Who Pays the Price

The album X was the first album INXS made after the smashing widespread success of Kick. Prior to its creation, Michael had taken some time off from recording and touring with INXS to work on the brainchild side project of Ollie Olsen, Max Q, which was comprised of various musicians from Melbourne who came together for the sole purpose of creating something cutting edge and unique. Michael’s work on Max Q had a distinct influence on informing his lyricism, as well as the musical direction on several songs on X.

While some of the songs on X are non-political in nature, it is evident that Michael was affected by some of the critical world events of the late 80s/ early 90s. Consider the hit song, “Disappear,” for example, in which Michael’s opening verse laments “Say I’m crying, I’m looking at what’s on TV, Pain and suffering, And the struggle to be free, It can’t ever be denied, And I never will ignore…”

By zooming out and considering some of the major world events of that era, it helps frame much of what Michael may have been referencing:  the first Gulf War, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, deadly protests in Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Iron Curtain, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the ensuing police crack-down upon those who wanted an immediate end to apartheid, to name a few.

YES IT’S DARK SOMETIMES

WHEN THE PEOPLE ARE SHOVING

PUSHING YOU INTO THE GROUND

AND YOU CRY IN THE DAYLIGHT

WITH THE SUN IN YOUR EYES

EVEN THOUGH YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT ALONE

AND IT’S ALL BEEN FELT BEFORE

YOU STARE OUT THROUGH YOUR WINDOW

AND WONDER IF THERE’S GONNA BE MORE

IT BRINGS YOU DOWN

IT’S LIKE A WAR

WHO PAYS THE PRICE

IF YOU WANT MORE

IS THE QUIET DESPERATION OF A MILLION LIVES

GONNA MAKE YOU CHANGE YOUR WAYS

WE GOT EVERYTHING WE WANTED

BUT FORGOT HOW WE GOT IT

JUST CAN’T PAINT IT GOLDEN ANYWAY

AND THE STRENGTH OF ALL YOU’RE GIVING

IS GONNA MAKE THE CHANGES

TOMORROW’S GONNA BRING A NEW DAY

IT BRINGS YOU DOWN

IT’S LIKE A WAR

WHO PAYS THE PRICE

IF YOU WANT MORE

AS THE YEARS GO BY

WILL IT SHOW ON YOUR FACE

OR STAY HIDDEN BEHIND SOME DOOR

YEAH YOU MADE YOUR RESOLUTIONS

WITH THE WILL OF A PRIEST

BUT YOU’RE NOT SO SURE ANYMORE

AND THE REASONS WHY YOU’RE LIVING

KEEP CHANGING

EVERY TIME YOU FIND A KEY YOU FIND MORE

IT BRINGS YOU DOWN

IT’S LIKE A WAR

WHO PAYS THE PRICE

IF YOU WANT MORE”

The first few lines of “Who Pays the Price” evoke a sentiment similar to that in Max Q’s “Way of the World” where everyday people feel exploited, “shoved and pushed” and worn down from the rat race toward material wealth driven by the vehicle of greed. Michael’s use of the word “sun” here could be a double-entendre, as it signifies both the devastating effects of global warming, as well as a blinding brightness which is obscuring people from being able to see their way out of the exhaustive daily grind. Michael acknowledges this tension and anxiety which is common to many in society, though goes on to note that even though we are all in this together, we are made to feel isolated and alone in our individual pursuits of affluence, perhaps because in order to be rewarded for material success and hard work, we are told it’s acceptable and often necessary to be cutthroat. Underscoring the melancholy vibe throughout the song is the brilliant and soulful blues harp playing by Charlie Musselwhite. 

The next line, “And it’s all been felt before” reminds people that these feelings of defeat are not unique to many in society. Particularly interesting is Michael’s use of the passive voice here, thus connoting the notion that perhaps our passivity in the face of obstacles may be what is impeding us. This perspective is furthered in the next two lines as Michael notes that “you stare through your window and wonder if there’s gonna be more” which also indicates inaction and the overwhelming feeling of not being able to overcome the issues that are causing the unease in the first place. Michael makes it a point to say “your window,” hinting at the idea that our individual perceptions of the world may differ, and that as we get bogged down by trying to simply make it through the day, we may become too jaded to think on a more universally spiritual level.

