It happens to the best of us. The stress of the holiday season, the cold weather keeping us indoors, the omnipresence of candy, cookies, and other seasonal treats; the months of November and December will destroy whatever semblance of healthy habits and productivity you thought you had. Hell, just look at this blog: until last week, our most recent piece of note was November’s playlist dedicated to binge eating, while in December we produced no new content at all. The holiday sloth is no joke. Fortunately, we still have January: that month-long pressure valve our society had the foresight to build into the self-destructive feedback loop of early winter. It’s a time for setting goals, getting into routines, and making feeble, half-hearted efforts to treat our bodies better, and maybe even not hate ourselves so much by this time next year.
There’s a reason why January is basically Christmas for the weight-loss industry: this is the time of year when our post-holiday feelings of self-loathing and emptiness collide with the weird, arbitrary optimism of a new calendar year, feeding our delusions that we’ll start going on runs every morning and stop consuming an entire bag of jellybeans within a 24-hour period. And sure, it’s mostly bullshit. Once the rush of New Year’s positivity has faded away and the discounted gym memberships have expired, most of us will be the same fat, lazy sacks of shit we were on December 31. But for now, as January wanes and we prepare to enter a month dominated by yet another candy-centric holiday, here are eighteen songs that might just help you keep up your motivation and lose that winter blubber. Unless, of course, you’re one of those people who exercise good judgment and self-control for all twelve months of the year. Those people can go straight to hell.
1. Tim and Eric: “Sports!”
(from Awesome Record, Great Songs!, 2008)
One popular way of getting in shape is to pick up a sport: it’s a great way to get active, make some friends, and build skills in teamwork. Personally, though, I prefer to get in shape vicariously, by listening to this absurd victory-rock pastiche from the first season of the cult sketch comedy series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Because let’s face it: if you can’t even get pumped for an imaginary workout with 90 seconds of synth and drum solos and the immortal chanted refrain of “Sports!”, then you probably don’t even deserve to be working out, you fat piece of junk.
2. Village People: “Macho Man”
(from Macho Man, 1978)
Technically, we’re all supposed to be exercising purely for health reasons. In practice, though, most of us just do it out of an effort to fit society’s standards for physical attractiveness. Or, as Greenwich Village disco hitmakers the Village People memorably put it, “Macho, macho man / I want to be / A macho man.” With the People’s classic formula of Latin percussion, horns, lead singer Victor Willis’ soulful vocals, and an earworm chorus shout-sung by the whole crew, “Macho Man” is body fascism you can dance to–preferably synchronized, with lots of hand motions, in a line with your friends who are all dressed up as cartoon caricatures of masculine archetypes.
3. Kanye West: “The New Workout Plan”
(from The College Dropout, 2004)
Okay, now let’s get down to business. On any other artist’s debut album, “The New Workout Plan” would have been a filler track at best. But Kanye West pulled out all the stops: setting his tongue-in-cheek infomercial for a “Get Right for the Summer workout tape” to an unusual, Orientalist-flavored string hook by “Hip-Hop Violinist” Miri Ben-Ari, then bringing the house down with an infectious, ’80s-style funk vamp—described by Yeezy as “that old Michael Jackson shit”—featuring John Legend doing his best Roger Troutman impression on the talkbox. The verses themselves are an entertaining goof on the brutal sex-for-money exchange of modern gender politics, with Kanye promising results that might just “pull you a rapper, a NBA player…man, at least a dude with a car.” But even if Ye can’t get you right for the summer, take heart: he promises that he’ll “still mess with a big girl / If you ain’t fit, girl / I’ll still hit, girl.” And that’s a guarantee you’re just not going to get from P90X.
4. Dru Down: “Head & Shoulders”
(from Can You Feel Me, 1996)
The parallels between working out, dancing, and fucking have been widely observed since at least the release of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” video in 1981. But leave it to Oakland’s own Dru Down to boil it down to a simple, dumb-but-catchy chant that’s as applicable to the gym as it is to the dance floor: “Head, shoulders, hips and legs / Baby, work that body like you’re having sex.” Basically, it’s as if the creepy dude who likes to leer at you while you’re on the exercise equipment wrote a song, and it actually turned out to be a pretty decent slice of mid-’90s West Coast G-funk. Plus, it wouldn’t be a Dru Down song if it didn’t include a skit where the artist’s greazy playa image is perforated by a couple of brassy broads: just check out the way those ladies shut him down at the end of the second verse. “My feet hurt, take it on elsewhere!” “Don’t touch my butt!”
5. David Banner: “Play (Radio Edit)”
(from Certified, 2005)
“Head & Shoulders” is a pervy dancefloor song that also works as a pervy workout song, but David Banner’s “Play” is an even rarer beast: a pervy dancefloor song that actually became a pervy workout song when cleaned up for radio and MTV. Originally a thinly-veiled remake of another 2005 Mr. Collipark production, the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song),” “Play”‘s single-entendre come-ons were (barely) converted to doubles on the single edit, with a new chorus that sounds like it’s being recited by the skeeziest of personal trainers: “Run, girl, I’m try’na get your body wet / Work that, lemme see you drip sweat.” The concept, though reinforced by the heavily “Physical”-indebted music video, is a decidedly flimsy one–as evidenced by the numerous sections of the video where even the “clean” lyrics are muted out. But hey, if being sexually harassed by a Southern rapper named after the TV version of the Incredible Hulk helps you meet your fitness goals, then nobody here is gonna judge.
