The Best Dozen Or So Songs.

Via on Nov 18, 2010

…for the Unemployed, Semi-Employed, and Pretty Much Everyone Else

The current economy is pretty harsh on recent graduates.  Having graduated in May, I have floated from one ‘internship’ to another, always in a state of semi-employment, simply trying to find a position to settle and establish myself.  Unfortunately, with the current unemployment rate, many of the positions that were previously reserved for entry-level grads are being given to older professionals with more experience.  Instead, my demographic is divided into those jumping straight into postgraduate programs and those being utilized by companies for free grunt work…oh and the finance majors eating every meal at their desks.  As it stands, many of the country’s hardest working students have come to terms with seeking employment well outside their desired field.  It is in times like these, at least in my own life, where music plays its most critical role.  After a day of applying to a myriad jobs, in various fields, for various pay, on various continents, the music I choose to soothe my mind becomes endowed with visceral meaning.  If you find yourself in the same boat and can empathize, I’ve tried to compile a list of songs which touch on the feelings that may be present in the minds of this disillusioned generation…

1. Fireworks by Animal Collective

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‘It’s family beaches that I desire
A sacred night, where we’ll watch the fireworks
The frightened babies poo
They’ve got two flashing eyes and they’re colored why?
They make me feel that I’m only all I see sometimes’

In the mix applications, cover letters, and obsessive resume restructuring, it’s often hard to refrain from solipsism.  We are so centrally focused on our own pursuits—our own triumphs and follies—that we forget to survey the world’s ubiquitous beauty.  It’s not just the statues and edifices to which we travel that hold humanity’s transcendence, but also the most minute and mundane aspects of life.  Essentially, to exist, and everything that sprouts there from, is divine.  AnCo’s ‘Fireworks’ reverts our attention to the little things we oughtn’t to forget.

2. Stillness is the Move by Dirty Projectors

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‘Isn’t life under the sun just a crazy dream?
Isn’t life just a mirage of the world before the world?
Why am i here and not over there?
Where did time begin?
Where does space end?
Where do you and i begin?’

Unemployed graduates seem universally inclined towards existentialism.  The questions that pervade our minds are supposed to provide an impetus towards action.  It seems self-evident that if we could only figure out what we’re doing here, we’d have that 10-year plan mapped out.  However, the answers we approach always seem nebulous, unsatisfying.  As a result, the first question is fractalized into a plethora of corollaries, each in need of subsequent rumination.  Regardless of whether these queries will ever provide the guidance we chase, we hear echoes of this endeavor in ‘Stillness is the Move’, the Dirty Projectors’ take on Peter Handke’s ‘Lied von Kindsein’ (Song of Childhood).

3. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel

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‘And one day we will die, our ashes will fly
From the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young, Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see’

Stress seems to be the major upshot of unemployment.  We are stressed about our future plans, about our thinning wallets, about being the last ones in the boat.  However, it occurs to me that this is a time unlike any other we will experience (perhaps this is consolation?).  At 22, I have no children, no outstanding debts, no real responsibilities, and this empowers me with the capacity for pure sensuous pleasure.  I am lucky enough to enjoy this freedom, for however short it may last, and it affords me the ability to finally do what I want.  Remaining optimistic that education and spirit will drive me in the direction of my goals, I can follow my bliss to whatever end it leads me.  Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 opus, ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’, is an ode to carefree living, embracing only the fruits of life, and pursuing love in whatever forms it takes.

4. Be Here Now by Mason Jennings

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‘Be here now, no other place to be
All the doubts that linger, just set them free
And let good things happen, let the future come
Into each moment, like a rising sun’

In apparent homage to 70’s spiritual leader, Ram Dass, Mason Jennings wrote ‘Be Here Now’.  It is a song that urges us to follow the sage’s philosophical principle that the future and past mean nothing in comparison to the present.  We don’t need to rely on daydreaming of ideals, when every focused moment is the crystallization of perfection.  At its very core, the song is a declaration of independence from our conventional preoccupation with the future.  Drawing on the Tao notion of wu wei, the song proffers an organic growth through life, rather than the meticulously planned alternative.

5. Bankrupt On Selling->Styrofoam Boots by Modest Mouse

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‘Well, I’ll go to college and I’ll learn some big words
And I’ll talk real loud, goddamn right I’ll be heard
You’ll remember the guy who said all those big words
He must have learned in college’

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‘He says looking at something else, But directing everything to me
“Every time anyone gets on their knees to pray Well, it makes my telephone ring
And I’ll be damned”, He said, “You were right
No one’s running this whole thing”‘

Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock is somewhere between poet and philosopher; a man perpetually amidst existential crisis and yet self-aware enough to articulate the battling forces in his psyche.  In ‘Bankrupt on Selling’, we see Brock’s reaction to the notion of selling out.  His impugnation of ‘businessers’ may seem fitting (especially on Ele), but the criticism of apostles and angels indicates a distrust in those we would normally esteem.  The subtle phrasing, ‘they remember the people they loved, their old friends’ elucidates the opinion that even the noblest people have hurt others on the road to success.  Finally, Brock casts aspersions on college bound simpletons, seeking education as a means of gaining social stature.  The amalgam of this condemnation points to actions with ulterior motives.  Being a shitty person is not the crime, but covering it up, even internally, is unacceptable.  Would it be too much of a stretch to posit being true to yourself as the moral here?

