“BILLS” by LunchMoney Lewis, must be the all-time strangest theme-song ever chosen by a National Party leader. Christopher Luxon made the whole weird musical theme even weirder by attempting his own personal rendition of LunchMoney’s tongue-in-cheek tribute to the world of work.
Bizarre, because the lifestyles and values of rap artists are about as far from the hardscrabble existence of the average working family as one could imagine. LunchMoney Lewis has bills to pay, no doubt, but they are for products and services well beyond the reach of most African-Americans! This artist is a businessman.
Now, it would be nice to think that Luxon gets LunchMoney’s joke. That he understands the Kiwi battler’s bills, and his bills, are truly chalk and cheese. Such sly self-knowledge and brutal political honesty would be refreshing in our hyper-mediated world. By bounding onto the stage to LunchMoney’s rap, Luxon would be admitting (sub-textually) that a man who owns seven houses, and the centre-right party he leads, are cats every bit as fat as the Florida rapper. Such transparent inauthenticity would, paradoxically, make the Leader of the Opposition a more – not less – authentic politician.
But, that would be too much to hope for. In all probability, Luxon took LunchMoney’s lyrics at their face value. “Bills”, as heard by Luxon, is a cri-de-cœur from a hard-working man determined to pull himself and his family up by their own bootstraps. It simply wouldn’t occur to him that LunchMoney’s rap was a tribute to his own escape from the bills ordinary people gotta pay and the “work, work, work” they gotta do to fill all those mouths they gotta feed.
Luxon’s crude literalism is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s anthem “Born in the USA” in his re-election campaign of 1984. The Gipper simply had no idea that Springsteen’s song was about the tormented existence of a Vietnam veteran robbed of his buddies, his peace of mind, and the possibility of a good life, by the murderous demands of Uncle Sam.
“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts”, intoned Reagan. “It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
In the end, being born in the USA was the only thing the song’s hero had left. Far from being a hymn of praise to Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”, Springsteen’s song is laced with bitter irony and bankrupted hope. It is, however, doubtful that Reagan ever realised his mistake.
Doubtful, too, that Luxon’s journey into the bright lights and dark alleys of popular culture will be a long one. Doubtless, there is a huge amount to be learnt from the rappers and hip-hop artists of South Auckland. Who knows what insights he might come away with if he sat down with them in a place without cameras, without microphones, and just listened to the life-stories of these often spectacularly successful artists and businessmen?
That is, after all, what another National Party leader, Rob Muldoon, did, more than 40 years ago, with representatives of Black Power and the Mongrel Mob. The Project Employment Programmes which, in part, grew out of these encounters, set many young gang prospects on a new path, leading them away from crime, and towards steady employment, family life, and an altogether more productive existence.
Rob Muldoon sat his final accountancy examinations in between fighting the Germans in Italy in 1944. He became a moderately successful businessman, comfortably off, but not rich: an Auckland suburbanite with a family bach at Orewa. The National Party he came to lead was a huge organisation, filled with people very like himself. The experience of “The War” bound National Party members together in those days – as it did Labour’s. What came to be called the “RSA Generation” understood that, when the bullets start flying, who your father is and where you went to school doesn’t matter a damn. Character is not determined by class – but by courage.
Luxon’s speech to the National Party’s annual conference could have used the Covid-19 Pandemic – the closest contemporary New Zealanders have come to the solidarities and vicissitudes of war – as a new starting-point for the state’s efforts to get disengaged young jobseekers into the habits of learning and working that the whole country so desperately needs them to acquire.
He came close:
National believes those closest to the problems should be closest to the answers. That’s why we back community-led solutions. For example, the Covid vaccine roll-out showed that bureaucrats in Wellington don’t always know best how to reach people. Just ask the Māori organisations who had to take the Government to court so they could get people vaccinated.
If young New Zealanders are to re-engage with learning and working successfully, it will be through the efforts of autonomous, community-driven initiatives akin to those that ensured Māori rates of vaccination matched those of the rest of the population. The key words here are “autonomous” and “community-driven”.
Sadly, National’s policy-makers lack the courage to trust the poor to take charge of their own destiny. Luxon’s plans for moving young jobseekers “From Welfare To Work” (where have we heard that slogan before?) by contracting “community groups” to “coach” the long-term unemployed out of their “welfare dependency” and into paid employment, will undoubtedly be met with the approval of conservative New Zealanders. Many will welcome the reappearance of Bill English’s “social investment” approach. But, will it work?
Those on the receiving end of policies setting them up as “suitable cases for treatment” are seldom grateful. Community organisations funded by the tax-payer have a long history of offering their “clients” little more than the condescension of middle-class professionals. Before successful coaching can begin, it is necessary to have a team. If National could only find the courage to allow these teams to form themselves, with sufficient resources to hire their own coaches, then the party’s social investment policies just might succeed.
Taken in its entirety, LunchMoney Lewis’s rap is not the positive statement Christopher Luxon obviously believes it to be. In the accompanying video, the artist makes clear his scepticism that the “work, work, work” of ordinary people will ever get them out from under all those bills. Rappers speak of a world rigged by the Man, for the Man. That’s why they portray working for the Man as a fool’s game. Luxon and the National Party would have a lot more credibility if they offered the young unemployed the chance to become their own bosses.
Then they’d be businessmen. And businessmen don’t have bills – they have accounts payable. And, as the former CEO of Air New Zealand knows, the larger your pile of accounts payable, the more likely it is that someone else will pay them for you.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 8 August 2022.