6. Yelle: “Jogging”
(from Pop-Up, 2007)
If Dru Down and David Banner are all about male-gazey fetishization of the female form at work, then “Jogging” by French electropop artist Yelle tells the other side of that story: the pain and discomfort many women endure in order “pour me faire des fesses en béton”–roughly translated, “to get a tight butt.” By the final verse, Yelle seems to have achieved her goal: she has an alluring figure (though it aches) and is “tougher than a whore hitting the street.” And while her “calves are stiff as a sharp E chord” and her high heels are “killing her,” at least she’s getting a reaction: the “boys whistle at me on the street and the girls jeer.” Isn’t that what exercise is all about?
7. The Time: “The Walk”
(from What Time is It?, 1982)
After all that activity, it’s time to wind things down—and, with its easy rhythm and almost ten-minute runtime, this album cut from the Time’s Minneapolis Sound masterwork, What Time is It?, is pretty much the perfect cooldown song. Just move along with Morris Day as he gets ready to “walk a hole in his Stacy Adams”—though maybe think about investing in some more appropriate footwear, as that’s got to be hell on the arches. On the other hand, it’s probably worth listening to the band’s other sartorial advice and avoid tight jeans so you don’t “slip, trip, and fall”; though their proposed alternative–“walking’s for the cool, baby, put on a camisole”—is also, to put it lightly, a bit unorthodox. In any case, “The Walk” is worth listening to just for its midsong cameo by fellow Prince protegee Vanity, as a young lady who’s crammed a little too much into her jeans and needs Morris’ help to slip into something more comfortable.
8. Jethro Tull: “Fat Man”
(from Stand Up, 1969)
Everybody knows Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson is more than a little crabby and crotchety. But we never really figured him as a fat-shamer until we heard this late-’60s folk-rock ditty: a truly spiteful takedown of some poor overweight shlub with “no chance of finding a woman who / will love you in the morning and all the night time, too.” The second verse is especially vicious, with Anderson declaring that he “won’t waste my time feeling sorry” for the obese–though, he concedes, “roll us both down a mountain and I’m sure the fat man would win.” Sheesh, Jethro, it’s commendable that you want to stay in shape, but fat people are people, too!
9. Rick Ross featuring Whole Slab: “Heavyweight”
(from Hood Billionaire, 2014)
Plenty of musical artists work out. But how many have workout regimens named after them? To my knowledge, Miami rapper Rick Ross is the first, having dropped a hundred pounds (and at least three man-bra sizes) through a combination of diet and “RossFit,” a variation on the trendy fitness program CrossFit which Ross described in an interview as “really CrossFit, but you might just hit the blunt in the middle of a sit-up every now and then.” Released on Hood Billionaire, the second of Ross’ two 2014 albums, “Heavyweight” marks Ricky Rizzle’s first lyrical acknowledgement of RossFit, alongside references to Don King, Mike Tyson, Ross’ Fayette, Georgia mansion formerly owned by boxer Evander Holyfield, plus a vocal hook (“Ding! Ding!”) mimicking the sound of a ringside boxing bell. Typical of Ross, it’s basically just an extended metaphor for his alleged aptitude for wealth acquisition through dirt-dealing. But even so, you have to admit it’s easy to picture a CrossFit class doing their WODs to this song.
10. Spandau Ballet: “Musclebound”
(from Journeys to Glory, 1981)
The third single from London New Romantics Spandau Ballet’s 1981 debut, “Musclebound” is ostensibly a song about working, not working out. But if it’s a labor anthem, it’s a remarkably homoerotic one, with lyrics like “tough is the leather that’s strapped to my skin / strong are the bonds that we make.” Personally, I picture the laborers in question looking something like the hunks from Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video: they’re more likely to be slinging barbells than hammers and anvils. But in any case, “work ’til you’re musclebound all night long” is as good a sentiment for the gym as it is for the factory–and at least your gym will never replace you with a machine.
11. Van Halen: “Jump”
(from MCMLXXXIV, 1984)
In this universe, David Lee Roth was the frontman for one of the greatest hard rock bands of all time while they were at the peak of their powers. But in another, parallel universe, he was almost certainly a killer aerobics instructor. Just check out this video compilation of Roth’s various athletic leaps and karate kicks, set to a mashup of Van Halen‘s 1984 bar jukebox staple “Jump” and the vocal ad-libs from “Runnin’ with the Devil”: this is the unquestioned inventor of what Callie has dubbed the “Spandex Jump,” a death-defying leap performed only by lead singers of arena rock bands from the early ’80s and made possible by the exceptional elasticity of Spandex synthetic fiber. And as Callie’s friend Andrea said after viewing the above video, “it’s as if the world is his trampoline.” At age 60, Diamond Dave may not be quite spry enough to pull off these moves anymore, but his legacy certainly lives on as an inspiration to us all. Just don’t try it at home.
