The wallet-weight blues: A long essay about class in music.

There’s a debate currently raging (in that polite, British way) in the British music press and a few blogs about what role social class plays in music.  (See:  here, here, here) I always welcome such conversations, and wanted to offer a bit of personal two cents. (1)

I think I first touched on the issue of class in this blog when I defended The Harlem Shakes in my best-of-2007 list, where the band’s EP, Burning Birthdays was my favorite release of the year. I said

I am so very very close to ignoring the fact that a lot of bloggers and people with better things to do than blog have dismissed bands like The Harlem Shakes and Vampire Weekend as “prep rock.” I don’t want to justify the ludicrous existence of such a term, so I’ll quickly respond by saying 1) these guys happened to go to ivy league schools. Big deal. They don’t have butlers playing their instruments for them and 2) Aren’t we a little old for Maximum RockNRoll at this point? No?

My opinion at the time was that music was music, and it did not matter whether it was coming from somebody with a Yale education or someone who had to work night shifts as a gravedigger to fund his first album. On a certain level, nothing annoyed me more than a puritanical knee-jerk response that rich people were somehow less qualified to make art because they had, by pure luck, grown up in a position of privilege. I think part of the reason for this  reaction was that I went to a Quaker college, one where the virtue of simplicity had somehow over the years morphed into people dressing down, buying all their clothes from thrift stores, drinking the cheapest 40 oz’s that the liquor store had, and in, in order words, playing pretend poor. Now I get that college is a time when you try out new things and react against the upbringing you’ve recently escaped from, but this seemed absurd to me, and I think some of that came through in my Harlem Shakes writeup; I was impressed with the group not only because their EP was superb (Still is. If you haven’t heard it, I would strongly recommend it), but because they were honest about their background. They came from stable and at least somewhat privileged backgrounds. They weren’t going to highlight it, but they certainly weren’t going to deny it.

The second (and last) time I touched on the issue of class in this blog was in a fairly brief writeup of The Harlem Shakes’ first full-length, Technicolor Health. I wrote this a year and half later, in April of 2009, when I was living on a somewhat frayed shoestring with a bunch of friends in the snowy wilds of Michigan. I said

The New Harlem Shakes album is, after 5 or so complete listens, admirable because it is honest. It’s also bourgiee as fuck; these are songs about the pressures of being young and rich in new york city (and of escape those pressures to, where else, “my best friends’ farm”). They’re songs about selling stuff online, not understanding clever t-shirts, shopping at farmer’s markets and something called “the game.” It’s as if the narrators of Vampire Weekend songs dropped out of school and decided they were going to do Americorp in upstate new york. Musically, the songs are often great, and the lyrics are insightful, descriptive and not half as vapid as i’m making them out to be. The only thing is, the scope is unbelievably narrow. Either you know exactly what these guys are feeling, or you don’t and might never. They used to specialize in brash self effacement like “i’d say it so loud if I knew what I ought to say” or the bored jumpstarts like “if there’s a bomb in your hand just throw it. If the guns too hot, just run. This place is filled with sickos.” And now we get “zima saturday sunsets” and “we’d forage at the farmer’s market/and dine on dirty fruit.” again, it’s not bad per-se, it’s just a world away from where I am right now, and so for me, it just doesn’t resonate as much.

Well Well Well, Gabe! You’re OK with a group being rich, as long as they don’t, y’know, acknowledge being rich in their songs? The above review certainly hints in that direction. I think it’s a duel edged sword, though, and I need to make that clear. I get just as annoyed when street punk bands like The Street Dogs plaster their songs with blue-collar shout along slogans, or when Ryan Adams warbles another tune about about growing in abject poverty (in rural West Virgina, or whatever part of Appalachia is trendy at the moment).

I don’t even think it’s that class status (of any level) makes me uncomfortable when brought up in songs. I think it makes me uncomfortable when it’s brought up in a tacky, obvious, or fleeting way. I had an creative writing teacher a few years ago who, when asked the question of whether a white student could/should write from a black character’s perspective, said “Sure, but you’ve got to do it superbly.”

When you’re chosing to highlight issues of class in songs, I think you’ve got to have a reason to do it, and you’ve got to do it well. That reason can be as simple as, “this is what I know,” but if that ends up being the rationale, you had better be sure you can make the topic compelling. And that was my issue with Technicolor Health. Everyone has existential crises, and the Harlem Shakes escaped to their best friend’s farm when they did. What made the album fall a bit flat for me was that despite all intention behind the bourgie references, the references stood out of the songs they were included in. The general topics of songs on both The Harlem Shakes’ EP and full length were restlessness, love, and friends. The band’s first EP was devoid of any class references, while their full length had a handful of them, which, for me, made the album a lot less immediate. (2)

Likewise, Harlem Shake’s much more popular buds Vampire Weekend have an uneven record in my book.  Sometimes, as on the charming “Oxford Comma,” their daintiness is downright charming, despite, or more likely, due to all the highfalutin references.   Other times, as on the not-quite anthemic “Walcott,” (the name itself is cringe-worth old-money) the groups pronouncemnt to “get out of old cape cod” (what is with rich bands always escaping crises through vacations?!?) rings hollow and exclusive.  Unless you’ve been to them yourself, you’re not supposed to understand “Walcott”‘s New England vacation-town references, and this, for me, makes the song entirely unconvincing and unnecessary.

I think my point is, if you’re able to say something or do something with being rich or coming from money, then you’ll be ok. Ultimately, origin doesn’t matter for me as much as message. Historically, it’s just been easier for people to make compelling stories out the struggle of the poor and working classes than the lives of the top 1 percent, but that doesn’t mean that Virginia Woolf is any less important or brilliant than E.M Forester. Hell, if you’re Bruce Springsteen you can ever play pretend poor despite having a 40-year strong commercially successful career, and get away with it.  If you’ve got real songwriting chops, there’s a lot more you can get away with. If you can’t pull it off, that’s when things start to fall apart.

Here are some songs about class (or songs which clearly place the artist in a certain income bracket) which I think work.
Mansion on a Hill” is from Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska.

Guarantees” is from Atmosphere’s album When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold.

Stars of Track and Field” is from Belle and Sebastian’s album If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Lemonworld” is from The National’s album High Violet.

Feet Asleep” is from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s album We Brave Bee Stings and All.

A Floater Left With Pleasure in the Executive Washroom” is from Dillinger Four’s album Situationist Comedy.


(1) I realize that this post focuses on the role of class in lyrics, and not the overall relevance of what happens when many of a society’s artists are coming from the upper social strata. That’s a different discussion altogether, one where I might come down on a different side than I do in this post. Although I do want to put it out there that, if the British music press never discovers it, and you don’t highlight it in your music, class becomes difficult to detect. Can you Tell me whether the members of Mogwai came from/have more money that the members of the Old 97’s or the members of the Wu Tang Clan?

(2) I believe I read an interview with the band that maybe said that several of the songs on Technicolor Health were intended as satire. They certainly don’t come off as such to this reader, but that may have been the intent. If anyone can dig up this interview, then I’ve got some more thinking to do.

One comment

  1. Stuart Ross

    The National singer said recently (I think in an interview with American Songwriter) that he writes about upper middle class white male anxiety. Maybe the reason people gripe about Harlem Shakes and Vampire Weekend (and I like Harlem Shakes and Vampire Weekend) is because they write about upper middle class white males (and females in V. Weekend’s case), sans the anxiety.

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