clockwise from top left: Gold Diggers of 1933, Woody Guthrie, The Beatles, Kanye West, Madonna, the Pet Shop Boys, David Geffen and Joni Mitchell, Abba
Moneyspinners, clockwise from top left: Gold Diggers of 1933, Woody Guthrie, The Beatles, Kanye West, Madonna, the Pet Shop Boys, David Geffen and Joni Mitchell, Abba © Reuters/Getty

It was a strangely dressed supergroup from Sweden who put it most succinctly: “Money, money, money, Must be funny, In the rich man’s world. Money, money, money, Always sunny, In the rich man’s world.”

The song topped the UK charts in the autumn of 1976, in ironic counterpoint to the draconian measures announced by the International Monetary Fund as its condition for bailing out Britain’s ailing economy.

Music was not always so out of tune with the national mood. It is hard to imagine in the ostentatious, bling-ridden world of contemporary culture today, but it was poverty and depression that spawned the songs that would lay the foundations of popular music. In the early years of the 20th century, the urban blues recounted the suffering of a long-oppressed race, while in America’s heartland, folk music lamented the tribulations of peasant life.

Most of the music came from the heart, concentrating on the devastating effects of debt and unemployment; but there was the odd song that knew who to blame too. “When the bugs get your cotton, the times they are rotten, I’m jolly banker, jolly banker am I,” sang Woody Guthrie with rapacious sarcasm in 1940 as he recalled the Depression. “I’ll come down and help you, I’ll rake you and scalp you, Singin’ I’m jolly banker, jolly banker am I.”

For every protest-singing troubadour, however, there were cultural manipulators who were beginning to understand how to use music to lift the national mood. The chorus of Gold Diggers of 1933, staged with rapturous, though not entirely justified, optimism by Busby Berkeley, was Hollywood dismissing the Dust Bowl downers: “We’re in the money, We’re in the money; We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along! We’re in the money, The sky is sunny; Old Man Depression, you are through, You done us wrong!”

Guthrie’s lamentations were not the most sophisticated analysis of US business practice, but they established a tradition of critique that caught fire during the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. Bob Dylan’s withering, and immeasurably more artful, updating of the singer-songwriter’s banker-bashing caught youthful imaginations, as anti-capitalism became a fashionable lifestyle pose.

But the 1960s were also nothing if not concerned with self-gratification. On the other side of the Atlantic, The Beatles, the greatest pop group of them all, showed their contempt for materialism with the jauntily romantic “Can’t Buy Me Love”. “I may not have a lot to give, but what I got I’ll give to you,” sang Paul McCartney, the man who would, in late middle age, become embroiled in one of the messiest of modern divorce disputes.

But no one really believed him. Baby boomers, brought up in secure and relatively prosperous circumstances, were frank in their pursuit of material gain. The Beatles’ cover of the sizzling Motown classic “Money (That’s What I Want)” hit the bullseye, John Lennon’s avaricious sneer speaking for a generation that was not willing to wait for what it considered to be its due reward. “If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat,” sang George Harrison in his laconic and self-serving “Taxman”, anticipating a debate that continues to obsess politicians to this day.

Of course there were the hippies. The 1970s saw the counter-culture retreat to havens such as California’s Laurel Canyon, where articulate young songwriters cast beautifully crafted aspersions on the grubby business of money making. Jackson Browne declared himself caught “between the longing for love, And the struggle for the legal tender” in “The Pretender”, skilfully delineating that space “where the ads take aim and lay their claim, To the heart and the soul of the spender”.

It took the greatest of the West Coast songwriters, Joni Mitchell, to write about what was happening right in front of her: the agents, managers and record company executives getting extremely rich on the backs of their idealistic young charges. They were “stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song”, sang Mitchell in “Free Man in Paris”, a breeze of a song generally reckoned to have been written about David Geffen, the founder of Asylum Records and magnate-to-be. Can any business figure claim to have been the subject of such a gorgeous piece of music?

In the 1980s, greed became good and pop music lost its introspection and joined the party. “I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, Let’s make lots of money,” sang the Pet Shop Boys, with a certain archness that suggested they weren’t being entirely serious. Neil Tennant’s deadpan delivery was cool and calculated: “You can tell I’m educated, I studied at the Sorbonne, Doctored in mathematics, I could have been a don, I can program a computer, choose the perfect time, If you’ve got the inclination, I have got the crime.”

Here was the voice of a decade that was in fact rather flip about money making, perhaps because it seemed so easy. Even the most anthemic songs of the 1980s laced their intentions with an ironic edge. Here is Madonna’s “Material Girl”: “They can beg and they can plead, But they can’t see the light, that’s right, ’Cause the boy with the cold hard cash, Is always Mister Right.” Even as she sang the words, it was clear this was a woman who would have no need whatsoever for a Mister Right.

Two things have happened to pop music’s attitude to money since those nakedly grasping times. The first is that even the wealthiest pop stars have shed their inhibitions in writing about the woes of being rich. Far from alienating their less fortunately endowed fans, whingeing about wealth seems to excite them all the more.

Rap star Kanye West, for instance, warns of the perils of divorce settlements in “Gold Digger”: “She went to the doctor got lypo with your money, She walking around looking like Michael with your money, She take my money when I’m in need, Yeah she’s a trifling friend indeed, Oh she’s a gold digger way over town, That digs on me.” We are a long way indeed from “I may not have a lot to give, but what I got I’ll give to you”.

Rap and hip-hop have emulated rock in moving away from social critique, indulging instead in the shameless worship of material gain. Although some may find it odious, it is impossible not to admire the playful verbal inventiveness of songs such as “Billionaire” by Travie McCoy, featuring Bruno Mars: “I’ll be playing basketball with the president, Dunking on his delegates, Then I’ll compliment him on his political etiquette, Toss a couple milli in the air just for the heck of it . . . And yeah I’ll be in a whole new tax bracket, We in recession but let me take a crack at it.”

The other significant development of recent years is the use of rock music as a motivational tool for a generation of businesspeople who have grown up with the bombastics of MTV and arena concerts. Motivational speaker Darnyelle A. Jervey has compiled an “entrepreneurs’ playlist” to help stoke the flames of their daily money making.

“In my office on any given day, I can erupt into a ‘praise party’ or what we call a ‘shake your booty break’ at my live events,” says Jervey. “It’s just time to stop, feel the music, get the courage and inspiration to keep moving.” Not only is popular music failing to comment with any acuity on what is happening in the business world, it has become part of business itself, its muscular riffs celebrating the rich man’s world, where it is always sunny.

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