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Thursday, July 7, 2011 10:14 am

Mr. Bureaucracy

Why aren’t there more songs about government?


The life of an opinion-monger is filled with idle moments that more diligent commentators spend in study and reflection. I prefer to wonder rather than ponder. And one of the things I wonder about is, Why aren’t there more songs about government?

I wanted songs that are about the process of government, not the effects. That rules out the many songs about the perfidy of politicians, about uneased poverty and untethered police, songs about lobbyists (try Steve Earle’s “Mercenary Song”), even one good song (The Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone”) about land use policy. The last one, wrote a dizzy National Review reporter a few years ago, displays “a Jane Jacobs sensibility against central planning and a conservative’s dissatisfaction with rapid change.” Centralized planning? In Akron? Paving the countryside there, as in central Illinois, is what happens when build-everywhere Main Street Republicans are in charge.

Lots of songs speak against wars, which are usually started by governments (although seldom finished by ours). A whole catalog of songs protest the injustice of government regulations that prevent free men and women from leading a fuller life, such as breaking speed limits, getting high or ignoring the War Powers Act. But again, most government songs are government songs only in the way that Pat Quinn is a government leader.

You would think that songs about bureaucrats and the bureaucacy would qualify. Ray Davies’ “20th Century Man” describes life in the UK in the 1970s in these terms: “I was born in a welfare state/Ruled by bureaucracy/Controlled by civil servants/And people dressed in gray.” “Mr. Bureaucracy” by Paradox, a punkish northern Irish band from the latter 1980s, laments, “The government won’t leave me alone/I’m tired and spent/I’m tired and old.” Unfortunately, these songs are not about our government. Under present budget conditions, Illinois civil servants can’t control their own lives, much less those of someone else, unless that someone else is a Democratic election candidate. And in Illinois, the government won’t leave bureaucrats alone any more than it leaves the public alone, which is why so many bureaucrats end up tired and spent before they leave their jobs.     

Springfield is a state capital. Government is something people do, not something that is done to them. I wanted songs about the workaday lives of good people who spend time bunkered in their cubicles, sticking push pins into dolls representing assistant department managers who may know Somebody but don’t know nothing.

There was a time when working people trapped in dull and tedious jobs passed the time singing songs while they worked. No, I don’t mean humming along with WDBR, but songs created and passed on by the workers themselves. Sadly, as far as I know, nothing like a field holler was ever recorded on the old data-entry plantations at Secretary of State or Revenue. Charming as it is to imagine it, no assistant associate deputy director ever sang to his herd to get those little dogies to move along as his herd is shifted to yet a different office building because a new insider got a lease deal. And how could a sea shanty help a crew haul in unison when half the hands are holdovers from the previous administration?

A loss to music, and to efficiency. But if voters let talk show hosts do their thinking for them, why shouldn’t government workers let pop bands do their singing for them? Bands like Talking Heads? Every year on the anniversary of the invention of the hemorrhoid cushion, in honor of civil servants everywhere, I play one of the band’s early period classics, “Don’t Worry About the Government.” On that album we find a happy David Byrne anticipating a move into a nice new building where “it’s gonna be easy to get things done.”

Some civil servants are just like my loved ones
They work so hard and they try to be strong.
I’m a lucky guy to live in my building.
They all need buildings to help them along.

Providing nice buildings to help Illinois’ civil servants along would be a winning campaign platform for any young politician interested in becoming a state rep from Springfield. Springfield would be a handsomer and a happier place too. We’d all be lucky guys.

This year when I played that song, something about the sunny innocence of Byrne’s lyric rang a bell. Then it came back to me — Modern Lovers. Their 1973 song “Government Center” depicts the band on the eve of a performance.

We gotta rock-a rock-a rock-a nonstop tonight
Uh huh, at the government center
Make the secretaries feel better
When they put the stamps on the letters

That’s sweet, and wouldn’t bands be a cheaper way to make the secretaries feel better than free health insurance on retirement? Sadly for the secretaries, the Illinois Policy Institute would be mean enough to tell people that the songwriter was being sarcastic. Party poopers. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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