It’s tax season here in the US, and while nobody likes to do their taxes (it’s like taking a frustrating test where answering correctly costs you money), there are those among us who at least appreciate the process of collectively funding things like welfare, health insurance for the elderly, and obscene art. The obscener the better! You won’t find much support for this view in pop music, though. While musicians are supposed to be a bunch of flaming liberals, their message on taxes has more in common with anti-tax conservatives than with tax-and-spend Democrats.
Most famously, George Harrison’s “Taxman” was a lament not for the tax burden of the poor, but for the 95% tax rates charged the very richest, as Harrison himself was at the time. Johnny Cash at least managed to address the working man in “After Taxes,” a complaint about the then-new institution of state income taxes. (“There goes that bracelet for her arm / There goes that new fence for my farm,” and so forth.) And the Circle Jerks were simply against all taxes in general on “Red Tape,” the final track on their debut: “Red tape / Killing you killing me / Tax this / Tax that.” (See also Radiohead’s “A Wolf at the Door,” The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” Jimmy Buffett’s “Carnival World,” and My Chemical Romance’s “Vampire Money.”) The closest most songs get to economic liberalism is celebrating those not paying because they’re not working, like Blur’s “Parklife.” Some will go as far as decrying the rich who don’t pay taxes (Joni Mitchell’s “Tax Free,” the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young,” Creedence’s “Fortunate Son”), but only a few approach anything like an admiration for those doing the paying. The biggest American artist do so may be B.O.B., whose “Nothin’ On You” praises a girl who is “the whole package plus you pay your taxes.”
Why isn’t there more appreciation for paying taxes? Some of it may simply be that musicians are terrible with money and so may not totally appreciate the benefits of being required to give some of it away. After all, they’re legendarily bad about paying taxes, and both MC Hammer and Willie Nelson have found that even if you really don’t want to pay taxes, there’s no way around it. (And plus many of the songs above take the viewpoint not that taxes are bad, but that the programs and wars the taxes pay for are bad.) But there’s also something inherent to the experience of being a successful pop musician that would naturally discourage the sort of collectivist view that would take some delight in funding our shared enterprises. If books like Our Band Could Be Your Life are any indication, struggling musicians look far more like Republican-friendly small businesses than they do communal enterprises. Small groups put in sweat equity over months and years, competing against their peers for success, and even when massively successful tend to centralize the act of creation in the hands of a select few. To be a musician struggling for widespread success — rather than just the joy of playing, or to foster a thriving local scene — is to find yourself in a rather brutal free market, and when some monetary rewards do accumulate, it could be hard to see how that money was earned by anyone’s work but your own.
Interestingly enough, you can see some positive views of tax-paying from artists who come from social democracies, where tax rates are much higher than in the US. “You Make Me Like Charity” by Swedish artists The Knife (whose new album Shaking the Habitual draws on critiques of capitalism) describes a situation so extreme that it converted the singer to conservatives’ approach to wealth redistribution: “you make me like charity / instead of paying enough taxes.” And more recently our favorite Canadian, Drake, acknowledged those “living tax free” before bragging that “nowadays it’s six figures when they tax me.” This sense of civic pride and personal accomplishment at seeing the scope of your wealth reflected in how much of it the government can take is what liberals might hope citizens feel upon filing their tax return. If pop songs are anything to judge by, though, they’re mostly just pissed off.