Working Stiffs: Blue-Collar Pop And The Top 40 Work Ethic

Rihanna's "Work" joins a rich tradition of pop hits about hard work

Lately, some of pop’s biggest stars have returned to an old theme: work. Even before Rihanna’s latest chart-topping hit, the idea of paid labor ran through songs by Beyoncé (“Working 9-to-5 / Just to stay alive,” she sings on “Haunted”), Drake (“Young, but I’m making millions to work the night shift,” he brags on “6 Man”) and Justin Bieber (“I’ve been so caught up in my job,” he croons on “Love Yourself”).

This obsession with work goes back to the origins of the pop genre itself. Pop is a populist category by definition, designed to appeal to mass audiences by invoking what it means to be happy (or not) in modern society. Modern pop music grew out of America’s blues and R&B traditions, where the concept of a hard day’s work – with emphasis on the difficulty – was central: Think Ray Charles’s “I’ll Do Anything But Work” (1950) and Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine” (1966), in which work was addressed playfully or with a resilient attitude. As rock and roll began to dovetail with, borrow from, and/or blatantly appropriate these musical traditions, work remained a prominent theme – see The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) and CCR’s “Proud Mary” (1969), both definitive hits that tapped into the working-class experience.

By the 1970s, work was often a way for artists to reject the excess and disorder of the late ’60s – Van Morrison’s “I’ve Been Working” and the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead, both from 1970, come to mind. The U.S.-U.K. recession of 1973–1975 paved the way for The Clash’s “Career Opportunities” and Elvis Costello’s “Welcome to the Working Week,” two songs released in 1977 that addressed the seemingly inevitable forfeit of youthful ambition that comes with getting a job that “don’t thrill you.” Indeed, the appeal of blue-collar pop often seems to rise during periods of financial crisis or cultural upheaval. Bruce Springsteen built a career by exploring the iconography of hardworking Americans in the economically depressed 1970s and ’80s. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) is particularly ripe with references to blue-collar work: On “The Promised Land,” he’s “Working all day in my daddy’s garage”; on “Badlands,” he sings about “Workin’ in the fields / ’Til you get your back burned”; and “Factory” is a full song dedicated to the costs of “the working, the working, just the working life.”

Blue-collar pop entered a golden age under Ronald Reagan’s administration. As the president preached free-market values and “trickle-down” profits, American pop stars went to work like never before, with Huey Lewis and the News’ “Workin’ for a Livin’” (1982), Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” (1983), Springsteen’s “Working on the Highway” (1984), Prince & the Revolution’s “Raspberry Beret” (1985), and The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” (1986), among many others, all referencing employment as a defining force in people’s lives.

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