I heard a song playing on the radio in Austin, Texas, one recent night that brought back memories of the classic blues music that I listened to growing up.
Austin singer/songwriter Larry Shannon Hargrove belted out a bluesy tune called “I Need a Bailout” in the style of R&B greats Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Womack and Al Green. (You 20-somethings: If you don’t know who these folks are, Google them. They sang and performed some of the best blues and soul songs of the late ’60s and early ’70s.)
In his song, Hargrove’s raspy voice pleads for a bailout from his personal financial woes. Bill collectors are calling and he wants President Obama to give him the “hookup” in the form of a bailout from his debt. Well, the big banks, mortgage brokers and auto and insurance companies got bailouts. Why can’t a consumer get the same deal? In the middle of the song, there’s a fake phone call to the White House in which Hargrove leaves a message with an operator asking Obama to call him back about his bailout.
Hargrove is no stranger to what he calls “novelty songs.” His “Leave Bill Clinton Alone” tune attracted national attention in the days that the former president faced impeachment charges for his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. And another song on his latest CD — “The Obama Train” — was written as Obama campaigned for the presidency. He wrote another tune about Austin’s police chief after seeing the chief riding around in his crisp uniform on New Year’s Eve.
The bailout tune “is my song about the economy,” Hargrove told me in a telephone interview this week. “It’s how a lot of people might be feeling. You look around and you see a lot of other people getting bailed out. The Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, AIG. Everybody else is getting a bailout. And then you look at your situation. I’m having trouble paying my bills. Looks like I fit the criteria for a bailout.”
He admits it’s a “tongue-in-cheek” treatment of what is a very serious problem: consumers in over their heads in debt, much of it built on credit card spending.
Looking for a handout?
Hargrove is putting to music what many people have no doubt thought or talked about openly: Why not give Main Street the same kind of help received by Wall Street bankers? In fact, this point was debated a great deal last year on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. A proposal for forgiving a portion of credit card debt for people enrolled in debt management programs with nonprofit credit counseling agencies was shot down last year by one federal regulator.
It’s true that many families are struggling to pay their credit card bills now, especially with recent changes in terms announced by card issuers. But the danger of announcing consumer bailouts is that you may open the door for people to game the system. You might encourage people who can actually pay their bills to stop paying them because they can get a bailout.
A good example is what’s happening with mortgages. A recent Los Angeles Times article shines light on “strategic defaulting” — people with good credit scores and good payment records who just stop making payments in order to reap the benefit of government-backed loan modification programs. I fear that the bailout Hargrove croons about might spur the same behavior. On Wall Street, they call this type of activity a “moral hazard.” Where I’m from, they call it “getting over.”
I asked Hargrove if he might consider writing a tune about managing your finances smartly and living within your means. Perhaps that won’t be as catchy. He’s going to think about it, though.
What about Obama?
Before the interview ended, I asked Hargrove if Obama had ever returned his call seeking bailout money. With a laugh, he said: “We’re still waiting. I got a recording that said, ‘This is Operator 64 from the White House.’ But I’m still waiting for [Obama’s] return call.”
See related: Kanye West and others sing the blues about credit cards, 13 greatest credit card songs meld pop music, plastic