I have long had an interest in systemic approaches to social issues. Economics offer some helpful perspectives on some of the dilemmas of our modern world. Economic life also impinges upon our spiritual lives more than we often imagine. Here are some songs that have occurred over the years.
We begin with “Cheeseburger Deluxe” (1980, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon), an early song that ponders my love of cheeseburgers within the context of an increasingly addictive consumer society. The song spun off from listening to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” from Highway 61 Revisited (1965). But while Dylan’s great song presciently describes the end of one world, as it was taking place in the 1960s, my song anticipates another world closing in on us in the 1980s, a commodity-driven existence within a globalizing economy. The “Joe’s” mentioned in the song was the Greek diner near where I worked in New York at that time. They served a really juicy burger!
“Mall Story” (1990, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon) is another early song, inspired by wading through too many commercial breaks during the NBA playoffs that year. I kept noticing how they utilized various romantic images and story-lines to sell things like cars and tires. This little satire developed from there. Television ads still portray “the converging credit-lines of love” today.
I once read a remark by Robert Greenleaf, business consultant and author of the popular book, Servant Leadership (1977), that “the corporation is chattel.” It puzzled me. But later, the US Supreme Court affirmed that corporations are legal “persons” and free to skew the political process by contributing huge amounts of money to political campaigns. But it occurred to me that corporate personhood can cut both ways. “Liberate the Corporation Now!” (2016, from Man of Irony) explores the implications.
“The Wreck of the Economy” (2005, from The Political Unconscious) works with the ship-wreck theme, popular in traditional folksongs. You will notice some echoes of the sinking of the Titanic in this song. Only here it’s the global economy. It came to me in 2005, ahead of the financial collapse of 2007-08. But it didn’t take clairvoyance or a PhD in economics to see it coming. The “irrational exuberance” of the markets and the hubris of Wall Street’s self-proclaimed “masters of the universe” had exceeded all bounds. The ghosts of Karl Marx and Adam Smith make cameo appearances as the song goes on. The year 2023 isn’t necessarily a prediction. But I heard that number in a waking moment at the time I was working on the song, so I put it in at the end.
Speaking of going underwater, “Higher Ground” (2007, from Terms and Conditions) can’t decide whether it’s about the hole in the ozone layer or the national debt. In any case, it takes off from an old revival hymn by that title to ponder how personal salvation (religious or secular) has “become our besetting sin.”
I was living in Richmond, Indiana when the Great Recession set in by 2008, and small rust-belt towns were hit harder than some other places. A wave of business closures swept over the town, prompting “All Along the Strip-Mall” (2012, from Terms and Conditions). The title was inspired by Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (1967), but here the watchtower is laid on its side.
“Prostitution by Other Means” (2017, from Man of Irony) wraps up this cautionary set. One day, I thought, if politics is war by other means, what is employment? It all just flowed from there. Later that year, I decided it was time to retire.