These feelings of frustration are carried over into the chorus where Michael growls, “And it brings you down…” comparing this endless cycle of reward-based greed to a war, and implicitly raising the question of who exactly is perpetrating this “war.” Who is causing the chaos, and who is paying the price for all of the destruction? It is here that Michael’s perspective seems to shift, as he is no longer sympathizing with those who feel dejected, but rather suggesting that their pursuit of a materialistic lifestyle is actually the very root of their discontentment. “Who pays the price if you want more?” The question raised gives perspective to any material desire in our capitalist society. If you want a new pair of shoes, for example, you pay the price on the tag, but who really pays the price? For one thing, slave laborers in a sweatshop. Who pays the price if oil and war profiteers want more money? Soldiers and civilians pay with their lives by the millions.

The entire next verse underscores this point where Michael indirectly answers the question asked in the song title. Those who are paying the price are doing so with their lives, and the notion that they are in “quiet desperation” suggests that they do not have a voice, such is the case with plants and animals whose lives and environs are destroyed by the effects of ecocide, often at the hands of corrupt plutocrats whose endless corporate greed is financed by big banks who fund drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic, the building of  oil and gas pipelines in our water supplies, and the burning of carbon to generate energy, all of which add to the deleterious effects of global warming.

When considering this verse, one could also point to all of the world conflicts currently and previously being waged by the elites in globalist governments whose objective is to secure natural resources such as fossil fuels, gold, diamonds, minerals, etc. Often these wars are fought in the name of “freedom and democracy,” however upon closer examination, it’s quite clear they are funded by elite financiers and multinational corporations who exploit people in the lands containing vast reserves of natural resources, (making them pay the price). While speaking in authoritative tones, Western plutocratic media outlets tend to deliberately whitewash and obscure the political situations in these lands, and the voices of the people get dismissed, marginalized or co-opted, leaving them in “quiet desperation.”

The next few lines again implicate those who profit from and/or perpetuate the cycles of mindless consumerism instead of focusing on the sustainability of our planet. “We got everything we wanted but forgot how we got it.” Michael goes on to point out the utter superficiality of those who brag or boast about the meaningless “things” that they have acquired while remaining completely willfully ignorant of the exploitative conditions under which their “things” were created or obtained. “Just can’t paint it golden anyway.”

Just as we may start to feel culpable about our participation in this greed-driven system, Michael offers us a reprieve noting that we do have the power to raise awareness and effect positive change going forward, however it will take a conscious, focused effort in order to do so.. “And the strength of all your giving is gonna make the changes tomorrow’s if gonna bring a new day.”

In the last verse, Michael reflects on what may happen if we remain complacent on environmental issues throughout the years. We are called out and called up into action. “As the years go by, will it show on your face (expression) or stay hidden behind some door (repression).” He then goes on to suggest that it will take much more than lip service and empty promises for environmental awareness to be taken seriously, and that we cannot allow ourselves to become distracted. “Yeah, you make your resolutions with the will of a priest, but you’re not so sure anymore,” illustrates the crippling periods of uncertainty that occurs between epiphanies. 

“And the reasons why you’re living keep changing…every time you find a key, you find more” indicates the fleeting, exponential pursuits of Capitalism, the implication being that we must reject the myth that buying more stuff will make us intrinsically happy. Like Michael asks near the end of the song, “WHAT YOU WANT MORE FOR!?”

The ultimate message seems to be that we will all end up paying the price. We must start questioning the motives of those who dangle shiny bright objects in front of our faces, attempting to make us feel spiritually incomplete unless we consume more. We must hold those in positions of power accountable for allowing rampant environmental destruction through ecocide and war, and we must not allow them to convince us that they have our best interests at heart when they prove time and time again that they do not. We must also hold ourselves accountable and ask who is paying the price for our self-indulgent lifestyles. 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s