This coming Monday is Labor Day: a time for many Americans to relax and enjoy a rare three-day weekend, and for all Americans to reflect on our ever-diminishing rights as workers. Though its history has been predictably whitewashed, the holiday was founded in commemoration of the American labor movement, whose sacrifices–including, more frequently than you might think, the actual lives of many activists–ensured the basic standards of living that many of us now take for granted: you know, unimportant stuff like the eight-hour work day, the weekend, and the minimum wage. Today, of course, we’re facing a right-wing political climate in which basically all of these standards are under attack: recall that among the 2016 Republican candidates for the presidency, the frontrunners include a man who recently opined about how we “should work longer hours,” and another man who arguably earned his national-level political wings by crippling labor unions in his home state. That gives us all the more reason to recognize the rights we still have, and resist all efforts to take them away. So here’s our own modest contribution: 18 songs about devalued, soul-crushing labor in the late-capitalist hellscape we call early 21st century America. They paint a pretty grim picture, but hopefully they’ll give you something to think about as you settle in for the long weekend; or, if you’re not lucky enough to get a long weekend, perhaps a little good music (and time-and-a-half) will help take the edge off. Either way, here’s hoping that we’ll still have jobs when Labor Day 2016 rolls around!
1. Lou Rawls: “A Natural Man”
(from Natural Man, 1971; available on Natural Man/Classic Lou)
Though obviously more than a little dated in its gender specificity, Lou Rawls’ 1971 single “A Natural Man” is still an anthem for working-class people of all kinds. Just listen to Lou break it down with this striking imagery straight out of a Soviet anti-capitalist propaganda poster: “I don’t want no gold watch for workin’ fifty years from nine to five / While my boss is guzzling champagne and I’m beltin’ beer in some dive.” As the man puts it, “it’s a new day, babies…folks want to take their lives in their own hands and make their own choices”; that means living for yourself, not just to line the pockets of an overpaid executive. Hell, if you still doubt the revolutionary subtext of this song, recall that in season four of the classic sitcom Martin, it was revealed that Martin’s friend Tommy (Thomas Mikal Ford) can’t even go to sleep without listening to “A Natural Man”–and everyone knows that he ain’t got no job. Who knew that all along, ol’ bullethead was just a closet anarchist practicing revolutionary refusal of work? Fight the power, dawwwwwwg!
2. Donna Summer: “She Works Hard for the Money”
(from She Works Hard for the Money, 1983)
But not everyone can wrest themselves free of the capitalist machine like Lou Rawls or Tommy. That’s why we also have songs like Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money.” Summer was reportedly inspired to write the song when she saw a “little old lady” working as a bathroom attendant at a Grammys party in Los Angeles: “my first thought was ‘God, she works hard for her money, that lady.’ And then I thought, ‘Man, that’s a song.’ So I went and grabbed my manager and we went back in the bathroom and started writing the song on a piece of toilet paper.” The result was a brassy assertion of dignity for service workers: “She works hard for the money,” Summer sings, “So you better treat her right.” It’s an admirable sentiment–and, with its Flashdance-style new wave/disco arrangement by Michael Omartian, it might just be perky enough to get a real-life bathroom attendant through their own soul-crushing shift.
3. Michael Jackson: “Working Day and Night”
(from Off the Wall, 1979)
People work for plenty of reasons: money to pay for necessities, a sense of debt to society, a feeling of personal fulfillment. But let’s be honest–sometimes we also have to work to get laid. That’s the basic idea behind “Working Day and Night” by Michael Jackson, who finds himself working “from sun-up to midnight” just to get into some demanding lady’s pants. I’m just gonna come out and say it: the idea of the Peter-Pan-like King of Pop being sexually active with a grown woman kind of beggars belief. But when producer Quincy Jones brings the percussive disco-funk and Michael gets to the heavy breathing and crotch-grabbing, it’s almost enough to convince you that he actually wants to come home and “give sweet love to you.” Maybe hard work really does turn a boy into a man.
4. Johnny “Guitar” Watson: “What the Hell is This?”
(from What the Hell is This?, 1979)
As much as we complain about the poor state of labor in our society–and we’re definitely not finished complaining–the fact remains that even a shitty, underpaying job is still better than no job at all. At least, that’s the argument offered by Houston-born disco-bluesman Johnny “Guitar” Watson in his aptly-titled 1979 song “What the Hell is This?”, which depicts the hapless Mr. Watson “runnin’ through the city like a chicken with their dick off,” trying to find a job and failing, even at the likes of Jack in the Box (“damn!”). And when you do get hired, he warns, you’re still not home free: Watson tells the cautionary tale of a brother who “got a job that finally paid off / But two days later, he got laid off / Made him sick and he needed a doctor / When his wife got the bill…shocked her!” I think I speak for both of us at Dystopian Dance Party when I say that, as millennials who came into the “real world” woefully unprepared for the current, paltry job market, we relate to this song a little bit too much…and even we are luckier than many. Like Watson says, it’s “rough” out there.