Maybe it’s because Lonesome Crowded West (1997) is one of my favorite albums, but I felt dissatisfied just hearing ‘Bankrupt’ end without the gentle strumming of ‘Styrofoam Boots’ emerging from the emotional debris.  So yes I threw it on here, though it really doesn’t have anything to do with the list.

6. What A Job by Devin the Dude Feat. Snoop Dogg and Andre 3000

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‘Another all nighter tryin’ to get it done
Barely make it home with the morning sun
Baby mother thinking that you on some other shit
Oh what a job this is’

Who ever said rapping was an easy job?  Sure, it’s better than most of Mike Rowe’s Tuesdays, but it still comes with its own set of encumbrances. On ‘What A Job’, Devin the Dude, Snoop Dogg, and Andre 3000 wander through weed-whelmed verses to explain just how laborious the industry can be.  Between nepotism at major record labels, late nights ‘chicken cooped’ in the booth, and people pirating your music, the rap game just ain’t what it used to be.  Throughout all this adversity, Devin, Snoop, and 3 Stacks remain clear in their message: do the things you love for their own sake.


7. Heart of Gold by Neil Young

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‘I wanna live, I wanna give
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold’

Perhaps Neil Young’s most recognizable song, ‘Heart of Gold’ revolves around the pursuit of love.  True, Young is probably talking about a woman to settle down with, but when have I ever been confined literal and obvious interpretation.  If we extrapolate, Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’ could very well be any loved object…and here’s the big reach…like a job?  I know that in my hunt, I have ventured to the far reaches of the world.  Almost commiserating, Young nasally laments, “I’ve been to Hollywood, I’ve been to Redwood, I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold”.  Despite not having found his longing, Young’s position is to remain adamant in the search.

8. Career Opportunities by The Clash

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‘The offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?’

This one’s lyrics are almost too obvious, and hopefully makes up for the songs that have nothing to do with unemployment but still made the cut.  Instead, I’ll just explain what pushed The Clash to write the song.  In the late 1970’s, Great Britain faced massive unemployment, and the majority of well-paying, highly-esteemed jobs were being given to older professionals.  In lieu, the young were relegated to menial and dangerous work.  At the time, Mick Jones worked at a Social Services office, where he opened letters in an effort to check for bombs.  Joe Strummer, disgusted, wrote the song in retaliation to selling out and taking a government job.  The emphasis here: don’t take a job you hate just because times are tough and it’s all there is.

9. Atlantic City by Bruce Springsteen

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‘Now, I been lookin’ for a job, but it’s hard to find
Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well, I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end
So, honey, last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him’

The Boss is known for chronicling the stories of blue-collar America.  Springsteen’s biggest asset is his ability to empathize with those down and out on their luck which makes him an apt addition to our list.  ‘Atlantic City’ tells the story of a gambler, down on his luck, and broke.  He’s lost everything he has to the casinos, including love and his moral compass.  Nevertheless, he is repeatedly sucked in because he earnestly believes that things will come around.  His mantra throughout, “Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, But maybe everything that dies someday comes back’, indicates his willingness to keep trying until luck is back in his favor.  By the end of the song, the narrator recognizes that in order to survive desperate times, he must revert to desperate measures.  So this isn’t really a pick me up, or ‘inspirational’ in the way your mother defines it, but it’s pretty clear: If times are tough, buck up and do what you need to survive.


10. Old Soul Song (For the New World Order) by Bright Eyes

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‘We walk the forty blocks to the middle
Of the place we heard where everything would be
And there were barracades to keep us off the street
But the crowd kept pushing forward
Until they swallowed the police’

In 2005, Bright Eyes released I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, a scathing political critique of the country’s trajectory in the post-9/11 era.  It is an album wrought with Conor Oberst’s questions about the future.  Steeped in disillusionment and dejection with the reactionary tendencies of the Bush government, you can literally hear Oberst’s fear come through his hiccupped whimper.  However, the album does have its moments of resisting the status quo.  The power of revolution comes across strongest in ‘Old Soul’, where Conor is depicted attending an Iraq War Protest that was held on his 22nd birthday.  Throughout the song, our narrator guides us to a rally, wherein authoritative powers are subdued by those of democracy.  The entire image, emanating from the title where the ‘New World Order’ is quashed with ‘Old Soul’, is that spirit is more powerful than circumstance.  This is a powerful message for those who feel defeated by the recession, the competition, and their own self-worth.  Remembering that if we care we will succeed, provides us with the very confidence necessary for success.

