tragedy, one of the things I find so unfortunate about Tupac’s career was that the content of his music shifted from social plight to self-aggrandizement and childish feuds.
He went from rapping about police brutality, drug addiction, single mothers, sexism, and life growing up in a poor community, to rapping about drinking Alize, fucking groupies, and killing his enemies.
It was a huge waste of a mind, and a voice, that could be so profound, so incisive, and so transformative.
The song ‘Changes’ is kind of obvious or cliché, but it’s also Tupac at his best. You can see how many of the thoughts he posits remain relevant 20 years later…
“Cops give a damn about a negro,
Pull a trigger kill a nigger, he’s a hero…”
“We ain’t ready to see a black president…”
“There’s war on the streets and war in the Middle East
Instead of a war on poverty,
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me…”
So it’s really no surprise that when he wasn’t smoking weed and downing thug passion at a club, Tupac managed to build a movement, what he called “Thug Life.”
People hear that phrase and think it’s just gangsta slang, but it wasn’t. Thug Life was a call for change. It was a philosophy that recognized of the failings our socioeconomic system, but also advocated for improvement from within.
On the one hand, Tupac never blamed anyone for doing something illegal or outside the system to survive or get ahead. If you need to sell crack to feed yourself or your family, then you need to sell crack.
That’s just the way it is.
But on the other hand, if you’re just an absentee father, running the streets and shirking your responsibilities… Well, that’s a problem, too.
I look at where so many 90s rappers ended up. Dr. Dre is hawking Beats. Ice Cube is doing family-friendly movies. Snoop Lion is doing whatever the hell he’s doing. I wonder what Tupac would be doing if he were alive today.
Would he be out there selling 2pac brand liqueur? Or would he be saying some real shit?
I wish he were still around, and that more wisdom and maturity would have come with age. I wish he would have turned away from all the trouble that money, guns, and hos bring, and instead focused on the social plight he opined on with such sincere poetry.
I wish he refined the Thug Life message and reached his full potential as a powerful voice in American society.
On one level, Tupac’s death is the same tragedy we see every day – the tragedy of another young black male lost to gang violence.
But it’s also the tragedy of a man who was strong enough to survive five gunshot wounds, but weak enough to succumb to the material excess wrought by his creative talent and entrepreneurial success.
It’s the tragedy of a visionary artist, a genius, whose mind couldn’t navigate the booby traps inherent in our society to fully exploit the opportunity that abounds.