Some big names like Billy Joel, Pink and The Kinks have had hits with anti-music-industry songs, ironically helping to line the pockets of industry executives. This is the story of ten hit songs that pop stars performed to bite the hand that feeds them.
There is something sweetly ironic about listening to a hit song produced by the music industry about how evil and corrupt and useless the music industry is. Or to tune in to your fave radio station, only to hear a song blasting radio stations.
And that is perhaps why we love such songs so much. Here are just a few of the music-industry and radio-station-bashing hits that you might enjoy.
Spirit of the Radio by Rush
Canadian rock band Rush sings about the “freedom of music”, but how “glittering prizes” make that freedom so restricted. Money. Fame. The usual. This is clearly a song that criticizes not just the record labels, but the artists themselves for paying too much attention to those prizes and for making the “endless compromises”.
One likes to believe in the freedom of music,
But glittering prizes and endless compromises
Shatter the illusion of integrity.
They don’t say to what degree these prizes have co-opted them over the years, but it is fair to say that Rush has rarely contorted their music to fit any particular formula. However, it is also fair to say that much of the music they have written that is wildly outside radio format is on the early albums.
In their lyrics, however, Rush makes no compromise. That this song ever saw the light of day is proof of that. On the same album one also finds “Free Will”, a tribute to Ayn Rand and libertarianism and, seemingly, an anthem to explain why they made no compromise on “Spirit of the Radio”.
The Entertainer by Billy Joel
If you thought that “Piano Man” was Billy Joel‘s middle finger to the life of a struggling musician,
you must listen to the much less-renowned but equally compelling “The Entertainer”.
He begins by being suitably cynical about the fickleness of the public, of the fleeting nature of fame itself:
Like Rush, Billy Joel’s harsh words are not just aimed at the record company executives, but equally at the performers themselves. Billy Joel offers a few choice words for how low entertainers like himself hustle for money:
I am the entertainer
I bring to you my songs
I’d like to spend a day or two
I can’t stay that long
No, I’ve got to meet expenses
I got to stay in line
Gotta get those fees to the agencies
And I’d love to stay but there’s bills to pay
So I just don’t have the time
But like so many artists, he harbors great frustration at all the other people who put their hands in his music, and has to make those “endless compromises” that Rush sings about. Billy Joel puts it this way:
I am the entertainer
I come to do my show
You’ve heard my latest record
It’s been on the radio
Ah, it took me years to write it
They were the best years of my life
It was a beautiful song
But it ran too long
If you’re gonna have a hit
You gotta make it fit
So they cut it down to 3:05
And if that is not a pretty direct reference to “Piano Man”, which most of us know for both its short version and its longer and more complete original version, we can all pack up and go home.
Grace Kelly by Mika
Like Billy Joel, Mika was not impressed with record company executives who wanted to mess with his music. It seems that Mika’s sound wasn’t conventional enough for them, but Mike thought that he could have whatever sound he wants:
In Mika’s own words, “Grace Kelly was written after these musicians were trying to mold me into what I should be. I was really angry and so I wrote the song and mailed them the lyrics. They didn’t call me back, but two years later it’s come full circle.”
I could be brown
I could be blue
I could be violet sky
I could be hurtful
I could be purple
I could be anything you like
Gotta be green
Gotta be mean
Gotta be everything more
Why don’t you like me?
Why don’t you like me?
Walk out the door!
Cowboy Hats by Chris Cummings
Moving from Mica’s anger to Chris Cummings pragmatic cynicism, the country music industry takes one on the chin. Chris Cummings sings about how young performers are sucked into a suckers machine, essentially used for the benefit of the agents.
There’s two born every minute
There’s a sucker and a star
We’re all very busy, son
But could you tell us which you are
This is perhaps the most damning attack on the record industry that we visit today, painting them as snake oil salesmen with the main, purposeful intent to dupe starry eyed dreamers.
We Built this City by Starship
Starship‘s anthem that featured in the movie Rock of Ages, starring Tom Cruise, gets back to the whole conflict between money and art, and of course the artists are singing about how the money players are getting in the way.
Who counts the money underneath the bar
Who rides the wrecking ball in to our rock guitars
Don’t tell us you need us, ‘cos we’re the ship of fools
Looking for America, coming through your schools
Here is the song sung by Grace Slick and Starship:
Rock and Roll is a Vicious Game by April Wine
This rock ballad takes up the theme from the early part of Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer”. April Wine reminds us that you are only as good as your last song, and people will happily forget you for someone who’s last song is on their minds.
He opened up his heart to us, he gave us what he could
We symphathized and harmonized, he made us all feel good
But it’s funny how those things can change, and time can pass us by
Songs that moved us so easily, no longer make us cry
In fairness, this song still does make me cry. In this case, it isn’t really the music industry that is cruel; it’s you and me, who move on to newer music. But that is part of the game.
Don’t Let Me Get Me by Pink
Back on the track of Mika’s anger – oh, yes, he’s not the only one – let’s take a look at Pink‘s version. She got tired of being told by music industry executives to fit the mold, much as Mica was. The result was “Don’t let me get me”.
In the official video, she speaks to herself in the mirror, but the whole issue was the result of what she was being told in corporate offices.
Not to agree for a moment that Pink is in anybody’s shadow in the looks department, she did choose a different look, one that is all her own, and most people will agree that she built an image which is pretty unique in today’s pop scene.
singing “Don’t let me get me” and other “less than perfect” songs in your town:
Around the Dial by The Kinks
The Kinks zero in on Billy Joel and April Wine’s concern for the fleeting nature of stardom from the music listener’s point of view. Oh, but a twist! It’s not the missing pop star that they lament; it’s the missing DJ.
Where did you go Mr. D.J.?
Did they take you off the air?
Was it something that you said to the corporation guys upstairs?
It wasn’t the pressure,
You never sounded down.
It couldn’t be the ratings,
You had the best in town.
Somehow I’m gonna find ya, track you down.
Gonna keep on searchin’,
Around and around and ’round and ’round…
This song was not, in fact, about how individual DJs could go AWOL. It was about corporate consolidation of radio stations around the world, with automated playlists and fewer DJs (and less local variety in music selection). In fact, this might just be the most critical attack on the music industry on this list.
Radio Radio by Elvis Costello
OK, perhaps this one is almost as critical. Elvis Costello takes his shot at radio consolidation in “Radio Radio”, a short punchy tune of the new wave / punk rock era in the UK and across America. His lyrics are more aggressive, implying a dictatorial bent from the radio companies:
Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason
So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio
When he appeared on Saturday Night Live, he was asked not to sing this song, but he was a rebel and gave a melodic middle finger to the TV execs.
I wanna bite the hand that feeds me.
I wanna bite that hand so badly.
I want to make them wish they’d never seen me.
What a great song!
biting the hand that feeds him in your home town (He’s touring right now!):
American Pie by Don Maclean
Let’s end with a song that focuses on the evils and perils of the music industry in a most confusing way. Other than taking a veiled swipe at the Rolling stones and mourning the death of Buddy Holly, it is hard to say just what Don Maclean is displeased about, and he has always refused to say. Whatever it is, it seems to have affected him greatly and given the world another great, epic song.
Now for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone
But that’s not how it used to be
When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me
Oh, and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance
‘Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?
There are many more examples of songs that attack the music industry from Tom Petty and Graham Parker and the Clash and others. But these are ones that actually hit the charts. I hope you enjoy them.