Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
Like a disgruntled bumblebee trapped in a jar, “Price Tag” begins Sleater-Kinney’s ferocious comeback album No Cities to Love with a buzz.
Janet Weiss’s drums kick in, propelling me along on my morning commute through rush-hour traffic, while Carrie Brownstein’s clamorous chords accent lead singer Corin Tucker’s addictive, looping guitar line. And then, I’m singing along as Tucker’s double-edged vocals start chipping at the song’s glass container:
The bells go off.
The buzzer calls.
The traffic starts to buzz.
The clothes are stiff.
The fabrics itch.
The fit’s a little rough.
Sounds like the singer’s having just another manic Monday, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s not your morning ritual, but it is for so many in our struggling economy. That itchy institutional outfit — it’s either a literal uniform or a metaphor for the uncomfortable fit that most of us know in our jobs, or both.
Listen closer, and you’ll find this is the world from the perspective of a very specific character. Which is good, because if the song stayed general it wouldn’t stick in the memory: Details are the barbs that snag us and entangle us in the experience.
She’ll “scramble eggs / for little legs”—she’s a mom. Perhaps a single mom. She’s trying to make ends meet for more than just herself. “The system waits for us,” she sings, and that “us” suggests she might not just be talking about her 9-to-5 at Walmart or wherever. She might be talking about “the System” that fixes her and her children into their spaces on the big game board called Survival in America.
She dreams, as most of us do, of breaking through, of figuring it all out, of making that elusive amount we like to call “Enough.” She wants to “flip the switch / the system fix.” Who doesn’t? But how? Later, in the grocery story, “The kids are starving / They reach for the good stuff.” Who doesn’t want to give their kids the best? What kids don’t deserve high-quality, nutritious meals?
Songs about this day-job, bill-paying struggle are a dime a dozen—or, rather about $16.99 a dozen in this economy. I asked my patient Facebook community if they had any favorite songs about hard economic times, and they filled my FB feed with a whole record store full of great songs. (You can scroll through the list of responses here.)
Several mentioned Bruce Springsteen, of course: Both Mark Moring and Ryan Thomas hailed “Jack of All Trades”—a compassionate tribute to those who do all they can to make ends meet. “Factory” finds the singer reflecting on the ironies of his father’s working life: “Factory takes his hearing / Factory gives him life. . . .”
Photographer Rosie Perera called out Bob Dylan’s “Hard Times in New York,” Chris LeDoux’s “Making Ends Meet,” and Dashboard Confessional’s “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most.” And multi-instrumentalist Martin Stillion quickly contributed an impressive list: Mark Heard’s “Shaky Situation,” Merle Haggard “If We Make It through December,” Pierce Pettis’s “Appalachian Bloodlines,” Peter Case’s “The Open Road Song,” and Tim O’Brien’s “Less and Less.” Kerry Stubbs and David Jones named The Lone Bellow’s exhilarating, triumphal sing-along “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold.” And Paul Luikart recommended “Just about anything by Mississippi John Hurt.” And what hard-times playlist would be complete without film critic Peter Chattaway’s recommendation, straight from my personal high school soundtrack: “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi?
Sleater-Kinney aren’t the only women writing songs about hard times. Tucker Andrew Teague remembered Gillian Welch’s “One More Dollar,” while Lindsay Marshall mentioned other Welch tracks—“Acony Bell” and “Hard Times”—as well as Nancy Griffith’s “Trouble in the Fields.”
More than one thought of Over the Rhine’s hopeful and inspiring “Etcetera Whatever”:
We don’t need a lot of money,
We’ll be sleeping on the beach,
Keeping oceans within reach —
Whatever private oceans we can conjure up for free.
I thought of Suzanne Vega’s song “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry.” The lyrics to this song paint some of the saddest pictures I’ve ever heard sung. You can read a meditation that she wrote about the experiences that clearly inspired this song, a piece originally published in The New York Times Magazine. The song could be the testimony of a woman working in a literal “meat market” during the day, or it could be a more subtle lament of a prostitute doing what she feels she must to keep herself and her dreams alive.
Fancy poultry parts sold here —
Breasts and thighs and hearts.
Backs are cheap
And wings are nearly free.
Nearly free. . .
Crafting art to express our hardships, kindle our dreams, and protest oppression—these are ways to redeem, or at least endure, hard times; ways to remind the world that beauty favors harmony, justice, generosity, and grace.
Sleater-Kinney’s “Price Tag” may not point us toward saving grace. But setting it apart from most anthems of raging against the machine is the journey’s end.
Listen to this refrain. Sure, it’ll get audiences jumping, fist-pumping, and roaring in unison. But will they feel the sting of it?
We never really checked
Never checked the price tag.
When the cost comes in
It’s gonna be high.
We love the bargains,
We love the prices so low.
With the good jobs gone
It’s gonna be rough.
There’s a progression in this song—a cause and effect. The singer is lamenting how hard it is to afford the good stuff. And she’s working a minimum wage job, dreaming of a better job. Where did the good jobs go?
They’re gone. And that’s one of the consequences of supporting those box-store businesses—by their unfair and exploitative business practices that take away decent jobs and decent paychecks, they can bait us with bargain prices. It’s a vicious cycle, and we’re a part of it.
Then comes the song’s most troubling turn: a confession of responsibility.
I was lured by the devil
I was lured by the cost.
I was lured by the fear
That all we had was lost.
We’re left staring at the enemy—and he is us. Or he is, at the very least, supported by us. We peer through the window of the enemy fortress only to see our own reflection looking back at us. We’re looking at our own culpability, our own compromises, our surrender of rights and privacy—all the shortcuts we have taken for the sake of bargains and indulgences that have made successes of dehumanizing institutions. We’ve helped make this mess we’re in.
This is nothing less than a song about spiritual warfare:
I was blind by the money,
I was numb from the greed,
I’ll take God when I’m ready —
I’ll choose sin ’till I leave.
Sleater-Kinney, ladies and gentlemen. Telling it like it so often is.
Where was I in the ‘90s, when these three women were making their mark on rock history? (Excuse me as I shuffle my feet, clear my throat.) I was, um, in Seattle. . . totally invested in other bands, missing out on one of the most exhilarating live acts that Seattle had the privilege to host. They’re from my hometown—Portland, Oregon—for crying out loud. What was wrong with me? Alas, Sleater-Kinney was, for me, just a freeway exit sign pointing to a place in Lacey, Washington, where the band rehearsed in the early days. I began to realize that I’d missed out on something big when Carrie Brownstein eventually joined forces with Fred Armisen to create Portlandia, a show that smartly sends up a city that became strangely and suddenly popular as soon as I left for Seattle.
But I’m doing my Sleater-Kinney homework. I’m catching up. And I can’t get enough of this smart, sensational record.
Don’t be surprised, during their upcoming shows, if you look around and see this song’s truthfulness sobering the celebration a bit. The band’s just invited us into a communal expression of rage and frustration, and then turned it back upon themselves and us. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.
(Also—those with eyes to see—watch this live performance by Sleater-Kinney from February 23 at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club.)