Take This Job, and Keep the Change
Every era in American culture has its signature song. For the late 1970s, the era of gas lines, stagflation, and national decline, it was Johnny PayCheck's "Take This Job and Shove It." The song expressed the nation's sense of frustration -- not just with overbearing bosses, but with a failure of leadership at the top. PayCheck's expression of gleeful retaliation against those on the top expressed just what most Americans were feeling. A great malaise has descended on America, and its bungling leaders -- chief among them Jimmy Carter -- seemed incapable of doing anything about it.
PayCheck's signature song, written by David Allen Coe, tells of an embittered factory worker whose 15 years on the same job have only drowned him in debt and caused his "woman" to leave. Anger at his foreman and line boss has welled up to the point that he dreams of retaliating, if only by suddenly quitting and walking away. Unable to do so, he carries on, buoyed by the fantasy of someday telling his boss to "shove it."
Appearing in the midst of the Carter malaise, PayCheck's anthem to working-class disenchantment was an accurate reflection of the times. Fuel prices were spiraling out of control, and gas lines were forming at the pump while Carter sat in the White House urging his fellow citizens to lower their thermostats and don bulky sweaters. Manufacturing plants in the U.S. were closing as a result of competition with Japanese rivals. National morale was on its way down to the all-time low it hit when 52 American hostages were seized in Tehran and the president fretted and sighed for 444 days, clueless as to how to address the crisis.
Sadly, PayCheck (his legal name) passed away in 2003. Had he lived, he might have given voice to today's embittered working man and woman. But no bother -- we have Hank Williams, Jr. to take his place. After ESPN dropped Williams' opening song for Monday Night Football as a result of comments suggesting a comparison between Obama and Hitler (an intention the singer denies), Williams hastily recorded his own "shove it" song.
Based loosely on an earlier song of the same title written by Jim Brown, Kevin Grant, and Darryl Worley, Williams' version of "Keep the Change" (listen here) is as much an anthem for our times as PayCheck's famous song was for the late 1970s. A repudiation of Obama's "hope and change," the song is an angry defense of liberty now under assault by the left. As in the song upon which it is based, Williams talks of keeping his religion, his love of country, and the money he earns. And he attacks those who want to change things to the point where America is unrecognizable.
What Williams adds to the song are references to keeping his "Christian name," his heroes, his friends, and his "big V8." America, he says, is in decline, and for this we can blame the political elite and its effort to create a socialist state. What Williams is determined to keep is, quite simply, "the USA," the traditional American heartland with its values of freedom, faith, and self-reliance. As for socialism, "they" -- those now running the government -- can keep that.
"Keep the Change" is a powerful expression of the same populist resentment that drives both the Tea Party itself and the broad sympathy that the Tea Party has elicited among the American public. The song's message is that it is the political elite, led by Obama and his army of left-wing bureaucrats and czars, who are running the country down. It is Williams, along with his family, friends, and fans, who will rescue it.
That, by the way, is not an idle threat. About the same time he released the song, Williams speculated on running for the U.S. Senate seat now occupied by Bob Corker. Corker received a respectable 92% rating in 2010 and an 85.5% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, but within his home state of Tennessee there are many who resent his efforts at bipartisan compromise.
It is unlikely, though not impossible, that Williams (known fondly as Bocephus to his millions of fans) would be able to defeat Corker for the GOP nomination in 2012. Corker is just conservative enough to hold onto the nomination and get reelected. It's unfortunate that Williams can't run against one of the liberal Democrats -- say, Claire McCaskill of Missouri or Bill Nelson of Florida. Who knows? Maybe he can. Bob Kerrey is apparently mulling a race for the Nebraska seat being vacated by Democrat Ben Nelson, and Kerrey hasn't lived in Nebraska for a decade.
Regardless of Williams' future in politics, "Keep the Change" would make a great campaign song and slogan for any conservative. It expresses the widespread sense that Obama has led America in the wrong direction -- the crucial message of all of the GOP candidates (with the exception of Jon Huntsman, whose message seems to be that he is too polite to criticize the man who appointed him ambassador to China).
But Williams' song is a lot more lively and authentic than what we're getting from the GOP. Now that he's into wearing faded jeans, Romney might want to replace his tepid "Believe in America" with something more lively. Rick Santorum, whose campaign is so new that it doesn't seem to have a slogan yet, might consider using it. As for Newt, a little more song and a bit less intellect might reignite his campaign.
Should Williams make good on his idea and run, he might just win the nomination. Within the state of Tennessee, as across the country, Williams possesses far greater name recognition than Bob Corker does. And should he be nominated, he would surely be elected. After all, 2012 will be a banner year for Republican candidates in Tennessee, where it's hard to imagine that any GOP nominee for statewide office will be defeated.
Just imagine Bocephus entering the august Senate chamber a year from now, attired in his signature black shirt, shades, and hat. I suspect he would probably have a lot to say, both to his colleagues and to whoever occupies the White House. And what he said would be a lot closer to what most Americans are thinking than what usually gets said in Washington. He might even wish to perform a rendition of "Keep the Change" for the benefit of some of his congressional colleagues. And they would do well to listen.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and article on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).