There are fewer things more terrifying than being out of work and unable to find new work — especially for those with no support network, and those who live from paycheck to paycheck. Even on our best days we despair that maybe the universe is out to destroy us, sabotaging our chances at finding jobs (why does it seem like no one is interested in hiring us?), and ensuring that we’re going to end up out on the streets.
It’s comforting to remember that a lot of people who ultimately became successful in life started out poor and scared. J. K. Rowling, to name just one example, wrote the first novel in the Harry Potter series while unemployed, living on welfare, as a single mother. It’s also a common problem among musicians, who for over a hundred years have vented their angst and frustration at the job market into some of our finest songs.
10. Rain on the Scarecrow (John Cougar Mellencamp)
While for much of his early career John Cougar Mellencamp was written off as a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen, recent years have witnessed a significant critical reappraisal of the singer/songwriter’s discography. Central to his appeal are his songs about ordinary, rough-and-tumble people trying to make a living in an America increasingly overrun by huge corporations. “Rain on the Scarecrow” is typical in this regard, as it describes the plight of a poor family that loses its farm (and thus only source of income) when the bank forecloses. The song powerfully marries anguish over a no-longer-recognizable country with apprehension about the measures to which people are driven in extreme times. Prophet-like, Mellencamp evokes the specter of revolution in the second chorus: “There’ll be blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.”
9. Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town (Kenny Rogers)
One of country music’s most phenomenally successful crossover artists, Kenny Rogers achieved national fame in the late 1970s with his song “The Gambler,” which became a trio of TV movies in which he played the titular character. Rogers also memorably sang, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Penned by Mel Tillis, this darkly comic song brilliantly mirrors the despair and alienation of the mid-1960s. “Ruby, are you contemplating going out somewhere?” asks the narrator to his partner as she prepares for a night on the town. As the story unfolds, we realize with increasing discomfort that we’re being made privy to a macabre domestic drama. He was paralyzed in the war, can’t leave the house, and knows he’s about to die. She’s already preparing for the future. Tragedy piles on top of tragedy, culminating in the line, “If I could move, I’d get my gun and put her in the ground”—an admission so bleak that it crosses back over the line into hilarity.
8. Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney)
One of those rare songs that still retains a place in popular culture, over 70 years after it was written, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1930) is one of the best-known songs ever written about financial depression and unemployment. Sung from the perspective of a man who once built railroads and skyscrapers, but is now reduced to standing in food lines and begging for money from passersby, the song was initially contested as anti-Republican propaganda but gained renewed popularity during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, where it became a dark anthem of the working man’s struggles. The Irving Berlin recording, lyrical and tortured, is definitive.
7. Career Opportunities (The Clash)
Pioneering punk rock outfit The Clash won high praise for their self-titled debut album in 1977, much of it on the strength of this song about the growing financial crisis in Britain which saw millions of teens and young adults unemployed. Drawing on his experience working for a government department, opening letters to ensure that they weren’t rigged with explosives, Mick Jones crafted this two minute-song about the angst and despair of seeking decent wages at a time when all the good jobs were going to much older people. “Do you want to make tea at the BBC?” he famously asks. “Do you want to be, do you really want to be a cop?” It became the anthem of a generation.
6. Atlantic City (Bruce Springsteen)
“Well, they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night,” sings Bruce Springsteen at the beginning of “Atlantic City,” a line that will now forever evoke associations with Breaking Bad. Springsteen’s album Nebraska followed almost a full decade of chart success in the 1970s, but rather than continuing down the path that had brought him fame, the Boss turned inward, reading the grim, Gothic stories of Flannery O’Connor (stories filled with hurting people trapped in desperate situations) and writing and recording demos on a four-track cassette recorder. The resulting album has been called one of the darkest and most challenging albums ever released by a mainstream record company, and that unsparing sensibility is evident in “Atlantic City,” a song about a Jersey man who, in desperation, takes on an unsavory Mafia job to support himself and his wife.