The eponymous first album from Tracy Chapman, originally released in 1988, is much remembered for the big hits – “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ about A Revolution” were perhaps the most popular singles in Australia.
For me though, there was always a sleeper song on it, “Mountains o’ Things“. In my youth, I loved the song most for the music – as I’ve become older though it’s practically become a mantra for my social outlook.
Like it or not, we’re a consumeristic society – we live, we spend money to survive, and we spend money on amusements. We’re encouraged by companies and advertisers and standard attitudes towards social advancement to spend our money not only on the things we need, but also the things we want, and there’s plenty of people out there happy to help us want more things.
Somewhere in it though there needs to be some sanity. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is a saying because it’s precisely how many people can become trapped into behaving. Someone they know buys a new Widget, so they want a bigger and better new Widget, and they get that. I used to fall prey to it myself. We had a couple of friends in particular for whom the “keeping up with the Joneses” was practically a defining part of the friendship. In fact, it really was a defining part of the friendship, because when we came to our senses and stopped doing it, they stopped being friends.
These days I think “Mountains o’ Things” is almost a perfect cautionary song about greed – both personal and societal. In particular:
Sweet lazy life
Champagne and caviar
I hope you’ll come and find me
Because you know who we are
Those who deserve the best in life
And know what money’s worth
And those whose sole misfortune
Was having mountains o’ nothing at birth
Singing, dreaming of having things she’ll never have, she says the true position for so many people, “those whose sole misfortune was having mountains o’ nothing at birth”. The next two stanzas though drive a stake through the heart of personal, corporate and political greed:
Oh they tell me
There’s still time to save my soul
They tell me
Renounce all those material things you gained
Exploiting other human beings
Mostly I feel lonely
Good, good people are
Good people are only
My stepping stones
It’s gonna take all my mountains o’ things
To surround me
Keep all my enemies away
Keep my sadness and loneliness at bay.
Where I’ve been most reflective of these lyrics has been listening to the narcissistic bleating of the rich and the greedy wanting to dodge their social responsibilities. “Why should I pay for my neighbour to get well?”, “Why should I pay for schools my kids will never use?”, “Why should I pay taxes?”, “Why should poor people get handouts?”, “Why should the jobless get financial aid?”
I pity these people, I really do. That they live such hollow, vacuous lives they can so easily step on the lives and the throats of others to earn that little bit more … how empty must their lives be, that they’re constantly fighting for more material wealth and possessions, just to continue to feel good about themselves?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting, of course. Everyone wants; it’s a defining part of who we are. But now, well into the second decade of the 21st century, it really is time to start accepting that what we want can’t continue to come at the expense of what others need. There has to be a common ground established in morality and equality rather than greed and narcissism.
It’s not about creating a communist state, it’s about creating a caring state.