I haven’t written for a while because I’ve been busy working. Despite the fact that I’m working in two pretty lovely places, I still find the whole business draining and uninspiring a lot of the time. So I thought maybe I’d write about music and jobs and try to think about the whole business in a more positive light.
There’s obviously a long history of songs being used as a way to get through the trauma of working for a living, of selling yourself and your time in order to live. All of my employment experiences to date have been inexorably linked with songs in my memory.
Virgin Megastores 2004- Hatful of Hollow by The Smiths.
Boring Summer Office Job 2007 – Twin Cinema by The New Pornographers.
Oddbins 2010 – Rum & Coca-Cola by The Andrew Sisters. Alexandra Leaving byLeonard Cohen. Nick Cave. (What a great job.)
The Last Bookshop 2011 – Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Terrible Medical Records Filing Job – ‘Ray Charles’ by Chiddy Bang and every other terrible song they played on the abomination that is Radio 1.
The fact is making music and working a shit job are an uncomfortable necessity. And not the kind of uncomfortable necessity you can write great songs about – like a break up, or some general yearning – but an everyday ever grinding necessity that can take up pretty much all of your time and your brain if your not careful.
So I tried to find some great songs about working and got a little bit stuck. There are a lot of folk songs about working, but its hard to relate to fishing or farming when you make coffee for a living. But then I remembered that my great love Springsteen has written a lot of songs featuring workers both honest and not despite being a professional musician all his life. I suppose it is an unfair, and undermining misconception to say that being a musician isn’t a real job, one that has the same stress and tedium and frustrations as any job. But being a professional (and successful) musician certainly entails an expressive aspect that is absent from a lot of the minimum wage careers that I have experience of.
Still I think that Springsteen expresses beautifully and insightfully across many of his songs, what it means to work for a living. The song Highway Patrolman presents the dilemma of a policeman whose brother is a repeat offender. This song contains many of the themes present throughout the haunting album Nebraska; moral ambiguity, strong character based narratives set against a socio-historical backdrop, cars. The men in these songs often place themselves firmly on the side of good or bad but the concept of morality is questioned throughout. Its interesting to think about how your living is inextricably linked to your morality as a person. Joe Roberts the highway patrolman is obviously the ‘good guy’ – “I always done an honest job as honest as I could.” But although society dictates that his moral worth comes from his profession he places much more emphasis on his loyalty to his brother.”Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.”
On the other side of the line, the song Atlantic City presents a protaganist who has “debts no honest man could pay” being forced into crime. I think the crucial difference between the two characters is agency. Joe Roberts has to work hard and is placed by society against his brother but he has the agency to live to his own moral code, to enact his own concept of goodness and let his brother escape. But in Atlantic City the protaganist is denied that agency. The chorus lacks the certainty of the Highway Patrolman’s declaration that “nothing feels better than blood on blood.”
“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back”
This song creates a violent, disintegrating world with a man on the edge of something desperate and the chorus reflects this. There is only uncertainty, a feeble kind of hope for reincarnation as a way to feel better about the crimes and the meanness in the world. It is the lack of agency in Atlantic City that creates this desperation and this fear.
I think Nebraska teaches the working (wo)man about the importance of agency in life. If you are lucky like me (and lots of people aren’t), you have a lot of choices available to you in life – choices about who to work for, about how to get money and about what your priorities are. Although we work to earn money, we are constantly told that we need more money than we do. We are told that we need so many products and experiences that we can easily live without. We only need the things, or more importantly the people that make us happy, and we only need as much money as that takes. I think having the agency in your life to decide this, and be clear about this is crucial to being a happy minimum wage worker. Its also probably crucial in reminding us not to kill for money. So thanks Bruce!
Another aspect of Springsteen’s album that I like is the urban poetry that he infuses throughout his lyrics; “Sun’s just a red ball risin’ over them refinery towers.” Although he is at times in danger of romanticising the small town worker’s life I think in Nebraska he employs a simplicity and bleakness which stops short of romance. Another song that conjures this kind of poetic subrbia is ‘Civil Twilight‘ by The Weakerthans. I like this song because it is filled with the minutaie of a working day and expresses themes far beyond the banal. It uses the working day to talk about love, which is pretty much all any song is about anyway. Like Springsteen’s songs, love is redemption in a cruel grey world. I like the way the words (some of which are long and lovely) fit really nicely into the melody. I like to think about bus drivers and walls and houses and love. And I like to think about how working for a living is what you make it, a series of choices and that I can choose to make it part of a life filled with songs. So I will.