5. Beck: “Soul Suckin Jerk”
(from Mellow Gold, 1994)
At the same time, though, fuck that. Maybe it’s better to be unemployed with your integrity than to, in the immortal words of reluctant slacker icon/anti-Beyoncé strawman/friendly face of Scientology Beck Hansen, “work for a soul-suckin’ jerk.” A classic from Beck’s early days as a postmodern alt-rapper, “Soul Suckin Jerk” is a talking-blues shaggy-dog tale that begins with our hero walking out on his job “throwing chicken in the bucket with the soda pop can,” setting his uniform “on fire in a vat of chicken fat,” and “running through the mini-mall in [his] underwear”–a fantasy that, I can attest, I shared many a time during my own days as a service worker. Perhaps inevitably, the surreal yarn ends in a brush with the law; but Beck remains gloriously defiant, telling his hallucinatory manager-from-hell to “give me what I got to get so I can go / ‘Cause I ain’t washin’ dishes in the ditch no more.” Why this song hasn’t become an anthem for the “Fight for 15” movement by fast food workers to raise the federal minimum wage, I can…well, sort of understand. But still, who in the food industry hasn’t dreamed of setting their greasy, ill-fitting polo shirt ablaze and run naked and gibbering for the hills?
6. Whodini: “Escape (I Need a Break)”
(from Escape, 1984)
So far, our Labor Day selections have been understandably focused on the menial, underpaying, and under-appreciated work of the service sector; but anyone who’s ever held a nine-to-five can attest that low-level white-collar jobs are also no picnic. Here, over a brisk electro beat by seminal hip-hop producer Larry Smith, Whodini’s Jalil Hutchins vents his frustration on the subject: “times is hard, my boss is crazy / The guy that works with me, he’s so damn lazy / Sits around all day, drinks coffee and tea / He expects all the work to be done by me / And sometimes I wonder what they hired me for / To operate computers or run to the store / And when I ask for a raise, they tell me ‘be patient’ / I’ve been working three years without a damn vacation!” Things only get weirder in the second verse, when we discover that Hutchins is also dealing with “backstabbing” friends–whose alleged betrayal forces him to “hang out alone”–while his girlfriend is “half-mad” and demanding “diamonds, furs,” and even children from him. Somehow I doubt that anybody from Whodini ever worked an office job–if they did, it clearly would have had to be an office where the dress code allowed for Zorro hats, jackets with no shirts, and above-the-knee shorts–but Hutchins’ depiction of a harried nine-to-fiver is so vivid that it must have been inspired by something close to home. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t see a songwriting credit here by Hutchins’ fellow M.C. John “Ecstasy” Fletcher–might he be the “lazy” coworker in question? Either way, this is unquestionably the work of a man who really does need a break. Call in sick, Jalil! The world can live without Whodini for just one day!
7. Solomon Burke: “Maggie’s Farm”
(1965 B-side, available on Blue & Soulful: Solomon Burke)
Written by Bob Dylan on the cusp of his transition from acoustic folk music to electric rock’n’roll, the original version of “Maggie’s Farm” is most reliably interpreted as a slight against the traditionalist “protest folk” community he’d soon abandon: the title refers, obliquely and more than a little problematically, to the property of Laura and Silas McGhee, the Black Mississippi activists who hosted the 1963 SNCC Voters’ Registration Rally where Dylan debuted his Civil Rights anthem “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” That’s why I prefer this cover version, released just three months after the original by Southern soul titan Solomon Burke. Unlike Dylan, who seems to have come down with a bad case of the White Man’s Burden after playing one too many benefit shows for slain freedom fighters (how inconvenient), Burke actually had ancestors who were, you know, literally forced to toil in fields for other people’s profit; he brings genuine gravitas, anger, and rebellion to a song that was otherwise just Bob whining about how his boring white liberal friends didn’t want him to play an electric guitar. And, not to dig up an old cliché, but you know King Solomon sings it better, too.
