If you’ve ever found yourself wishing that your favorite bands had written more songs about the infuriating, restrictive bureaucracy of the music industry then … well, there might be something wrong with you. But in spite of the fact that business is usually, at best, a necessary evil for most musicians, it does occasionally inspire moments of creative brilliance. Mostly out of frustration.
“Death on Two Legs” by Queen
If you take away one thing from “Death on Two Legs” it should be that Queen was at the absolute peak of their powers with 1975’s A Night at the Opera. If you take two things away from the song, the second should be that you should never—I repeat, never—get on the wrong side of Freddie Mercury. “Death on Two Legs” completely eviscerates Queen’s former manager, Norman Sheffield, who Mercury thought had mishandled Queen’s finances. The song opens with Mercury sneering, “You suck my blood like a leech, you break the law and you breach” and, like the song, he was only just getting started. By the end of “Death on Two Legs,” Mercury has called Sheffield “a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride” and straight up suggested that Sheffield should kill himself, all within a vocal performance that is positively dripping with venom. The song is so cruel that not only did guitarist Brian May feel bad about performing it but Sheffield sued the band for defamation, eventually settling out of court. Later, Mercury himself would denounce the track as “awful, just awful,” ignoring the clear reality that “Death on Two Legs” is a bonafide classic.
“Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5
These days, Maroon 5 is best known for being the incredibly bland vehicle of former-TV-show-host-slash-questionable-tattoo-aficionado Adam Levine. But back before the band became known for its deceptively satisfying pop-rock, they were a bunch of nobodies under the gun from their label to keep writing material for their first album, Songs About Jane. And this pissed singer Adam Levine right the hell off. The result of that anger was “Harder to Breathe”, a top-notch banger that’s ostensibly about a romantic relationship but is in fact about a certain label pressuring a certain band to write a hit single. Though “Harder to Breathe” wasn’t a huge hit, it helped propel Maroon 5 to eventual stardom so that despite Levine’s prior anger with a label that was “so condescending” and “unnecessarily critical”, he’s probably pretty happy with how things turned out.
“Badd Beat” by Gatsbys American Dream
Seattle natives Gatsbys American Dream were unique in a lot of ways, not the least of which was that they fucking hated the way the music industry operated with such a burning passion that they wrote about it constantly. That fire and fury is best exemplified by “Badd Beat”, a song whose lyrics explicitly outline exactly how every indie band was getting screwed in the mid-2000s. Despite the song basically being an econ lecture from the Punk Rock School of Hard Knocks, it totally rips. During one of the track’s several tonal shifts, everything falls away save a simple beat, a wandering piano line and Nic Newsham singing, “It would be too easy making 10% off the tours we book for you, so we figure we’ll take as much as we can because it’s not up to you.” If that’s not enough to get your inner proletariat fired up, a passage later in the song laments that “nothing ever changes in the real world” and, well, that certainly seems to be true here.
“Love Song” by Sara Bareilles
Despite its title, “Love Song” is decidedly not a love song. At first blush, the song’s lyrics appear to be telling a romantic partner to kiss off after they’ve asked Bareilles to write a love song about them. This would be a bad enough idea on its own since it’s almost never a good thing when a pop star writes a song about you, but the truth here is the rant that is “Love Song” isn’t about a romantic partner but a record label. When Epic Records pushed Bareilles to write a hit love song, she struggled to come up with the right material until her frustration turned into a massive hit. “Blank stares at blank pages,” the song goes, “No easy way to say this: You mean well but you make this hard on me.” Even Bareilles would agree that the resulting pop gem was worth the hardship.
“Not My Blood” by Gates
Generations of indie bands have aspired to land record contracts but for a lot of those that do, the results often fall short of what they had imagined, to the point that getting out of a record contract often becomes a new aspiration. “I’m worth only numbers,” sings Kevin Dye on “Not My Blood”, echoing the sentiments of disenfranchised bands everywhere. “Someday, you’ll get what we deserve, the profit you had never earned.” Of course, as this entire article can attest, bands are not without recourse: You can always write a song vaporizing the label/manager/executive who’s holding you down! Gates not only rises to the occasion but spells it out clearly for the listeners at home with the opening line of “Not My Blood” reading, “Here’s my chance to break contract.” That this song was released as a single only further proves, as Dye eloquently states to labels everywhere, that “you don’t know a goddamn thing about me.”
“London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines” by Panic! At the Disco
Being labeled talentless, trend-chasing shills has been a part of the Panic! At the Disco brand since the moment their odd exclamation point usage spread across every emo kid’s MySpace page in 2005. And yet, not only has the band released a handful of fantastic singles and a couple of truly great albums, they were actually punk rock enough to preemptively strike out against their critics. Recording their debut album, the band had already had enough of domineering labels and critics telling them to “stop stalling [and] make a name for yourself” with the result being a song whose chorus memorably claims, “Well, we’re just a wet dream for the webzine. Make us it, make us hip, make a scene or shrug us off your shoulders [and] don’t approve a single word that we wrote.” But pre-fame Panic! wasn’t going to let the pressure get to them, as the song’s bridge wittily notes: “Just for the record, the weather today is slightly sarcastic with a good chance of A) indifference, or B) disinterest in what the critics say.”
“One Down” by Ben Folds
Because creative contracts are weird things, Ben Folds found himself owing a label 4.6 songs. (That translates to four full songs and one collaboration.) The act of churning out a song just to satisfy contractual obligations wasn’t a happy one for Folds, though it did reduce his debt to 3.6 songs. And that’s when inspiration struck. “One Down” is both a song written to fulfill a contract and a song about writing a song to fulfill a contract. Meta! The chorus repeats the premise as a refrain: “One down and three point six [to go]” while the second verse spells out the nature of contract writing as clearly as anyone ever has:
“People tell me, Ben, just make up junk and turn it in. But I never was alright with turning in a bunch of shit. I don’t like wasting time on music that won’t make me proud. But now I’ve found a reason to sit right down and shit some out.”
Well played, Ben. Well played.