12. Oingo Boingo: “Running on a Treadmill”
(from Nothing to Fear, 1982)
Who would have thought a bunch of pencil-necked new wavers would produce so many half-decent workout tunes? First Spandau Ballet of all people, and now Oingo Boingo, whose “Running on a Treadmill” uses repetitive aerobic activity as a metaphor for a fruitless romantic pursuit: “You’ve got me so I’m running round and round in circles / You’ve got me so I can’t see my own face / You’ve got me so I feel like I’ve been like this forever / You’ve got me so I’m crazy with disgrace.” It would be pretty bleak stuff if it weren’t for the jaunty, ska-influenced arrangement by Boingo frontman and future film composer Danny Elfman, which actually wouldn’t sound too out of place while running on an actual treadmill.
13. Queen: “Bicycle Race”
(from Jazz, 1978)
And once you’re done running on a treadmill, what do you do next? Well, to quote a certain connoisseur of “fat-bottomed girls,” “get on your bikes and ride!” Few singers are as adept at communicating joyful ebullience as Queen’s Freddie Mercury, and on “Bicycle Race” he makes cycling sound like something between an orgasm and a religious experience on the ecstatic scale. Sing along with this while you’re on the stationary bike and…you’ll probably get kicked out of the gym, because that would be annoying as fuck. But at least you’ll get an extra adrenaline rush while the personal trainers are dragging you toward the door.
14. Pink Floyd: “Run Like Hell”
(from The Wall, 1979)
Okay, so Roger Waters’ legendarily dour, navel-gazing 1979 concept album isn’t exactly what first comes to mind when you think about pump-up music. But with its galloping, disco-inspired beat and insistent muted rhythm guitar, “Run Like Hell” is actually a pretty legit workout track: it’s basically “Eye of the Tiger” for depressives. The song comes at the climax of The Wall’s storyline, when the rock star protagonist “Pink”–a thinly-veiled composite of ex-Floyd frontman Syd Barrett and Waters himself–loses his shit onstage and hallucinates himself as a fascist dictator, ordering the audience to go into the streets and commit wanton acts of violence. Which is a plus, not a minus, because there’s no better incentive to “run like hell” than when you’re being chased by a mob of jackbooted thugs.
15. Daft Punk: “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”
(from Discovery, 2001)
Exercise is when the human body’s machine-like tendencies become most evident: carrying out repetitive motions with efficiency, feeling the workings of each individual joint and muscle to a much greater extent than in regular day-to-day activity. I don’t know if the members of Daft Punk work out—though now that they’re both 40, I imagine they have to do at least some light aerobics to fit into their tailored spaceman suits—but they definitely know a thing or two about being machines, and the futurist funk of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” is exactly the type of thing I picture robots working out to when they go to the robo-gym. What, you never imagine that?
16. RuPaul: “Workout”
(from Red Hot, 2004)
Another dance anthem that’s equally applicable to more regimented workout sessions, this latter-day track from America’s favorite drag queen is a nice change of pace for its self-affirmational lyrics. Unlike Yelle, for example, Ru isn’t moving her body for anyone else: “I don’t need no man to make me understand,” she sings; “All I need is room to show you what I’m living for.” Plus, you’ve got to admire her dedication: workout in the morning and in the evening? Shit, girl, I can’t even make consistent time for myself in the week!
17. Thor: “I’m So Proud”
(from Keep the Dogs Away, 1978)
Like I said before, plenty of musical artists work out. But Vancouver’s “Legendary Rock Warrior” Jon Mikl Thor made his physical prowess a central part of his persona, with an act that combines pro-wrestling bombast, superhero comic flamboyance, sub-KISS shock-rock theatrics, and a physique that, in its heyday, actually earned him both the Mr. Canada and the Mr. USA titles. So a song like “I’m So Proud” is an obvious move for Thor: it’s basically just an extended boast, with super-relatable lyrics like “I am the king of the neighborhood / I’ve got the body and I’ve got the goods.” I would normally say something catty here, but this is a man who has people jackhammer cinder blocks off his chest for a living; so instead, I’ll just say go for it, Thor! You should be proud! Just don’t hurt me!
18. Sylvester: “Body Strong”
(from Stars, 1979)
Even a confirmed non-exerciser like this writer knows about the feeling of euphoria that accompanies the end of a good workout. And one way for me to experience that feeling, without all of the pesky sweat and muscle aches, is by listening to the “Queen of Disco” himself, Sylvester James. “Body Strong,” from Sylvester’s 1979 album Stars, is like an endorphin rush set to music: an aural victory lap that seems to go on forever, getting only more joyous and triumphant the more it builds. It’s the good part of exercising, without the exercise. Now is it February yet? Because I want some goddamn jellybeans and I’m tired of feeling guilty about it.