When I get an overdraft notice, a “gentle reminder” to pay my cellphone bill, or need another bike repair, I immediately feel an unshakable sense of frustration, my id fighting with my ego over deferring my desires to pay for necessity. At times like this, it’s best to reframe, to take that frustration and turn it into righteousness. The following summer playlist is to remind us all that bourgeoise dreams aren’t everything.
It’s important to note that a good poverty playlist does not focus on scorning those who have money, but rather, glorifying those of us who don’t. Vacations? HA. Who needs ’em! Summer cottage? I’ve got the public pool! These songs are meant to empower and fill you with pride for your life’s station. Think of all the admirable low-income people from music, history, and literature—being broke to creativity and openness, two things that are always free. ENJOY your summer, be you unemployed, underemployed, or underpaid. Carpe diem! The American Dream is outdated anyway.
“Money,” Embrace (DC 80s Punk band, not the other British one)
This is arguably my favorite song ever, and a great kick off to our listening experience—if Embrace is good at anything, it’s assaulting us with virtuous manifesto. In the aptly named song, “Money,” Ian McKaye recasts not focusing on finance as righteous rather than reckless. “MONEY HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE VALUE OF LIFE. BUT THAT’S JUST COMMON SENSE!” Feeling better already!
“I Still Got It,” Lee Fields
This song is essentially Lee Fields confidently listing of all the things you can take from him, but he’s “still got it.” What does he have? Presumably the same dellusion of grandeur that I do. “You gotta be cool and break all the rules” he says, and then invites ALL women to come and get it. This is the attitude we must internalize as the IRS and their friends really, truly do take our hats, our cars, our beds, our girls. According to Lee, we’ll still have “it.” Phew.
“Natural’s Not In It,” Gang of Four
Don’t forget, we’ve been taught to want all the bullshit we spent our money on! We can overcome it! Nothing feels better than shaking a fist at the advertising industry when I’m feeling deprived, if only I could remember that while I’m standing at the drug store register with that basket full of cosmetics that I could maybe do without… “dream of the bourgeois life, this heaven gives me migranes.”
“Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” Stevie Wonder
This tale of cross-the-tracks romance between the rich girl and the poor man’s son has comforted me for many years. From Stevie’s perspective, I’m gonna find love simply because my heart is true. People are going to accept me as I am! That’s a major relief! And when he gives his rythmic, jubulant laughter over the triumphant horns in the background, I can’t help but believe him. This song is great to listen to while you’re trying to talk yourself out of “needing a new dress” for that party coming up. The litmus test—is your heart true? Then it’s alright that your clothes aren’t new. Just do your laundry!
“Sittin on the Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding
Otis tells us that he’s lonely, there’s no change in sight, he left his home and now he’s living in San Francisco, and he’s got no prospects. But dang, it sounds like he’s having an okay time out there, and watching the tide sounds pretty relaxing. What he calls “wasting time” could be reframed as “a vacation.” In fact, what he is doing doesn’t sound so far from what I hear people in the Hamptons do, although they might have better food.
“Backwater Blues,” Dinah Washington
Classic Bessie Smith song and Dinah kills it. It’s raining a LOT. She’s trapped in her house. She’s packing up her shit and she’s having to escape out a window into a rowboat and leave everything. Damn! Is Dinah crying about it? Hell no! She’s preaching. She’s got the blues but she’s owning every second of having NOTHING. She’s got more nothing than I’ve got, that’s for damn sure. I’ve still got my apartment! She’s got someplace to go, and a lot of other people don’t. Yeah. Puts things in perspective, don’t it?
“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” Billie Holiday
Clearly I would be remiss to exclude Billie Holiday, the queen of making do. “Diamond bracelets Woolworth’s doesn’t sell, baby!” Listening to this hot trot, I think that getting Billie’s love will be better than anything at the five-and-dime, or beyond.
“Mile End,” Pulp
Can you name one cool song about having a nice apartment? They are few and far between. The apartment in “Mile End” is as far from decent as the Mile End tube stop is from Central London. I have lived in my share of despair pits, and Pulp is able to turn this shithole into a badge of honor. The living room is full of flies, the lift is full of piss, it’d be like heaven if it didn’t look like hell. At a certain point, one stops trying to make a dump look posh and lets it all hang out—only to discover later that some rich kids are trying to mimic that “bohemian style”! Fools, this nightstand isn’t from Urban Outfitters, this nightstand is from the garbage.
“Motion Pictures,” Neil Young
This quiet little gem is great to soften the envy I’ve felt so many times when my friends are doing spectacular things and I can’t afford to participate (whether from poverty or my own money mismanagement), like the time when my friends quietly flew out to Brazil while I was fuming over the my misplaced Metrocard.
Neil’s watching the beautiful and unattainable motion pictures on his TV screen. He’s touched but stays real—“a home away from home, and I’m livin’ in between. I hear some people have got their dream. I’ve got mine.” Maybe what we think are our dreams are actually just mirages,or external pressures that we’ve internalized. Is it possible this angst I’m feeling is someone else’s dream? Could these fantasies actually serve our lives really? After all, moderate poverty has hidden benefits, namely in creating resilience and community by encouraging us to share and work together. (My lost Metrocard, at least, resulted in a lot of exercise Brazil sounded amazing, but my New York is pretty special too.) At it’s best, poverty strengthens creative impulses out of necessity, and I know more easily who is a true friend because… well, let’s face it, I’m not buying anybody drinks. Neil’s no longer interested in that preconcieved “good life.” He tells us: “All those people, they think they’ve got it made, but I wouldn’t buy, sell or trade anything to be like one of them. I’d rather start all over again.”
“Waterloo Sunset,” The Kinks
Dirty old river, but it’s so pretty. When your life isn’t so cluttered up with distractions, physical or emotional, you can learn how to enjoy the simple good that’s all around us, even if it is dirty and occasionally smells like garbage.
“Pop Life,” Prince
Because we can’t leave on such a wistful note, let’s fade out with some Prince ruminating on what JP Sartre would call, “the hole,” the space that we all have inside us that we seek to fill with all kinds of externalities. Prince reminds us that everybody can’t be on top, no matter what we want. So… maybe we ought to let it go. We can find some form of escape. It’s sometimes reckless but doesn’t have to be mindless—and let’s not deny ourselves that! Life, it ain’t real funky … unless it’s got that pop.