A Dollar Is What I Need
I spent three and a half years in New York City before being called for jury duty, and I was impressed with myself for flying under the radar for so long, since Massachusetts came after me as the smoke was still clearing from my 18th birthday candles. I was new to my job at the digital arm of a business-news glossy, and was apprehensive about asking for time off for jury duty, which could last half a day or half a month. But I was compelled (okay, legally obligated) to do my civic duty, so I took the subway to a Queens courthouse instead of Conde Nast’s offices on the morning of 15 September 2008.
My fellow potential jurors and I were herded into a large holding pen, where we would spend the majority of the morning. Our keepers pulled two projector screens from the ceiling and showed, on one, the perennial favourite Jurassic Park. On the other they clicked on CNN, the US’s default 24-hour news channel. A major story was unfolding: America’s looming financial crisis had made landfall. Overnight, two of the country’s main investment houses had disappeared. There were live shots of Wall Street and Midtown, of employees streaming from the buildings, stereotypical houseplants peeking from cardboard boxes. On the screen to the left, the T-Rex was steadily obliterating expensive vehicles, careless with the little lives being crushed inside. It was depressingly symbolic.
The credit crisis was upon us, and in the next few years it would wreak havoc on global markets, employment numbers, nest eggs, and the American psyche. By the next summer, parks were packed during regular business hours. While many small shops were forced to close their doors, bars saw business boom in what should have been the dead of night, their residential neighbours the victims of a warped circadian rhythm created by joblessness. There were rumours that Manhattan’s blood bank ran dry; for all they were vilified, the Wall Street brokers were the first to line up for Red Cross blood drives. Now they simply weren’t in the neighbourhood.
But adversity breeds creativity; and like the misfortunes that had come before it, the Great Recession inevitably spawned art. Bitterness abounded as the public accused Wall Street of carelessness with Main Street. As the banks were bailed out, the average worker was learning words like furlough. 2008’s economic downturn was not born of an outsized interest in a random product, or the seemingly limitless fortune in a transformative technology; people couldn’t help but feel a sense of betrayal towards the institutions that had supposedly been set up to support them.
And so the music of the time took on a tone of ‘us versus them’, critiquing the government and examining the influences the credit crisis would have on the working-age public trying to thrive in the midst of the Second Depression. The cathartic compositions that popped up in the late noughties and early teens spanned genre, age, and geography, much like the recession itself. Some artists, such as Loudon Wainwright, with 10 Songs for the New Depression, and Young Jeezy, with The Recession, dedicated whole albums to the new world order. Some pieces told the story of working-class couples and the struggles they faced, much like the blue-collar anthems of Bruce Springsteen. Others were lyrically literal.
Below, a sampling of some credit-crisis standouts.
5. Green Day: 21st Century Breakdown, from 21st Century Breakdown, 2009.
21st Century Breakdown is written in the style of a rock opera, meaning that the entire album loosely follows the same storyline. It tells the tale of Christian and Gloria, a couple from Detroit, Michigan, a city that once enjoyed the cultural distinction of being the centre of two major American industries (automobiles and music) but, by the end of the 20th century, was in rapid decline. The title track introduces us to two generations who will be hit hard as the economy collapses: a man born in ’72, who “never made it as a working-class hero,” and the graduating class of 2013, who will enter the workforce at a time when unemployment is at historic highs.
4. Angie Fisher, IRS, from IRS (single), 2014.
Quite blatantly directed at the US government (the IRS, or Internal Revenue Service, is America’s version of HM Revenue & Customs), IRS is sung from the point of view of an impoverished musician hoping to make ends meet before selling her instrument has to become an option. “2,000 bucks would save my life” is a focal line, driving home the point that the public didn’t need multibillion-dollar loans, but just a simple working wage to survive. There’s a funny dose of irony in the Grammy-nominated song’s backstory as well: it was Fisher’s former boss – at Bank of America – who encouraged her to quit the finance industry to pursue music full-time.
3. Constantines: Credit River, from Kensington Heights, 2008.
A guitar-heavy rock song, Credit River examines exactly the subject you’d expect: the trouble caused by living off credit instead of actual, tangible cash. Bankruptcy is mentioned straight out of the gate, and the song makes an allusion to “fancy banks” as it nears an end. But the video is the most vivid aspect of this timely artwork: dated black and white images of banks, the stock market, cash changing hands, and general greed are interspersed with footage of a massive demolition.
2. Aloe Blacc, I Need A Dollar, from Good Things, 2010.
A bluesy song that wouldn’t have been out of place in our list of songs of the Depression, I Need a Dollar tackles the issues of layoffs, unemployment, and the victimisation felt by the general public. What is perhaps the most poignant line comes early in the song: “Bad times are coming and I reap what I don’t sow.”
1. Jenny & Johnny, Big Wave, from I’m Having Fun Now, 2010.
Big Wave, from indie darling Jenny Lewis and her then-boyfriend Johnathan Rice, gets top marks for addressing the credit crisis head-on. The song opens with a pretty literal description of what happened, both on the sides of the public and of the banks, in the years leading up to and following 2008: “We’re spending what we haven’t made/ And we save our money in good faith/ And we work hard for our living wage/ But still the banks got to break.” Still, despite the gloomy, and truthful, lyrics, the song is sunny and up-tempo, with a California feel (strange, perhaps, as Rice was raised part-time in none other than Glasgow). Worth a listen for both the history lesson and the sensation that, just maybe, things are on the up.