8. Bootsy Collins: “F-Encounter”
(from Ultra Wave, 1980)
Here to represent a more pleasurable kind of servitude is our old friend Bootsy Collins, with a solo jam from 1980. Like Michael Jackson’s “Working Day and Night,” “F-Encounter” is about working to make money to spend on a lady friend: “I got a J-O-B for my B-A-B-Y,” as Collins puts it. But Bootsy, it must be said, has a way less pissy attitude about it than M.J.: he may be working “27 hours in a day,” but in return, he “won’t be on the unenjoyment line.” Guess we know whose girlfriend puts out, huh?
9. The Clash: “Clampdown”
(from London Calling, 1979)
One of the best songs by British punk heroes the Clash, “Clampdown” isn’t just about work; it’s also about the creeping threat of fascism in Thatcher’s Britain. But it’s a testament to lyricist Joe Strummer‘s political savvy that he recognized the important role labor and its devaluation had to play in that threat. Strummer’s “clampdown” is a structure of rigid conformity that infects every aspect of capitalist society: rooted in an unevenly-distributed wage system, and ultimately blossoming into the violent suppression of those lower on the social hierarchy. His proposed solution is to escape the system entirely: “Voices in your head are calling / Stop wasting your time, there’s nothing coming / Only a fool would think someone could save you / The men at the factory are old and cunning / You don’t owe nothing, so boy get runnin’ / It’s the best years of your life they want to steal.” But–again, to their credit–Strummer and the Clash recognize that such resistance is easier preached than done; the very next verse finds the song’s rebellious worker protagonist “grown up” and “calmed down,” promoted higher up in the system with “someone to boss around” all his own. It’s a brutal, twisted, cycle, but hey: that’s why we’ve gone this long without a full-scale overthrow of the system.
10. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony: “1st of tha Month”
(from E. 1999 Eternal, 1995)
American conservatives tend to view social welfare programs as an easily-exploited alternative to “honest” labor, but they are intended–and, in almost all cases, actually used–as a supplement for the wages of working-class people. In a less P.C. sense, as examined on this 1995 hit by Cleveland‘s Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, welfare also makes possible a whole shadow economy of more illicit transactions. “1st of tha Month” is about that important day in the inner city when welfare checks arrive, the neighbors are flush with cash, and Krayzie, Layzie, Bizzy, and Wish Bone (fifth member Flesh-n-Bone is seemingly absent from the proceedings) are there to provide the, um, product for them to spend their money on. To be honest, white people probably shouldn’t be allowed to listen to this song: I can only imagine how many people’s pernicious stereotypes about “welfare queens” and taxpayer-funded drug habits have been reaffirmed by the Bone Thugs’ gleeful assertions that “the 1st be the day for the dopeman.” To those (awful) people, I can only say this: if it really makes you feel better, the last we saw of the Bone Thugs they’d fallen on some hard times, and they definitely don’t appear to have qualified for government support. So sleep well, you monsters.
11. dead prez: “Hell Yeah (Pimp the System)”
(from RBG: Revolutionary but Gangsta, 2004)
But seriously, if your Protestant-work-ethic principles were upset by the last song, you might want to skip this one. New York-based radical hip-hop duo dead prez take the Bone Thugs’ economic subversion one step further: “Fuck ‘welfare,’ we say ‘reparations.'” Their prescribed methods of “reparations” include sticking up a “white boy” at gunpoint, credit card fraud using false IDs, and yes, the dreaded exploitation of the food stamp system. But my personal favorite verse offers an unorthodox approach to menial work: “Two steps ahead of the manager / Getting over on the regular, tax-free money out the register / And when I’m working late nights stocking boxes, I’m creeping they merchandise / And don’t put me on dishes, I’m dropping them bitches and taking all day long to mop the kitchen, shit / We ain’t getting paid commission, minimum wage, modern day slave conditions / Got me flippin’ burgers with no power, can’t even buy one off what I make in an hour / I’m not the one to kiss ass for the top position, I take mine off the top like a politician / Where I’m from, doing dirt is a part of living / I got mouths to feed, dog, I got to get it.” Like I said, it’s definitely unorthodox–and will definitely get you fired–but if you’ve never been even slightly tempted to commit such acts of rebellion, then you’ve probably never had a bad enough job.
12. The Deele: “Working (9 to 5)”
(from Street Beat, 1983)
And now, here’s everyone’s favorite jheri-curl pantywaists, the Deele, with an ode to a different kind of work entirely: the hard work of the “player” who clocks it at 9 p.m. and “don’t stop the party ’til five.” To be honest, as a confirmed introvert, that sounds way more exhausting to me than just sitting at a desk for eight hours. But hey, to each their own; besides, much like Whodini’s Ecstasy, I have trouble imagining the guys from the Deele fitting into a more conventional nine-to-five setting. I mean, can you imagine how often the copier would break down due to the mascara and jheri-curl grease buildups alone?
