When Shirley Temple Black passed away last week, it reminded us how important entertainment had been to American during the Depression. It’s easy to mock statements about that impact — “Gosh, I have no job, no food, and I’m about to get evicted from my tenement, but I don’t care as long as I can watch a curly-haired moppet sing & dance!” — but good songwriting does have the power to connect with our emotions. (Which are not always positive; after my boyfriend dumped me on my 22nd birthday, I wrote a country revenge ballad titled “You Broke My Heart, So Now I Want To Break Your Legs”… but I digress.)
There does seem to be a correlation between economic woes and music. The Depression was the heyday of big silly musicals, but it also led to classic songs like “Brother Can You Spare A Dime,” and even the dippy cheerfulness of “We’re In The Money” starts with an incredibly ironic celebration of finding — gasp — a quarter! During the uproar of the ’60s, the folk revival turned to protest songs, as embodied by Pete Seeger, another recent loss to the music world. That was also the birth of tongue-in-cheek comedy, including The Smothers Brothers. If you haven’t heard their rendition of “The Saga of John Henry” or “Streets of Laredo,” you’re in for a treat!
So with partisanship and income inequality at all-time highs today, you’d think we’d see yet another form of hard-times-inspired entertainment. Of course, trends are hard to see from within, so it will be a few years before we know whether this era is defined by bubbly escapism (“Gangnam Style,” anyone?), innocuous boy bands like One Direction, or a series of revenge songs penned by Taylor Swift about her various celebrity breakups. However, in the meantime I’ll offer my own contribution to protest songs, 2014-style… “The $10.10 Blues.”