Welcome to Five Songs About, our new weekly (maybe) feature in which we pick a topic and then dig through music history to find relevant songs by some of our favourite artists. It's sort of like a musical parlour game, but mostly it's designed to keep us from finally going insane in this batshit era in which we live. In this edition, we bring you five songs about the music industry itself. SPOILER ALERT: people don't tend to write songs about the music biz when they're feeling good about it.
1. The Smiths, "Paint a Vulgar Picture" (1987)
THE SONG: In one of his finest lyrical efforts, Morrissey imagines the death of a pop star, and draws a stark distinction between the adoring fans to whom that star meant everything and the record-company suits who only see the tragedy as an opportunity to boost sales. There was speculation at the time that Morrissey was taking a swipe at the Smiths' own label, but the singer dispelled that idea in a 1988 NME interview: "No, it wasn't about Rough Trade at all. So I was a bit confused when Geoff Travis, the Rough Trade big boy, despised it and stamped on it. It was about the music industry in general, about practically anybody who's died and left behind that frenetic fanatical legacy which sends people scrambling. Billy Fury, Marc Bolan..."
SAMPLE LYRIC: At the record company meeting/On their hands—at last!—A dead star!/But they can never taint you in my eyes/No, they can never touch you now.
2. New Radicals, "You Get What You Give" (1998)
THE SONG: It's not specifically a dig the music business per se; New Radicals' only hit is about the creative spirit that drives all artists, along with the corporate machine that exploits that art and sometimes crushes the artist's spirit while it does so. As it turned out, the grind of being a pop star was more than New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander was prepared to deal with. At the height of the band's success, he announced his retirement from performing, saying that "the fatigue of traveling & getting three hours sleep in a different hotel every night to do boring 'hanging and schmoozing' with radio and retail people, is definitely not for me." Alexander went on to become a Grammy-winning producer and songwriter.
SAMPLE LYRIC: Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson/Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson/You're all fakes, run to your mansions/Come around, we'll kick your ass in.
3. The Clash, "Complete Control" (1977)
THE SONG: In 1977, you didn't piss the Clash off unless you wanted war. So, when the Clash's label, CBS, released the song "Remote Control" as a single without consulting the band (who had intended "Janie Jones" to be the next single), it didn't exactly sit well with the boys. Infuriated, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones wrote "Complete Control", which opens with an unambiguous shot at the CBS execs in question: "They said, 'Release "Remote Control",' but we didn't want it on the label." The Clash was vindicated when, after "Remote Control" missed the charts entirely, "Complete Control" became the group's first Top 30 hit.
SAMPLE LYRIC: They said we'd be artistically free/When we signed that bit of paper/They meant "Let's make a lots of money/And worry about it later"
4. Public Enemy, "How to Kill a Radio Consultant" (1991)
THE SONG: It seems almost unfathomable in 2019, with hip-hop arguably the dominant form in pop music, but there was a time when even the most popular rap artists had a hard time getting their music onto mainstream radio. This was a topic that Chuck D mentioned in a number of Public Enemy songs (see "Bring the Noise" and "Don't Believe the Hype"), but he tackled it head-on with "How to Kill a Radio Consultant". In the song, Chuck contended that the playlists of ostensibly black radio stations were being determined by white guys in suits who didn't even live in the communities the stations were supposed to serve. Public Enemy had the last laugh, of course, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—which is more than any radio consultant can claim.
SAMPLE LYRIC: Only black radio station in the city/Programmed by a sucker in a suit/With slick-backed hair/And he don't even live here
5. Waylon Jennings, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" (1975)
THE SONG: Holding up the late Hank Williams as the gold standard, Waylon Jennings looks at the state of country music with a weary shake of his head, lamenting the proliferation of new stars with their "rhinestone suits" and "shiny cars". Of course, mainstream country has changed a lot since 1975, and popular tastes have moved beyond such glitzy excesses to elevate high-fiving frat bros like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Florida Georgia Line to superstar status. Somewhere in Honky Tonk Heaven, Jennings and Williams are crying in their beers.
SAMPLE LYRIC: Somebody told me when I came to Nashville/"Son, you finally got it made/Old Hank made it here, we're all sure that you will"/But I don't think Hank done it this way, no