Baby You’re a Rich Man: 10 Songs About Privilege

Treble staff
10 songs about privilege

This weekend, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby opens in theaters. Set in the 1920s, The Great Gatsby is emblematic of the lifestyle of the “Roaring Twenties” — massive wealth, lavish parties, flapper culture and hedonism gone amok. It’s also a pretty insightful social critique, though expect a lot more stylization of 1920s glamour in Luhrmann’s version. However, the timing of it seemed perfect to assemble some of our favorite songs about privilege as it’s depicted in song. Whether it’s songs about being rich, or simply about class or excess — we’ve got it all. Take a trip through the highs and lows of prosperity with us.


Hall and Oates - Bigger Than Both of UsHall & Oates – “Rich Girl
from Bigger Than Both of Us
(1976; RCA)

Daryl Hall and John Oates have had more hits than most, but their first number one came in the form of a short, sweet and searing take-down of condescending privileged behavior. Taking aim at an amoral figurehead for wealth and status, Hall gives a dressing down to a girl who can “rely on her old man’s money,” noting, “It’s so easy to hurt others when you can’t feel pain.” But the great irony is how rich (HEY!) the song’s arrangement is, all doo-wop harmonies, fat keyboards and strings. No doubt the songwriting duo probably had better than a shoestring budget to work with, but even some of the most reliable hitmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s know that success is no reason to sacrifice common decency. – JT


Kraftwerk - Man MachineKraftwerk – “The Model
from The Man-Machine
(1978; EMI)

The rare song on Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine that seemingly has nothing to do with robots or technology, “The Model,” instead, is a character study of a glamorous model type whose looks and lifestyle define who she is. It still sounds vaguely robotic, of course — that’s the beauty of being one of the most celebrated songs by a pioneering synth-pop band. But at the heart of “The Model” is a story of both longing and aspirations. The figure at the center of the song “loves drinking just champagne” and “playing her game,” and her beauty and success ultimately make her the kind of person everybody wants to meet. Yet what’s not present in Ralf Hutter’s lyrics, however, is the question of whether or not these are reasons that people should connect. Money and appearances are ultimately superficial things. And yet, their appeal never seems to diminish. – JT


David Bowie - LodgerDavid Bowie – “Boys Keep Swinging
from Lodger
(1979; RCA)

The notion of “privilege” in the context of most songs here primarily concerns economic privilege, but just as treacherous is the prevalence of gender privilege. Sexism is alive and well, unfortunately, and business and political culture is still very much a boys’ club, regardless of the steps taken toward equality over the past century. One to subvert expectations of sexual identity from the get-go, David Bowie lampoons the idea of male privilege in “Boys Keep Swinging” by heaping just enough praise toward young males that it’s not too long before the ruse begins to shine through: “Heaven loves ya/ The clouds part for ya/ Nothing stands in your way/ When you’re a boy.” It only grows more exaggerated with each verse, but putting it over the top is the cheeky video, in which Bowie dresses in drag as a trio of backup singers. – JT


Bruce Springsteen - NebraskaBruce Springsteen – “Mansion on the Hill
from Nebraska
(1982; Columbia)

The quiet, haunting Nebraska, much like many of Bruce Springsteen’s other albums, deals pretty heavily in hardships, class struggle and the people that society has left behind. “Mansion on the Hill,” a standout track on an album with nothing but, draws a pretty clear line between the haves and the have-nots, but does so in a beautifully stark and poetic way, rather than through direct expressions of anger and resentment. Springsteen begins the tune by introducing “a place out on the edge of town, sir/ Risin’ above the factories and fields,” a house that, by its very location standing atop a hill over a town of blue collar workers and farms, makes a pretty big statement about its residents and their separation from the working class. In the summer, “there’d be music playin’, people laughing all the time,” but there’s something sinister, ominous even, about this mansion surrounded by steel gates and isolated from common society. Beautiful and chilling, “Mansion on the Hill” says a lot with a little. – JT


Blur - ParklifeBlur – “Girls & Boys
from Parklife
(1994; Food-EMI)

After one album of baggy, nigh-shoegaze and another of classic Britpop, Blur treated listeners to an unexpected trip to the discotheque in “Girls & Boys,” the leadoff track from their third and best album, Parklife. But while at first glance it might have sounded like the Crown Princes of Britpop were going the full Duran Duran (not a bad thing, mind), the electro-fied arrangement merely bolstered the satirical nature of the song, which pointed its barbs at pansexual hedonism, excess, hopelessly indulgent lifestyles and generally problematic social behavior. There’s no specific mention of wealth, save for the line, “Avoiding all work/ ‘cause there’s none available,” but there’s an implicit suggestion that anyone whose lifestyle revolves around whisking off to foreign beaches and sexual affairs sans common language is probably not concerned with counting pennies. – JT


