What Pop Songs Tell Us About Our Money

Today’s hits reflect Americans’ search for stability amid financial stress.


Think pop music is all about glitzy lifestyles and superficial topics? Think again. Today’s hits reflect the financial instability that Americans are feeling almost as accurately as the stock market

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The current chart-toppers celebrate love, friendship, and human failings: In Nelly’s “Just a Dream,” the rapper reflects on mistakes he made with the love of his life. In “Only Girl (In the World)”, Rihanna exhorts her partner to treat her like she’s “the only girl in the world.” And Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” serves as an anthem to anyone who’s ever felt left out or like an “underdog.”

That focus on humanity hasn’t always been at the forefront of pop stars’ minds. In fact, at the beginning of the decade, the most popular songs on the radio celebrated excess, wasteful spending, and pricey brand names.

Just eight years ago, Nelly broke out with his hit Nellyville album, which features a title track describing a world where newborns get “half a mill,” sons get luxury “Sedan DeVilles,” and daughters get “diamonds the size of their age.” 50 Cent’s 2003 album, “Get Rich or Die Tryin',” also promoted a luxury lifestyle, where he drives “the Benz on Monday, the BM on Tuesday” and the “Porsche on Friday.”

On Beyonce’s 2006 B’Day album, “Upgrade U” similarly suggests that a flashier lifestyle is a better one as she begs her partner to “let me upgrade you.” Jay-Z joins her on the song to get specific: “I’m talking spy bags and fly pads and rooms at the Bloomberg.”

But on the brink of 2011, as Americans battered by the economy and search for comforting life rafts, pop stars are singing a very different tune. Today’s songs are designed to make people feel like there’s hope amid the struggle. Even if listeners have been out of work for months and feel like the underdogs of Pink’s song, they still have someone—Pink—on their side.

Kei$ha’s “We R Who We R” carries a similar message of having fun even if “we’re selling our clothes” and “sleeping in cars.” Lady Gaga also embraces people who are down on their luck or who feel like outcasts, and famously labels her fans her “little monsters.”

Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” surprise summer hit goes so far as to make fun of people who prioritize money over love. “I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough,” he sings to his ex-girlfriend, who apparently left him for a richer man.

Even in today’s love songs, all the glitz that money can buy takes a back seat to secure relationships. In Beyonce’s mega-hit “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” the emphasis is on the security that comes from making a commitment, and not on the size of the ring itself. She just wishes her boyfriend “put a ring on it,” not that he purchased a five-carat Neil Lane diamond.

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“Put a Ring on It” is just the beginning of songs that celebrate love and romance, the ultimate antidote to tough financial times. In “Just the Way You Are,” Bruno Mars says he wouldn’t change a single thing about his lover. In Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” everything is similarly perfect between her and her man. He thinks she’s pretty “without any make up on.”

Perry’s ode to her home state, “California Girls,” which could have focused on Hollywood glamour, turns instead to the simple pleasures of the West Coast: Palm trees, sun-kissed skin, and sand. When she does mention shoes, she uses the generic term, “stilettos,” and not a luxury brand.

Music, it turns out, reflects what’s in our bank accounts. Songs with lyrics that are out of sync with the times, such as Jennifer Lopez’ “Louboutins,” released a year ago, fall flat. No one wanted an ode to $600 footwear as credit card bills pile up.

So what’s on tap for the biggest hits of 2011? Let’s hope a strong economy brings back a celebration of the good life, with a continued appreciation for the pleasures money can’t buy.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.