So I have been known to mock the musical tastes of my students. However, that’s only because, in most cases, it deserves mocking. But I hope they know I do it all with love (Well… you know what I mean.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received projects on the likes of John Mayer, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and Nikki Minaj. This semester my students’ genres of choice seemed to be techno, white rappers, and jam bands… I guess boredom does come in a variety of flavours. However, I am occasionally surprised by their taste. Occasionally, I’m even surprised in a positive way (Again, I say this with love.)
This past semester, for the final project of my Intellectual Heritage courses, I required that my students submit to me (This wasn’t intended as a Richard Kern allusion, but whatever) a mix CD (Although mixtapes did receive extra credit.) of 15 songs relating to the course. The course revolves around contemporary Western life. We discuss commodities, capitalism, rulership, gender politics, urban and suburban planning, happiness, and the marketing and commodification of happiness. At the core of this thought is Karl Marx, who predicted nearly all of our current predicaments about a century and a half ago. But significant intellectual contributions were also made by the likes of Thomas More, Machiavelli, Jane Jacobs, Witold Rybczynski, and Homer.
Below you will find my compilation of the 19 greatest works of modern and postmodern music, inspired (directly or indirectly) by the bitter musings of Karl Marx and his equally disenfranchised intellectual peers (Okay, so Marx really doesn’t really have peers, but those previously mentioned names are as close as you’re likely to get.), that my students chose as not only great fucking tunes, but “intellectually” relevant commentaries on the postmodern human condition. (Note: the blurbs about each track were written by myself, not my students, as brilliantly clever as so many of them proved to be…)
1. Sonic Youth – “Bull in the Heather”
The second most prolifically progressive pop band of all-time (after the Velvet Underground) was at their peak of commercial success when they penned this tune about the realization that, in a neo-capitalist society, the only kind of self-worth is to be found by possessing the most abused punch-card, chronicling the arbitrary “achievements” that are deemed culturally “valuable,” whatever they may be.
2. The Rolling Stones – “Under My Thumb”
At a time when women were politically and existentially becoming regarded as slightly more than fuck toys for the penis-wielding highest bidders, Mick Jagger (Whose style was, ironically, entirely derivative of Parisian streetwalkers.) felt the need to put in her place some broad who, for whatever reason, thought she had a right to call some shot or other.
3. The Ting Tings – “That’s Not My Name”
A “darling bird,” who realized she’d been little less than a noun of condescending slang to anyone she’d encountered in her lifetime decided that, if she can write the catchiest anti-pop anthem of her generation, just maybe she should be considered as a sentient individual.
4. The Smiths – “I Know It’s Over”
Morrissey loved the 20th-century-whitewashing of classic fairy tales as much as anyone else (actually… more), but, he realized that it’s simply a lie. If you’re lucky, one day your delusions of love will be shattered… If you’re one of the rest of us, they will never have the chance to materialize.
5. The Cure – “Boys Don’t Cry”
Who would’ve guessed that the most successful popular critique of sexuality of the past century is actually quite a lovable head-bobber? As much as I hate to say it, cheers to Big Fat Bob for pointing out that to be a successfully gendered individual in our society means sacrificing your living, breathing humanity.
6. Bob Dylan – “Blowin’ in the Wind”
Bob Dylan’s second single very eloquently points out that, while the agent of our discontent (and should-be discontent) should be as obvious as the time posted on our clocks, the solution to our discontent is more mystifying than any of the seven wonders of the world.
7. The Kills – “Cheap and Cheerful”
VV (Alison Mosshart) and Hotel (Jamie Hince) realize that expensive shit is fun… but not nearly as fun as a sincere, subversive, hot, drunken mess… It’s no coincidence that Hince is married to Kate Moss…
8. The Velvet Underground – “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”
On the last song on the last moderately “legit” Velvet Underground album Lou Reed clarifies that there’s nothing more romantic than someone who “Ain’t got nothing at all.” I’m not sure anyone’s ever more succinctly summed up every hero in the history of pop culture.
