The music business is a constant tug of war between art and commerce. We all like to imagine our favourite artists are simply tearing their souls out and leaving the pieces on their records for us to enjoy. We want pure artistic expression not a cynically created product. Nonetheless, whether through record company pressure or their own drive for success, even the greatest artists have one eye on their music’s commercial appeal.
After all, if you’ve worked hard on your songs and you’re proud of them, you want as many people to hear them as possible. Plus, if you’re serious about your art and want to dedicate yourself to it full-time, that is gonna take money. Either that or you’re fitting your art in at the weekend, worn out from a week at the office. It’s not very romantic but if you want to make a living you’d better appeal to (at least a chunk of) the masses.
Which is why songs written out of spite are so great. These are moments when the masks slip, commercial cares are thrown aside and the songwriter’s sole concern is showing somebody a musical middle finger. Even better if the finished song has a gossipy story attached to it…
8. The Beatles - Yer Blues
Yer Blues is one of the heaviest songs ever written by the formerly Fab Four. Written in India during a spell of misery and despondency, John Lennon presented Yer Blues as a parody of the British Blues boom of the late '60s.
The song sends up white Englishmen portraying themselves as authentic blues men. As Beatles biographer Jonathan Gould put it, Yer Blues represents The Beatles’ acceptance that:
“except as a subject of self-parody, certain expressive modes of African-American music lay outside the realm of their experience and hence beyond their emotional range as singers.”
But something else is going on beneath the surface. John was poking fun at those British blues guys because he resented them. The genre exercise masks a certain bitterness at John’s own inability to express himself quite so sincerely.
John had been writing relatively revealing songs about himself since Help! earlier in the decade, but always sugar-coated the message with an upbeat musical backdrop.
Ironically, The White Album (on which Yer Blues was released) found John opening up and making some of his most revealing recordings to date on tracks like Julia.