A common piece of advice given to writers is: write what you know. Song writers follow this guidance as much as story writers. One of my favorite bands from the 1990s, Everclear, wrote songs about poverty and domestic dysfunction, but then they became successful and kept on writing songs about such things which I found harder to buy into. You’ve sold like a million records, what are you talking about! They became successful and continued writing about what they used to know; on the other hand, bands become successful and write songs about their success, which is fine, write what you know and all, but it’s funny to me how some of the songs become such great hits when they speak about a lifestyle so foreign to the average man. I guess it’s vicarious living.
The song from my youth I most remember with this theme is Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good”. I never liked this song, though I just put it on and it has a good guitar riff. The song is tame as far it goes: he’s been successful, he has a lot of money and a lot of stuff and really doesn’t enjoy all of it, but overall things have been pretty good. It’s a song of acknowledgment. I guess if I were a big Eagles fan, I’d be happy for Mr. Walsh … well, I don’t hate them as much as the Dude, so I really have no reason to begrudge the guy for having a good life.
Three songs with a similar theme have been released in the past ten years (that I’m aware of). The first is the All American Rejects’ 2009 hit, “Gives You Hell”. It’s the band’s biggest hit and I liked the song, but then I really started paying attention to the lyrics. To summarize: the singer dated a girl who dumped him, now he’s a successful rock star so he gets to do things like sleep until the late afternoon every day, while she’s stuck living a regular life, working, etc. Instead of following Joe Walsh’s guidance to just be a little surprised at just how successful he is, he wishes this former girlfriend to not only be stuck in her regular life but for it to really burn her up how successful he is. He’s a successful rock star that wants revenge on this girl. It’s strange that he’s so successful but hasn’t gotten over this girl and wants his good fortune to cause her suffering. Sure, the song is good rock and roll but it’s strange that fans would be so happy to sing along, “yeah sucks to be you working your 9-5 job…” wait, don’t we work 9-5 jobs? Well, actually it’s 8-5.
Next on the list is Imagine Dragons’ 2017 hit, “Thunder”. It is much more in the spirit of “Gives You Hell” than “Life’s Been Good” but to a very ridiculous degree. The average person can relate to being spurned by a love interest so can identify with “Gives You Hell” to that extent. “Thunder” is a whole different level of bitterness and revenge seeking. The song here is about a guy who dreamed big and made it. Great, but while “Gives You Hell” relates to a guy with a girlfriend, “Thunder” speaks of a guy who probably didn’t have a girlfriend, but was kind of weird and bullied for it. “Kids were laughing in my classes, while I was scheming for the masses”. Was the scheme to fight global warming or alleviate poverty? Apparently, it was just to play some music. So, now that he’s successful the kids that used to bully him have to cheer for him from bad seats at the concert. So, if you like Imagine Dragons and all you can afford is “nosebleed” seats, aren’t you a piece of crap like the kids who bullied this guy! What a way to alienate your fanbase. And again, while “Gives You Hell” relates to a particular girl who spurned the singer, “Thunder” says that because the band is successful it demonstrates the band’s POWER. “Thunder, feel the thunder, lightning then the thunder”. It’s cool to be a rock star, Joe Walsh lets us know that, but let’s not oversell it.
Finally there is Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes” from 2018. I don’t get this band’s name. The first song I ever heard from them used “g-d” way too much and made no sense, something about closing a door, so I generally don’t think I can relate well to this music. It reminds me a little of Good Charlotte, maybe it’s 30 Seconds to Mars, but I don’t really know if that comparison is at all accurate. Anyway, the song is about a guy who has found success, he kept striving when he hadn’t made it, his mother supported him in his dreamquest, and though he has now found success, he will keep rising even further. Also I don’t think they use “g-d” in this song, which is a relief. Of the four songs, I like this one the most. No flaunting of wealth, no desire for other people to suffer at their success, just a declaration of the promise of continued hard work and success.
I want to end off discussing two Christian songs along this similar theme. Casting Crowns’ “Only Jesus” repudiates “the seek success at all cost” spirit of our age. A person oriented correctly will not seek their own exaltation but that of the Lord Jesus Christ, which in the end will be all that counts anyway. Like Panic! At the Disco, the name Big Daddy Weave bothers me. I’m sure there’s a good story about the name, but it doesn’t resonate with me. They (he?) have a song called “The Only Name”. This is a good personal mantra for a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a point to our lives: it’s not waking up in the evening, not seeking retribution on people who have done us wrong, it’s not purchasing things that we have no use for just because we have the money, it’s about glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ with everything we do in our lives. It’s hard to consistently pursue this (Him!) with all we have all the time, but it’s only when we do that we are storing up anything of value for the long run. People who hold fast to this ideal will have a song of success in eternity, the song of the redeemed.