11. Them Belly Fool (But We Hungry) by Bob Marley

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‘Now the weak must get strong;
They saying, “Oh, what a tribulation!”
Them belly full, but we hungry;
A hungry mob is a angry mob’

Bob Marley is a social icon, not for his dreads and baseball bat-sized joints, but for his ability unite people.  Throughout his career, the vast majority of his songs are calls for people to join together in some communal effort.  In ‘Them Belly’, Marley explains that the poor and the rich aren’t coincidentally divided among racial lines.  That the people raping Africa of her natural resources enjoy the fruits of others’ labor, yet never work themselves.  These days the lines have blurred and to vilify people by color would be a reductive argument.  However, it is obvious that corporate America is laden with morally and legally culpable chairmen, who focus more on their salaries and earnings than the people they hurt.  Though the Recession seems evidence enough that Wall Street’s tagline was sarcastic, I feel it behooves all of us to remember that selfishness, greed, and egoism are bad.


12. I Hate My Job by Cam’Ron

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‘Instead I light the sour before I go in the office
Being here eight hours sure will get you nauseous
Lady across from me telling me her problems
I’m looking at her like yoooo
How the fuck I’m gonna solve ‘em?’

During the job hunt, it’s hard to remember that sometimes jobs are terrible.  Sometimes, and this is a pretty scary thought, unemployment is better than actually having a job.  On ‘I Hate My Job’, Cam’ron lays out exactly why some people can’t stand to go to work.  Between annoying colleagues, nosy bosses, and 7 AM wake up times, it seems like a landing a position may not be worth the effort.  Maybe instead of looking for work, I should just rap about the market?  Then again (see 6.), even being a rapper is pretty tough.


13. Home by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

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‘Well, hot and heavy, pumpkin pie
Chocolate candy, Jesus Christ
Ain’t nothing please me more than you’

Presumably, if you’re unemployed, semi-employed, or employed in any capacity where you have to repeatedly explain how exactly you are employed (that’s me), you’ve made the financially responsible to stay at home (that’s not me).  The decision is harder to cope with at first.  True it’s bigger than your average dorm room, noticeably cleaner, and has a yummier pantry, but still something’s missing.  We tend to say that life feels quiet, an obvious disturbance from 4 years of boisterous and hectic movement to which you’ve become accustomed. The silence is loud.  It speaks volumes.  And what it points to is that a lot of the people you love to have around are missing.  Here Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros try their best to describe how home and our loved ones fit together.  By the end you’ll realize this is another sneaky list addition, but I can’t imagine you’re going to be angry.


BONUS (In keeping with the trend of songs only barely relating to unemployment):

14. Say Yes by Elliott Smith

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‘It’s always been wait and see
A happy day and then you pay
And feel like shit the morning after
But now I feel changed around and instead falling down
I’m standing up the morning after’

Ok, out with the obvious: This song has nothing to do with being unemployed, with dejection, with the economy, or with anything else that been on this list (except for the songs that had nothing to do with these themes either).  But who among you hasn’t clicked ‘Send’ on an application email quietly thinking, Say yes…please say yes?  Elliott Smith’s lyrics, strung together with his wispy verbal intonation, work to make this one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

About Karthik Sonty

Karthik Sonty is a recent graduate of Colby College with a penchant for philosophy, strong opinions on music, and an obsession with rock-climbing. He placates these passions by writing these musical perspectives down, infusing some philosophy, and sending them to a journal in a town called Boulder. He has written in a broad array of media, including documents for the UN’s World Food Programme, papers for Undergraduate Symposia, and a music blog called PolarBear NeckWear. Since he graduated, he has been trying to reconcile his idealistic urges to save the world, his youthful urges to explore the world, and his practical urges to survive the world.

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4 Responses to “The Best Dozen Or So Songs.”

  1. bri <3 says:

    i graduated in may as well and currently use my masters degree to nanny …ironically, im ok with it…i keep putting myself out there when I see an opportunity and i have extra time to practice yoga and read elephant journal…thanks for the music.

  2. Chloe says:

    Great post, Karthik. I'm more or less in the exact same situation you are right now (22, unemployed recent grad with nary a prospect on the horizon) and I really admire that you have used your frustrations as motivation to put together this kickass playlist. Maybe I'll take a leaf out of your book…

  3. nrs says:

    Love the optimism that threads its way through your article! Enjoyed the juxtaposition of music and philosophy as it intersects with life….Kudos!!

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