13. 2 Chainz: “Employee of the Month”
(from B.O.A.T.S. II: #METIME – Deluxe Edition, 2013)
Leave it to the rapper who spent the first 14 years of his career as “Tity Boi” to reserve some praise for that oft-forgotten but integral part of the labor force, the sex workers. 2 Chainz’ criteria for the title “Employee of the Month” are simple enough: she has to be able to shake “her back, then front.” But I wouldn’t question his credentials: this is, after all, a man with so many “hoes” that he has to put some of them “all on my ottoman.” That’s too many hoes, 2 Chainz! You’re out of control!
14. Kevin Gates featuring August Alsina: “I Don’t Get Tired (#IDGT)”
(from Luca Brasi 2: Gangsta Grillz, 2014)
We’ve talked a lot about resistance to labor exploitation here, because that’s kind of the whole point of Labor Day; but it’s important to note that there’s nothing wrong with having a strong work ethic. For that admirable trait–and for pretty much nothing else–up-and-coming New Orleans rapper Kevin Gates is a good role model. I’m not sure what he means when he says he has “six jobs” (unless fucking your cousin, kicking women in the chest, trying to get other women to blow your pet dog, and posting unintelligible Instagram rants about all of the above count as jobs), but it’s hard to listen to the nitro-fuelled turnup of “I Don’t Get Tired”–or witness his mercurial rise to minor infamy–and not agree with the sentiment. Again, though, if you’re going to follow in his footsteps, just try not to physically assault any of your fans.
15. Wham!: “Everything She Wants”
(from Make It Big, 1984)
At pretty much the opposite end of Kevin Gates’ unassailable work ethic are George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of Wham!, who you might recall made their debut extolling the virtues of not having a job and “having a good time.” In this later slice of blue-eyed jheri-curl, frontman Michael has apparently caved in and found employment, but he’s hilariously whiny about it. Like M.J. and Bootsy, his entry into the work force seems motivated solely by a relationship: “Some people work for a living / Some people work for fun / Girl, I just work for you.” Quite frankly, though, he’s got a real shitty attitude: even his fictional wife’s announcement that she’s having a baby is met with a sullen, “I’ll tell you that I’m happy if you want me to.” Well, sorry, Your Highness, didn’t mean for your job and child to get in the way of all that important ass-wiggling and bathroom sex!
16. The Monkees: “Mr. Webster”
(from Headquarters, 1967)
One of the more interesting tracks from the first self-performed album by the original bubblegum pop puppets turned lunatics running the asylum, the Monkees, “Mr. Webster” is written by professional songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, but it’s a far cry from “Last Train to Clarksville.” A pensive piece of baroque pop, with haunting steel guitar by Monkee Michael Nesmith (“the Talented One”), it tells the story of the titular Mr. Webster: a security guard who “worked at the bank for forty years,” thwarting “27 robberies” but never receiving a raise. At his retirement party, however, Mr. Webster gets the last laugh; turns out he robbed the bank himself, and has “flown away and taken all your money.” The moral of the story is obviously to pay your goddamn employees: a sentiment with which the “Prefab Four” undoubtedly agreed in the midst of their efforts to wrest control of their career from Don Kirshner’s pop empire. And while their own rebellion was less extreme than Webster’s, they did pull off a Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle of their own: spending $750,000 of Columbia Pictures’ money on the bizarre postmodern cinematic mindfuck Head, only about 2% of which was made back in box office receipts. Actually, the more I think about it, the Monkees’ real story might have been more gangsta than the song.
17. Jungle: “Busy Earnin'”
(from Jungle, 2014)
A highlight from the debut album by “modern soul music collective” Jungle, “Busy Earnin'” is one funky ode to being a cog in the capitalist machine: “I bet it won’t change, no / Damn, that’s a boring life / It’s quite busy earnin’ / You can’t get enough.” Those spare lyrics are depressingly accurate, but hey, at least we still have some good music to spend our hard-earned money on.
18. Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five: “We Don’t Work for Free”
(from Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, 1984)
Fronting a foundational hip-hop quintet may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of hard work, but I can’t think of a better way to end a Labor Day playlist than with Melle Mel and his anthem of professional self-affirmation, “We Don’t Work for Free.” Whether you’re a blue-collar or white-collar worker–or, again, just a member of the Furious Five–the lyrics of this song are words to live by: like the man says, “You ain’t got no money / You ain’t got no beat.” So here’s to another year of valuing our livelihoods; if we don’t do it, no one will!