Pulp - Different ClassPulp – “Common People
from Different Class
(1995; Island)

Sure, a lot of people hold their wealth or class above others. But what happens when someone with privilege finds amusement or satisfaction by spending time among the ‘common’ people? In this classic ’90s Britpop single, Jarvis Cocker tells the tale of a sculpture student (living off her ‘loaded’ dad’s money) who befriends the narrator to learn more about what goes on outside the upper class. Starting off as a jovial narrative, the song quickly turns cynical, accusing the woman of being a tourist and for “thinking poor is cool.” While it’s unclear what happens to the woman in the story, Cocker’s opinion is laid out in a straightforward and enjoyably sardonic manner, making this song an excellent moment for this collection of ‘privilege songs.’ – AK


Jay-Z - Vol.2 songs about being richJay-Z – “Money Ain’t a Thang” [feat. Jermaine Dupri] from Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life
(1998; Roc-a-fella)

One of the best things about being ridiculously wealthy is telling everyone about it. When flashy cars, designer suits and a pocket full o’ money just won’t cut it, the next logical step is to record a song about it. On this cut from Jay-Z’s national breakthrough Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, HOV enlisted the help of Atlanta-based swagger master Jermaine Dupri to make everyone listening feel like shit about the state of their checking account. At the time, the lyrics “To hell with the price, cause the money aint a thang” may have come across as a somewhat common boast (at least for the rap world), but both men have persisted. In the 15 years since, Dupri has successfully launched or contributed to countless artists’ careers through his production work and So So Def label, while Jay-Z has done… well… just about everything that money can (or can’t) buy. – RB


Kanye West - GraduationKanye West – “The Good Life” [feat. T-Pain] from Graduation
(2007; Roc-a-fella)

Like pretty much everything else in Kanye West’s life, his ode to luxury is anything but typical. Instead of taking the usual route of most rappers and showboating about all the fresh shit owns, Kanye (and begrudgingly, T-Pain) created a song that brought the “Good Life” to the masses. In a moment of uncharacteristically stripped-down machismo, West raps “let’s go on a living spree/shit, they say the best things in life are free.” Thanks to this track, everyone was able to taste the good life. No matter if you jammed this song while pushing a tricked-out Bentley or a broke-ass Nissan, all of a sudden, everyone belonged. West’s carefree verses and T-Pain’s robo-voice fit perfectly over a booming beat that also sampled Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” ultimately resulting in an infectious anthem of everyman excess. -RB


Frank Ocean - Channel OrangeFrank Ocean – “Sweet Life
from Channel Orange
(2012; Def Jam)

In “Sweet Life,” the third single off his debut album, Channel Orange, Frank Ocean spreads a good-vibes croon over a jazzy, laid back beat, a la Stevie Wonder. But rather than musing about love or loss, Ocean reflects upon his initial reactions when Hurricane Katrina forced his family to relocate from New Orleans to Beverly Hills. In this swanky tune, the singer is obviously critical of the sheltered lifestyle of residents of the privileged LA neighborhood, but does so in character of the residents, which lends itself to such lyrical gems as “My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real” and “Why see the world when you’ve got the beach?” – AK


The Knife - Shaking the HabitualThe Knife – “Raging Lung
from Shaking the Habitual
(2013; Brille-Mute)

The Knife’s newest album, Shaking the Habitual, isn’t necessarily a protest record, but it’s hard to escape the politics that the Swedish duo inject into it. The cover art depicts a man with dollar signs for eyes, while a panel in an accompanying comic strip contains the slogan “End Extreme Wealth!” And aside from being the track on the album to feature a line nicked from a Fugazi song, nine-minute highlight “Raging Lung” is also the track that most directly addresses wealth inequity via one of the album’s most sublime melodies, and what, on closer inspection, might actually be a love story. “Hear my love sigh,” Karen Dreijer Andersson sings, “I’ve got a story that money can’t buy.” But elsewhere, the examination of class divisions are far more explicit: “You got your money and you got them ‘cause others just can’t/ There’s the lottery/ About geography.” That it’s such an idiosyncratically beautiful and sinister electro dirge almost makes the message all the more subversive. – JT

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