Soundtracking the Resistance - Taxing Problems
Music and Taxes: The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Primal Scream, Sharon Jones, The Knife, and More
Apr 21, 2017 Web Exclusive Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern (for Under the Radar)
This week we're going to build bridges, albeit of a temporary and highly specific kind. Because if there's one thing that unites people, it's the confusion, frustration, and panic brought on by the tax filing deadline. I hope you all managed to get the job done in time; otherwise you'll be sleeping with one eye open watching for the IRS. Though if Trump has his way, there won't be enough money to fund those responsible for chasing tax cheats.
It's no surprise he might want to gut the IRS. Donald Trump and taxes are not exactly dream bedfellows. Last Saturday saw another wave of protests as the calls for the release of his tax returns continue. He managed to fudge his way through the election throwing out the inadequate excuse IRS auditing prevented him doing the thing major party nominees have been doing for four decades.
It does beg the question what is the man hiding? Although we can't prove anything definitively (what with him refusing to provide any information) it's no stretch to at least suspect a little creative accounting. The partial filing from his 1995 tax return obtained by The New York Times suggests he's been making massive losses work for him.
While protestors are taking to the streets to ensure unreleased taxes aren't forgotten—provoking further ludicrous tweets from the Commander in Chief, one that hilariously calls for someone to look into who's paying for the protest rallies that are themselves asking to see just who Trump has (or perhaps has not) been paying over the years— this might be an area where he finds common ground with parts of the music community.
It's fair to say recording artists have not been a key part of his constituency to date. Names big and small lined up for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Trump has a somewhat weaker roster, depending on how you view Tila Tequila and Kid Rock (and the answer to at least one of those should be not favorably). That being said, distaste for tax collectors—and Trump is, after all, the man who declared himself smart for avoiding paying tax—is shared by some of the biggest names in music.
So riled was George Harrison by the high levels of taxation imposed by the left-wing Labour Government in the U.K., he penned the now iconic "Taxman" in 1966. I guess vast riches change minds. The Beatles seemed less concerned a couple of years earlier, happy to declare "I don't care too much for money/money can't buy me love." British contemporaries The Kinks go for a more ironic take that same year in "Sunny Afternoon," opening with the rather charming couplet "the tax man's taken all my dough/and left me in my stately home."
Over this side of the Atlantic, notorious rebel Johnny Cash did what he could to unite us with a song about our mutual enemy. "After Taxes" from 1978 is an incredibly specific lament about the proportion taken by various taxes (and you have to love backing vocals that sound eerily similar to Jemaine Clement contributing increasingly obscene comments in Flight of the Conchords "If You're Into It"). Rarely does popular music provide quite this level of bureaucratic detail.
Not everyone is so irritated by the concept of taxation. In some instances it's the way revenue is spent that draws ire. Nina Simone used "Backlash Blues" to attack the Johnson administration and the racist divide in America, singing "You raise my taxes/freeze my wages/and send my son to Vietnam." Primal Scream got in on the act in 2002 with "Rise," including the blunt statement "You pay your taxes/you serve your time/all that money/where does it go?" Basically, everywhere you look someone is writing a song about taxes. But as that and death are said to be the only two certainties in life, it's no wonder.
Occasionally you might even find a few supportive words in favor of taxation, or at least the kind of society that can be built with it. Swedish anti-capitalist duo The Knife attack the social conditioning that turns people against socialized support, including in one of their choruses "You make me like charity/instead of paying enough taxes."
Plenty of musicians have done more than just sing about taxes, actively avoiding paying them with less than stellar legal consequences. From Lauryn Hill to Chuck Berry, Willie Nelson, Nas and dear old Pavarotti, an A-list line up has found themselves in court for unpaid taxes. It seems there are some issues that provide inadvertent common ground with Trump. If only he'd do the decent thing (not a choice he often makes) and release those tax returns, we might find just how much in common he has with the people named above. As of now though, the person ultimately responsible for dictating how tax revenue should be used, and how the tax enforcement agency broadly operates, insists on keeping his own dealings carefully hidden. So let's keep those protests going. At the very least, time he spends tweeting about them is time not spent with the nuclear arsenal.
Song of the Week: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - "What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes"
Yes, this is technically an anti-war song, but it fits our earlier sub-category targeting the specific uses of taxation. Besides, with Trump back making up foreign policy on the go, who knows when he might embroil America and the wider world in a series of escalating conflicts. It's already clear he has no strategy on Syria or North Korea. NATO is also no longer obsolete; largely on the basis he's had a little tiff with Russia. So the sadly departed Sharon Jones—it's really hard to believe someone so full of life can be gone—and her band has it right. What are we paying taxes for? Under this administration, daily policy changes make it difficult to keep up.
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