The Tax Man, the Singer, and the Indonesian Archipelago

January 28th, 2011

While I personally loathe the hit song “Billionaire,” I do believe its message and popularity may provide some insight into today’s American society.  Hopefully not much.  The song, performed by Travis Mccoy, depicts a young man who wants to be a billionaire “so freaking bad.”  Much of the song is about some form of philanthropy; the singer wants to give away presents like Oprah, do more than FEMA did for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and give money to those he loves.  Although he also wants to “see his name in lights” and visit a different city every night, the themes of helping the needy do speak to a recession haggard nation, weary and wary of those who have too much.  I find it distinctly unlike many pre-recession pop songs whose singers speak of riches, cars, and diamonds.

Researchers for years have been interested in how popular music and literature reflect—or don’t reflect—a nation’s mood or sentiment.  One study from researchers in the University of Vermont used song lyrics between 1960 and 2007 and blogs from 2005 to 2009 to analyze the national mood.  They found a national depression on September 11th, 2001, moderate sadness on the day of Michael Jackson’s death, and pride on the day President Obama was elected.

Now before I get any further in this line of reasoning, I’d like to clarify a point.  My hypothesis is not that every song that gains notoriety speaks to some deeper reality of its society.  I truly doubt the song “We R Who We R” by the singer Ke$ha, who apparently thought she was creating a Gmail password when she selected her stage name, says anything profound about the unemployment rate. Rather my hypothesis is that a single popular song can indicate the mood or thought-pattern of a nation.

There is a song that is now being played across the Indonesian archipelago on radio and TV called “If only I were Gayus Tambunan.”  You probably don’t know who Gayus Tamubnan is.  He’s not a rock-star or the Indonesian equivalent of Brad Pitt, or even a particularly powerful politician.   Actually Gayus is a tax official.  Gayus was charged with corruption and abuse of official position and has admitted to “receiving millions…for helping some of Indonesia’s biggest companies avoid tax.”  But, on over 60 different occasions Gayus has bribed himself out of jail, and instead vacationed in Singapore, Macau, and China.

His escapades led musician Bona Paputungan to write a song.  The song says “Funny thing in this country a free pass can be bought but we the people are weak resigned to this situation.” Bona told a reporter that he doesn’t envy Gayus, but rather thought “Wow, he led such a great life, how cool it’d be if I were him.”  Bona, who served seven months in jail for domestic violence, also commented “How funny in this country; justice can easily be bought.”

Corruption in Indonesia is rampant.  The country scored a dismal 2.8 on Transparency International’s most recent corruption perceptions index. Indonesia also ranks among the top 20 countries with the largest volumes illicit financial flows worldwide; between 2000 and 2008 the country lost $104 billion in illicit outflows.  Ferril Irham Muzaki, a professor at the State University of Malang, wrote in the Jakarta Post “In short, Bona’s song asks for equal treatment in jail. It says that no one above the law. Bona is a voice of the commoners seeking justice, of those with common sense who think that corrupt police, prosecutors, judges and immigration officers should be punished.”

While perhaps more thought-out than Ke$ha’s music, I’m not sure if Bona’s song is quite as deep as Muzaki suggests.  Rather I would argue its popularity is an indication of the Indonesian people’s mood towards corruption in their country.   A recent article in the Wall Street Journal argues “the last line of defense [against kleptocracy in Indonesia] will be public anger strong enough to demand that the next administration arrests the country’s slide. That anger is now building.”  This song may be part catchy tune, part profound commentary, and part public resentment.  For the sake of its people, I hope the Indonesian government is able to tell the difference.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

Follow @FinTrCo