The Great Trans-Atlantic Tax-Themed Song Battle '09

The Great Trans-Atlantic Tax-Themed Song Battle ’09

Hello, America. Today, we’re going look at taxes as viewed from both sides of the Atlantic, through the lens of pop music. Read on – but if you qualify for the Earned Income Credit (EIC), please make sure to first fill out the worksheet on page 15.

Domestic Terrorism: Just One Stop on Boston's Freedom Trail!

Domestic Terrorism: Just one stop on Boston's famous Freedom Trail!

So what does the Godfather of Soul’s offering reveal about America?  After all, the man certainly qualifies as an expert on the subject.  Let’s er… itemize some insights below.

Everything is bigger in America.  “Tax Man” clocks in at ~2:30 minutes.  “I’m Payin’ Taxes, What am I Buyin'” cooks-your-books for over three times that length.  Even the title’s longer–and by almost the same ratio, too.  Hrm.  Now, I’m required by law to use a phrase like “in this economy” when addressing the public, so… In this economy, don’t you want your hard-spent mp3-buying dollars to go further?  And funkier?  Which reminds me…

America Wants the Mutha’-Lovin’ FUNK Up In Its TRUNK. In three different ways, really.  There’s the opening-closing theme/framing device of a-capella vocalise (we’ll call, “experimenting-with-form” funky),  the B-section theme circa 3:16 (“Anything’s-funky-with-a-vibraslap” funky) and the main theme (“so-goddam-funky-we-probably-don’t-need-to-even-mention-it” funky).  The Beatles get a tight groove, no doubt, but if you need to shake your taxable income maker, it’s really no contest.

Americans are Anthem People. One more  than others, but that’s beside the point.  “Tax Man” is a clever little song, and it employs the classic verse-refrain lyric architecture.  It’s sufficient for a pop tune, but if you wanted to stage some bat-guano-bonkers rally in front of IRS headquarters, demanding the end to all taxes, it’ll hardly rabble the troops.  Here’s the alternative: let’s just take two sentences–the first of which is the song’s title, mind you–and shout them repeatedly at the top of our lungs (starting at 2:15).   Actually, this brings up an interesting point…

Intelligible Lyrics?  That’s Just What The MAN Wants. I’ve been listening to this song for years now, and as a die-hard funk fan, I’m well acclimated to the unique vocal stylings Soul Brutha No. 1. provides.  Here I am, even, blogging about how ridiculously high quality this anthem is, and I must admit… I have no goddam clue what J.B. says in the second line of the song’s lyrics.  It’s

I’m payin’ taxes, but what am I buyin’?

A whole <sumpin-sumpin-sumpin> and everybody’s cryin’!

Is it “A whole lotta rape and cussin'”? “A whole lotta butter and custard”“A hope of a doberman’s busing”?  It seems absurd, but it’s on par with other great James Brown works.   Really, though, all of this is moot, BECAUSE THE LYRICAL CONTENT DOESN’T MATTER.  The song adequately gets the central point across: dude’s mad.  Actually, ALL of the dudes are pretty clearly mad.  The cause of their ire is presumed to be somehow tax-related.

America Is a Nation of Unity and IndividualityA lot has been written about the a-capella vocal intro/outro in this song.  Despite its unconventional structure, this is ultimately a song of protest, a group song of protest, and so we can interpret this artistic choice as an expression of Mr. Dynamite’s First Amendment right to public gatherings.  It’s also steeped in the southern black tradition, a reference to old Negro field songs, about which there’ll be more below.

Of course, on the flip side, the mythos of the American Spirit is also deeply about individual accomplishment.  And musically speaking, that ideal’s about as well represented here as it could be anywhere: with a trademark “Friendly Fred” Wesley trombone solo!  I mean, it’s called a solo, not a government collective, right?  What could better embody the spirit of American self-reliance, than a tribute to the Soul and ‘Bones of our patriots?

Hah, puns.

Americans Lack Subtlety.  This is the nation of McRib, people; while the raspberry “Tax Man” blows at its leaders is wonderfully quaint, it just won’t fly on this side of the pond.  I mean, yes, it would be a terrible shame if, as I were about to enjoy a good sit in my favorite comfy chair, the government were to levee a tax on said chair.  I suppose that would entirely sully that day’s Tea, or even that day’s Invasion of the Falklands.