9. Iggy Pop – “The Passenger”
This song holds a special place in my heart because the first two times I heard it live I was onstage with Iggy Pop… The first night he split my lip open with his microphone. He wrote the song while in Berlin with David Bowie, about the two of them traveling the world’s “dopest” city as backseat navigators. They may have had all the money in the world, but they were also slaves to the commodities to which their excessive finances led them.
10. Sex Pistols – “God Save the Queen”
This is probably the most “kosher” socially-relevant political anthem of all-time. It’s actually not about doing away with the political powers that be, but about educating them to the problems of their masses… likely, for the first time. If this all sounds a little optimistic and wishy-washy, just listen to the fucking song.
1. The Pretenders – “My City Was Gone”
Ironically, the rich white people who pay Chrissie Hynde’s bills are the very same rich white people who took her city and her history. Unfortunately, I suspect she thought it was a fair trade. On a lighter note (?), I think this is probably the catchiest song ever written about Northern Liberties…
2. David Bowie – “Suffragette City”
This David Bowie tune is a bittersweet and tragic tale of empowerment. I mean, sure these bitches found a source of power… even if it was only in their own sexual objectification of their “temples” as tools of manipulation… Camille Paglia and Russ Meyer would totally be down with this… but I’m not so sure my second-wave feminist peers would agree.
3. Sleigh Bells – “Crown on the Ground”
Sleigh Bells are, undeniably, the most progressively political pop band of my students’ generation. However, their fans seem to largely miss the point, embracing the duo as an excuse to pump fists and spread-eagle their parents’ checking accounts for American Apparel. The noise pop duo are well aware of this and in this tune they playfully mock their audience, telling them that if they ever wish to penetrate “reality,” they must let go of everything they’ve ever been told they should be living for. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure it’s a lost cause.
4. Pixies – “Where is My Mind?”
In Pixies’ most famous number Black Francis points out to Generation X that ignorance is not, in fact, the key to rebellion and that refusing to acknowledge the system will only better ensure that you will be a more successful worker-bee for said system.
5. The (International) Noise Conspiracy – “Capitalism Stole My Virginity”
The (International) Noise Conspiracy may be music history’s most fun-loving Marxists. This tune reassures you that dancing and revolution aren’t mutually exclusive and revolution actually rocks… However, revolution is only necessary because capitalism is, indeed, a fuck fest… and the fucking ain’t consensual…
6. Bjork – “Army of Me”
In the opening track of her sophomore solo effort, Bjork optimistically and bitchily berates you, informing you that do have a free will and, while your circumstances may reek of sewage, you can do something about it.
7. Atari Teenage Riot – “Black Flags”
Atari Teenage Riot are the MC5 of the digital age. Their songs may not be quite as brilliant, but their bite more than makes up for that. They recently reunited, seemingly in reaction to the façade of freedom that the internet has proven to be. In this song they assure you that it’s okay to be unhappy. You should be. National identities are bullshit. Skin colour is bullshit. Hair texture is bullshit. Culture is bullshit. History is bullshit. Tradition is bullshit. Be unhappy and be pro-active. You are currently technology’s bitch but, with a little effort, you can make it yours.
8. Refused – “Rather Be Dead”
In one of their most optimistic tunes, after another rant against the chains of capitalism, the most prolific hardcore band of all-time realizes, in a nearly-dying breath, that there is, indeed, something pure that is worth living for… even if the spectacle that confines us makes it very difficult to distinguish.
9. YACHT – “Shangri-La”
YACHT are not exactly satisfied, but they have found happiness. They’ve found beauty in numerous and disparate places and ideas. So what’s their next move? Making those places and things not so disparate or: putting together the pieces. I am willing to believe that all of the pieces of a Utopia are there… somewhere. But do I think they will ever find themselves among one another? If you’re looking for an optimistic answer, listen to more YACHT.