Krystal Metcalfe was having a typical millennial evening last fall when she suddenly got the urge to write a song. The 29-year-old and her husband were trying to watch Netflix, but they were getting kicked off. The two accessed the service through Metcalfe’s mother’s account and too many others were using it to watch TV at the same time.
Metcalfe turned to her husband and said, “This is terrible, we don’t even have money to afford our own account and we’re grown adults,” she recalled in a recent interview. One of the major reasons? A “big chunk” of their income each month goes to paying off both of their student loans, Metcalfe said.
The experience inspired Metcalfe to pick up her guitar and compose a song called “Sallie,” which she released earlier this month. The title of the single, which has a blues feel, is an allusion to Sallie Mae, but Metcalfe says the song isn’t really only about the lender, instead, it’s an ode to the challenges of living with student debt more broadly. “It’s a reference to all of my student loans, she’s just the most popular,” Metcalfe said.
Indeed, the company has become synonymous with student loans for many Americans, even though now the lender only originates private student loans, a small part of the overall student loan market. Sallie Mae was once one of the biggest originators and servicers of student loans in the country, until it spun off its federal student loan servicing business into a new firm, Navient, in 2014. Now Sallie Mae only services and originates private student loans, a relatively small part of the overall student loan market, which is dominated by the government.
Rick Castellano, a Sallie Mae spokesman, wrote in an email statement that Metcalfe doesn’t appear to be a Sallie Mae customer, but that “we certainly empathize with her frustration.” “We also get that our name is part of the pop culture lexicon,” he wrote, noting that it isn’t as easy to rhyme with the Department of Education, which originates the bulk of student loans these days.
The name certainly lends itself to the format of the song. The lyrics, which detail Metcalfe’s struggle to pay off the debt (she declined to say how much she owes), including stressing out her parents and giving up small luxuries like vacations and dinners out, resemble a breakup ballad with a woman named Sallie. The song has been played more than 500 times on SoundCloud in less than a week. She sings:
“You tell me
You’ll give me time
But I don’t want to spend my life
Indebted to you
and you call me
Almost every night
There’s no running, and I can’t hide
NO NO NO NO NO Sallie”
Listen to the full song here:
Metcalfe’s song is the latest sign that student debt is now such a part of the American experience that it’s inspiring popular culture. Roughly 40 million Americans are contending with $1.3 trillion in student loans. Earlier this year, rapper Dee-1 released an ode to his efforts to pay off his loans called “Sallie Mae Back.” The central character in literary luminary Jonathan Franzen’s most recent novel, Purity, is a recent college graduate coping with her student loans.
Before she went to college, Metcalfe said she knew she wanted to go into performing and so she chose to attend a private arts school outside her home state of Missouri, which she felt would train her for a career in the field, despite her father’s warnings about the cost. Though in retrospect she acknowledges that the price of attending a private college “was just crazy” and she takes full responsibility for the debt, Metcalfe said she feels let down by a higher education system where costs are soaring at the same time a degree is increasingly required to earn a decent living.
Metcalfe references this tension in the song with lyrics like: “Me and you both know/ I’m not the one at fault.”
“The goal is to graduate and get a job but in this economy that’s not always possible,” she said in an interview.
Metcalfe graduated in 2008, during the depths of the recession, and now works a day job as a recruiter for a marketing agency, in addition to recording and performing, which she calls her “superhero” career. “The goal is to eventually be a full-time artist, but you have to pay your cost of living and your rent. Paying loans takes over your desires and what your gifts are,” she said. “The struggle is real.”
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