Russia, Sixteen Tons, and Inequality

Sixteen TonsLast week, I wrote about the Russian police doing “Get Lucky” at the Olympics. It was mostly just an opportunity to snark at the complicity (Or more!) of Russian law enforcement regarding the country’s anti-gay laws. But Will send me a Yahoo! article, “Get Lucky” and 5 Other Mind-Blowing Covers by the Red Army Choir. I have to say, there is nothing particularly mind blowing about any of the songs, unless you think that no cops can sing.

But one of the songs really stands out: “Sixteen Tons.” The truth is that I think it is a great song regardless of who does it. And thematically it is brilliant. Popular music, then as now, reflects the interests of the power elite. That’s why the vast majority of songs are about love: it appeals to everyone without questioning the status quo. Listening to the radio, you would think that no one needs a job—they just need a nice girl or boy to love them. That’s why I’ve always hated, “All You Need Is Love.” What nonsense.

The idea of the Red Army Choir singing “Sixteen Tons” is itself funny, given its communist history. Even today, after the Boris Yeltsin years of “free market” reform where a small number of well connected business people managed to steal most of the nation’s resources, Russia has slightly less income inequality than the United States. So I like the irony of the very screwed up Russian establishment singing our own song to us.

When it was written in 1946, “Sixteen Tons” was looking back on the bad old days. At that time, inequality was lower than it is today and on a downward trend. Now it continues up and up. And although we no longer have people effectively enslaved to the company store, the overall picture for Americans is as bad or worse.

So enjoy the spectacle of the Russian police singing “Sixteen Tons.” It is very clear in this song that the lead singer does not speak English. And he sings with a wonderful East European accent. It sounds very much like Dracula singing. It is too bad that he doesn’t wear a cape. The truth is that the song is about how capitalist vampires suck the blood of workers. “Hurt at sweek an a bach ats trong!”


The common conservative line about low wages is that workers don’t have to take a particular job. They are “free” to do whatever they want. Note that this is exactly what conservatives were saying when people lived in company towns and became enslaved there, “Well, they didn’t have to take the job!” And that was actually more true then than it is now. I get really tired of conservatives always seeing how silly their argues used to be, but never able to see that for the present.

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