Along with love, the subject of money has been a primary concern of great songwriters for over a century. In the history of popular songs, for example, everyone from Louis Armstrong to Bruce Springsteen has had a say about their financial successes and worries; as one of the perennial concerns of popular music, in fact, the topic of money has resulted in some truly great music and some of the biggest radio hits of all time. Here are just eight songs that every true music fan should be familiar with.
1. The Beatles, “Taxman”
While we tend to think of them now as the quintessential story of success in the music industry, stardom, and financial stability did not come easily to The Beatles in their early days; before their first album was released, the group toured relentlessly on a shoestring budget and were rejected by countless record labels in the process. By 1966, however, the group had essentially conquered the world and enriched themselves by extension. Penned by George Harrison, that year’s “Taxman” considers the flipside of financial success: That is, how to manage money once you actually have it.
2. Dire Straits, “Money For Nothing”
Portrayed as a dialogue between two working Joes about the so-called easy living and excesses of rock stars, Dire Straits here lampoons the life of touring musicians forced to travel constantly to generate an income. While media conglomerates like MTV still glorify the lifestyle of music professionals, “Money For Nothing” asks us to consider where exactly this “free money” is supposed to come from: Like all industries, at the base, the music business is and always has been a business; as in any field, hard work is essential to success.
3. Randy Newman, “It’s Money That Matters”
Despite his reputation in recent years for writing catchy, seemingly lighthearted tunes for hit Hollywood movies, Randy Newman has long been known to fans as something of a cynic. His sardonic wit is on full display in the lyrics to “It’s Money That Matters,” in which the singer satirizes society’s obsession with financial status as a measure of personal worth.
4. Pink Floyd, “Have a Cigar”
Once a struggling psychedelic rock outfit with a troubled lead singer and an uncertain future, Pink Floyd hit the big time in 1973 with the release of their deeply introspective album “Dark Side of the Moon.” As detailed in their song “Have a Cigar,” the group was troubled to learn that their record company saw their newfound financial success post-“Dark Side” as little more than a cash cow to be exploited in full.
5. Sturgill Simpson, “Living the Dream”
There can be little doubt that Sturgill Simpson has achieved financial and critical success as a songwriter in recent years; however, the singer spent a lot of time holding down a variety of odd jobs while trying to make it in Nashville’s competitive singer-songwriter scene before he hit the big time. “Living the Dream” describes this period of Simpson’s life and the not-so-glamorous reality of trying to make it in a heavily oversaturated music industry.
6. Nina Simone, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”
True to its title, this Jimmie Cox-penned song performed by the oft-melancholy Nina Simone sees the troubled singer lamenting the shallowness of some friendships and how money cannot buy you genuine affection. Seeing her toe the line between humor and sadness, it’s also one of Simone’s finest performances as a singer and pianist.
7. Bob Dylan, “Day of the Locusts”
By the late 1960s, thanks to his enormous powers as a lyricist and songwriter, Bob Dylan was widely seen as the voice of his generation. (Decades later, Dylan’s unique literary and musical talents would win him a Nobel Prize in literature.) But the singer was ambivalent at best about his newfound status as an oracle for the Woodstock generation: “Day of the Locusts” all but satirizes the award of an honorary doctorate from Princeton University received by the songwriter in 1970; although he graciously accepted the award, the idea of a populist folk singer in the mold of Woody Guthrie winning accolades from one of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful universities didn’t seem to sit right with the rebellious midwestern upstart.
8. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, “Two Story House”
A song about growing up in impoverished circumstances before striking it rich in adulthood via a career in music, “Two Story House” could be a tale about any number of rags-to-riches country music stars like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn. But Jones and Wynette add emotional depth to the tune by detailing the hopes and dreams of their own troubled relationship.