…But you know what would also suck?  Fracking Slavery. And even post-slavery, the systematic denial of civil rights to all citizens. That’d suck pretty badly, too.  That would probably get me more riled up than the government taxing my heat (which it pretty much does anyway), the street (ditto), or other rhyming things.

To put it bluntly (America!), James Brown likening his government to a white plantation owner, and threatening to beat Clayton “Chicken” Gunnells if he sleeps with a white woman… that’d probably cut a bit deeper than threatening to tax my feet.

Americans aren’t so hip to  classic greek burial ritual references. The Beatles quip:

And my advice for those who die (Tax man!)

Declare the pennies on your eyes (Tax man!)

…a reference to the ancient Greek belief that Charon, ferryman of the afterlife, required a fare of two pennies to bring one’s soul into Tartarus.  Pennies were left on a recently deceased corpse’s eyes, lest he be left by the side of Styx for all eternity, tortured by its eerily high-pitched vocal stylings.  Apparently, Greeks would much rather spend eternity being tortured by rolling heavy things up steep things.

Anyhoo – you know what part of this wonderfully erudite image will resonate with the sould of the tax-burdened working man? NOTHING.  Instead…

Americans Funk it With Fracking COP SIRENS. (At 4:34)  The JB’s are obviously of the opinion that, if you’re going to steep your song in metaphor, (A) Have it be more visceral than those spoken with words, and (B) Let it double as the international symbol that THIS PARTY IS ABOUT TO GET FREAKY-STYLE CRAZY.


Well, that about does it.  I’ve checked my math, signed the return, and run out of OverThought arguments, so it’s time to wrap up.  Please join us for our next edition on Earth Day, where the discussion will focus on two alternate views of primate ecology and social behavior.

10 Comments on “The Great Trans-Atlantic Tax-Themed Song Battle ’09”

  1. Kelley #

    Was just about to comment on that myself perich. Is it sad that all I remember from taking Latin all through High School is the calendar?


  2. stokes OTI Staff #

    That acapella section is pretty wacky.


  3. Gab #

    Did YOU go to a Tea Party yesterday?


  4. shechner OTI Staff #


    Hrm – I worried about my political affiliation being misconstrued with this article. Rest assured, madam, that I’m a bleeding heart liberal of the kind one only finds in The Peoples Republic of Cambridge, MA. My beef isn’t with taxes, so much, as their misuse, or of songs pertaining to them which are inadequately funky.

    ‘Cause frankly, I can’t think of a topic matter which, when set to an adequately funky fake down-beat, some #9 chords and a tritone substitution, doesn’t get the people dancing. Seriously, if someone traveled back in time and brought ~1973 era J.B. to the present, he could kick out “Funky Darfur,” and it’d cook. As would the bajillion hip-hop tunes that sample it.


  5. Rob #

    @shechner – “Funky Darfur” is a bonus track on the upcoming reissue of The Coup’s classic “Genocide and Juice”.


  6. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Rob: Which was in turn a reinterpretation of the classic “Genocide and Jews.”


  7. Rob #

    mlawski fail, god win.


  8. Rob #

    (just kidding, i liked that one.)


  9. Gab #

    Oh, believe me, I had no actual belief you would go to one of those things unless the purpose was to people-watch. I meant it in a very sarcastic way because I have been following this story since rumors about protests on Tax Day and tea in the mail started and, well… Look at the morons in this video:

    Yeah, Obama is *really* a fascist pig because he is, ’nuff said. And all that crap about Lincoln? Give me a break. Mailing bags of tea to members of Congress? I can’t help but think, “Wasn’t one of the biggest reasons for the original Boston Tea Party a lack of representation, while your protests are aimed at… representatives…?”

    And the new protests occurred the day this was posted, so I immediately thought of them as one of those “ill-informed protest[s]” you brought up. And, as if you couldn’t tell already, I’m rather irked with them. That’s a long rant, of course, so I’ll just bow out somewhat gracefully now, ahem.

    Anyhoo, no, you’re not a moron, ergo I didn’t *actually* think you’d be at one of those things. W00+.


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