The plight of the recording artist is a struggle that has been set to a wide variety of tunes and complained about in many specific ways. Some choose to agonize over songwriting while others (many, it turns out) can’t emphasize the hardships of touring life enough. Whatever the issue, this is a lyrical topic that can be easily marked as a cliché. When artists have dedicated whole albums to the realities of the music business, however, it can be argued that this topic can be compelling if the hands are capable enough. Here are 15 songs that make signing that record deal and heading out on a national tour far less glamorous than some might imagine.
1. Bob Seger, “Turn the Page”
Perhaps the most commercially successful song on this list, “Turn the Page” sees Bob Seger and his band on the road, trying to get through the day to day without dying of boredom, making any signs of tinnitus more severe, or being eyed by too many small town strangers. This oft-covered tune chronicles the rigors of touring in enough detail to keep it from seeming too self-pitying or clichéd, even when it admits to some of them.
2. Nick Lowe, “I Love My Label”
Few songwriters are as deft at deceptively cutting pop songs as Nick Lowe, and “I Love My Label” is a prime example. Sounding as sweet as any valentine, Lowe subverts the song’s praiseful title by subtly revealing the strictures and insincerities his label offers him. The label asks for “lots of songs,” but “no more than 2:50 long;” Lowe’s new songs just so happen to be queued up when he comes around, etc. It’s the sort of playful derision any naïve band sniping about a record deal could hope to achieve.
3. Aimee Mann, “I’ve Had It”
Aimee Mann’s history of battling with labels that either hoped to trap her in the ‘Til Tuesday mold or cared little about promoting her breathtaking solo work is likely well known to anyone familiar with her backstory. Many songs in her oeuvre can be seen as allusions to these strifes, but “I’ve Had It” is the most direct and eloquent. The song was released on her 1993 solo debut, Whatever, an album that fully fell prey to those aforementioned disputes. Despite coming early in Mann’s solo career, the song’s account of an artist falling into routine is filled with great wisdom and depth.
4. FFS, “Collaborations Don’t Work”
So, you’re going to join forces with some talented Scots who cite you as an inspiration. They have the fan base and you have the critical accolades, so what could go wrong? Plenty, according to this track from FFS’ (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks’) outstanding 2015 self-titled release. The song runs off a catalogue of worst-case collaboration scenarios, from potential affairs to delayed holidays and artistic disputes that only the Dalai Llama could resolve. It’s an epic warning against working with others that’s delightful enough to prove all those cautions wrong.
5. Public Enemy, “Caught, Can We Get A Witness?”
Released on the 1988 masterpiece It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, “Caught” takes a bold stand in the debate over sampling and copyright law in hip hop. An intelligent, fiercely delivered number, Chuck D’s stance as proponent in the sampling wars carries as much import as any 1,000-word think piece on the topic. Additionally, lines like “You singers are spineless / As you sing your senseless songs to the mindless” feel more relevant than ever today.
6. The Fall, “Bournemouth Runner”
The Fall play a show and their stage backdrop gets stolen. What could be perceived as a mundane event turns into an epic caper in Mark E. Smith’s hands, complete with a left field punch line and some surreal personifications of the backdrop in question. Add in an upbeat keyboard line that won’t quit and you get a very welcome diversion from the “touring is exhausting” cliché that can befall songs about gigging.
7. Pavement, “Range Life”
Another take on playing shows that comes across as more clever than whinging, Pavement’s musings on the touring life of a mid-sized ‘90s indie act is both specific enough to be a unique addition to the subject, and also nonchalant enough to let those unfamiliar with the scene in on the joke. In lesser hands, the shot at Smashing Pumpkins would have come off as bitter, but Stephen Malkmus renders it a smart put down as teasing as it is true.