Songs of 2012 mirror economic struggle

Kendrick Lamar performs onstage at the 2012 BET Hip Hop Awards.

Certain themes come up over and again in pop music: love, heartbreak, and... the economy? Okay, even if there aren't songs about the debt limit or the fiscal cliff, there were a number of pop songs this year about economic hardship and about how we deal with economic issues.

One theme stood out this year to Mikael Wood. He's a music writer for the Los Angeles Times.

"I think you saw sort of a lot of songs that spoke to, or at least tried to speak to, some notion of struggle," Wood said.

Wood pointed to a new anthem by Bruce Springsteen called "We Take Care of Our Own."

I've been knockin' on the door that holds the throne. I've been lookin' for the map that leads me home. I've been stumblin' on good hearts turned to stone. The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone. We take care of our own. We take care of our own.

"In the song, he sort of positions himself with these people that are trying to, you know, identify themselves opposite the power structure," Wood said.

It's a role Springsteen reprised a couple of months ago, after Superstorm Sandy hit his home state. The Rolling Stones sang about struggle on their new album.

And Mikael Wood said we heard a new take on economic hardship in hip-hop this year. The struggle, he said, intensified. Rick Ross released an album called "God Forgives, I Don't."

I see how these n***** playin'. But I can adapt.  These haters can't hold me back. These haters can't hold me back.

"It's him, laying out the struggle that it took him to arrive at his sort of rarified position now," Wood said.

I look in my fridge, my s*** lookin' scarce. I got a few kids, we need some s***on the shelf. I get a knock at the door, they say my rent overdue. And while my n***** sell dope and don't know what else to do.

Mikael Wood says there's something novel about these lyrics: "You never would have heard a rapper acknowledging it that it took work to get to where he is. I think that is a new mindset."

Everything whipped well, I'm eatin' steak, no more soup. Then I parked the Capri, I went and got me a Coupe.

That kind of struggle is something Mark Anthony Neal also heard in hip-hop this year. He teaches in the African-American studies department at Duke. Neal singles out another rapper, Kendrick Lamar, who just released an album called "good kid, m.A.A.d city."

I woke up this morning, and figured I'd call you, in case I'm not here tomorrow. I'm hoping that I can borrow a peace of mind. I'm behind on what's really important. My mind is really distorted. I find nothing but trouble in my life. I'm fortunate you believe in a dream. This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine.

"And throughout the album there are these interesting skits where his mother is leaving voicemail messages," Neal said.

Record your message after the tone...  Kendrick, where you at? I gotta go to the county building, man. These kids ready to eat. I'm ready to eat. I gotta get them food stamps. C'mon now. You on your way, or what?

In 2012, performers didn't sugarcoat the struggle. It's something they laid bare.

"You get an artist like Kendrick Lamar, who, in most world views, is a hip-hop star," Neal said. "But even as someone who is a star, who now has this incredible album that everyone is listening to, he still lives tenuously close to this working class experience."

That experience was also central to a lot of Latin music this year. It's something La Exelencia, a New York-based salsa group, focused on.

"They call it 'salsa con consciencia' -- salsa with a conscience," said Catalina Maria Johnson, who hosts a Chicago-based radio show called Latino Beat. "And often their lyrics are directed specifically at social and political topics. So, while you're dancing, you're thinking too, at the same time."

Vivo de cheque en cheque para sobre vivir. Pago mitad de las deudas para poder me divertir.

"He says, my kids are yelling. There's no more cereal. I have to, like, struggle to pay taxes and the bankers pay nothing.  The rich get richer. The poor get poorer."

Johnson said in 2012, many artists seemed fed up. Los Angeles Times music writer Mikael Wood said we heard a sense of frustration in another genre, in a different way: "We had this preponderance of songs where young pop stars are talking about partying like it's all going down. We need to live it up because we might not have tomorrow."

Stars like Ke$ha, Justin Bieber and the band fun.

Tonight we are young. So, let's set the world on fire. We can go higher.

Wood said those songs are defiant and escapist -- and they're not about long-term happiness.

"I mean, obviously, pop stars have been about having fun for, since time immemorial," Wood said. "But putting a date stamp on it almost seems like a new development."

The recession may have officially ended more than three years ago. But music from 2012 echoes what we already know. Times are still tough, and a lot people are still taking it one day at a time.


We asked you on Twitter for the songs that summed up the economy in 2012 for you. Erin Perry chose Andy Grammer's "Keep Your Head Up," Paul Bobnack chose Jack White's "I'm Shakin'," and there were a few who chose Passion Pit's "Take a Walk" for the line: 'But then my partner called to say the pension funds were gone.' We even got a vote for "Call Me Maybe," for the fiscal cliff.

Tweet us your song choices for 2012 @MarketplaceAPM.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...