“Economic Anthropology” class rarely excites students—a shame given its value in understanding the complex ties between economy and human social life. To counter this indifference and get them interested, I asked students to find and analyze songs that relate to the economy or economic life.
The songs can be about love, about money, or about work, among other things; what is important is that each student demonstrates how the tune they selected builds on course themes through a presentation (typically, the music video of their selection) and directing a discussion organized around a series of course-related questions.
Released in 2012 on the band’s album Lex Hives, the song is about endless desires:
A healthy appetite is good for one and all.
And I should be at peace with the world baby, but still I want some more.
A larger slice of pie, a bigger set of wheels.
A million sets of human eyes staring right at me—come on!
I borrowed their tune and used it to reset the course, now called “More: Culture and Economic Life,” with the last third focused on consumption and shopping.
But a course title change doesn’t change a class or elevate student engagement. I needed to rethink how I could encourage students to go beyond lectures and readings to effectively demonstrate their mastery of course materials.
In response, I asked students to find songs that might allow them to talk about economic anthropology. It wasn’t a hard sell and there are plenty of examples of music with an economic theme, including “Can’t Buy Me Love” (the Beatles), “Bills, Bills, Bills” (Destiny’s Child), and “Mercedes Benz” (Janis Joplin). Throughout the semester, students demonstrated that there are many more songs about economic life than I ever imagined (see our playlist below).
The course is organized into weekly sections that build on classic readings as well as newer resources and tack between contemporary issues like poverty in the United States, neoliberalism, globalization, and development, and theoretical concerns, such as the substantive/formalist debates, political economy, consumption, and gender. The musical interludes are a way for students to engage with topics and to demonstrate their understanding of course concepts and content. One student referenced Pink Floyd’s “Money” to explore changing ideas of consumption, another chose Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” and reflected on gender and economic action, while another picked Namewee and Leehom Wang’s “Stranger in the North” to talk about dependency, development, and precarity. These examples capture the way that students use the musical interludes to make sense of diverse topics. Perhaps more importantly, the interludes give them an opportunity to claim ownership and discuss ideas in a way that reflects on their strengths and experiences.
These musical Interludes began most class sessions, the music videos they played serving to start class and bring the room to attention. After introducing a tune, the student gave a brief presentation and led a discussion.
Each student was randomly assigned a presentation date and completed a worksheet that included basic information: the name of the band/group or singer, the song title, composition date, and video link (if available).
The core of the assignment asked students to respond to five questions:
1. What is the connection to economic life?
While the question is rather general, it motivated students to broadly consider how the song engages with course readings and lectures. Leaving the question open encouraged responses that often went beyond my goals for the class and allowed students to conduct their own deep dives into economic anthropology.
2. What is the message (is it positive, negative, critical, something else)?
One of the core questions driving the course is the cultural basis of economic life and the complex bond between economy and culture. Students used their selections to effectively debate whether money can buy love, how consumption has shifted in the last 40 years, and how economic behavior can be gendered. Students also used their examples to talk about the role music and song can play in discussions of discrimination, colonialism, and intolerance. Finally, international and nontraditional students offered music and songs from places that were unfamiliar and part of dynamic discussions of economics and human rights among other things.
3. How does the piece you’ve selected connect to ideas of love (or loss)?
A great deal of the music students shared speaks to the connection between love and money. There is a tension in music that reflects societal assumptions concerning money’s role in love and life and this question became one of the most important foci for discussion. We certainly did not settle the debate but asking about the relationship of love to money opened the floor to explore how songs become the site for intense debate around human nature.
4. Thinking of the date of the piece’s composition, how does it connect (or does it?) to economic events/issues that occurred at the time?
Music, like most of life, does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, the popularity of a piece often means it has effectively penetrated the everyday to become an important point for discussion and debate. Commenting on how their selection connects to economic life requires students to think about how a song questions economic assumptions, how it critiques those assumptions, and how it might offer alternatives to the status quo of its origins.
5. Put on your critic hat and think about today and our world. How does the tune you’ve selected connect to economic issues in the present?
The final question expands students’ concerns beyond the impact a song might have had when it was written, to consider its role in the present day. This is an important opportunity to talk about changing economic trends, consumption patterns, and inequalities as well as how classic statements from the past are repurposed for the present.
I was nervous that this exercise might flop, that my students would gravitate to one or two songs, and that they would get stuck on the contrast of love versus money. I could not have been more wrong. The students embraced the assignment, with several asking if they could write up more than one example. The musical interlude was a great success.
The analyses students contributed to class were outstanding. Not only were students excited to find meaningful tunes, but they were also excited to talk about how their selections connected to class, how attitudes changed, and how releases from the past maintained their value in the present (even when that value changed).
Beyond their presentations, one of the most important outcomes of this exercise, and one that I had not anticipated, was the way in which students created personal space for themselves as economic anthropologists. Their analyses served as a foundation to build on as anthropologists with something important to say. The comfort and confidence they gained from the exercise extended throughout the course as students talked, debated, and engaged with the field.
Our musical interlude playlist (curated by Andrew P. Mitchel):
“CREAM (Cash Rules Everything Around Me),” Wu-Tang Clan, 1994.
“Lawyers, Guns and Money,” Warren Zevon, 1978.
“Next of Kin,” Lucy Dacus, 2018.
“Iraq2Chile,” Lowkey, Mai Khalil, 2020.
“7 Rings,” Ariana Grande, 2019.
“Money,” Pink Floyd, 1973.
“She Works Hard for Her Money,” Donna Summer, 1983.
“Money Trees,” Kendrick Lamar feat. Jay Rock, 2012.
“I Don’t Want Your Money,” Ed Sheeran, H.E.R., 2019.
“Old Money,” Mark Whalen and Niko Bokos, 2019.
“Money,” Michael Jackson, 1995.
“Stranger in the North,” Namewee ft. Wang Leehom, 2016.
“Foreclosure of a Death,” Megadeath, 1992.
“Latinoamérica,” Calle 13, 2010.
“Peruvian Coke,” Immortal Technique, 2003.
“Animal Spirits,” Vulfpeck, 2016.
“Money for Nothing,” Dire Straits, 1984.