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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.

The 1990s, in contrast, saw a sharp rejection of work in pop culture. Musically, it was the decade of the slacker, of reluctant compliance, of conscientious rebellion against the convention, structure, and power dynamics implied by the 9-to-5 workweek. Riot grrrl, grunge, and indie rock took off in part because of the way they channeled young people's fear of becoming a cog in the machinery of an American Dream they knew to be fiction. Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker” (“I’m working! But I’m not working for you!”) and Sleater-Kinney’s “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” (“The clock, I'm punching in / I'm a monster / Work 'til I can't give”) addressed these concerns head-on. In a larger sense, the mainstream ascent of defiantly anti-establishment bands like Nirvana reflected a brewing discontent that persisted despite the decade’s relatively stable domestic social and economic conditions — until the turn of the millennium and the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Looking at Billboard's Top 100 chart and year-end archives reveals that, for the most part, the biggest pop hits in the decade following 9/11 avoided the idea of work — or anything that might have interfered with the romance of good, clean pop. The charts in those years were full of feel-good jams that largely skip over the mundanities of everyday living – even more so than previous decades' pop already did. Post-9/11 pop music was exceptionally free from real-life worries: Major 2002–05 hits such as Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” OutKast’s “Hey Ya!,” Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” Usher’s “Yeah!," and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” were generally unconcerned with era-defining struggles over teenage angst or gender politics, to the point where it often felt as though they'd rejected meaning.

Instead, the pop music of this era conveyed immediate, visceral feelings of euphoria, bliss, celebration, and, perhaps most importantly, escape. Many of these songs from the early aughts now feel timeless as a result: “Crazy in Love,” for example, takes place in a fantasy universe (or romanticized club environment) where notions of real life, time, and obligation don’t really apply. And while this evidence is anecdotal, it's only logical that upbeat, celebratory songs would succeed in a period of global insecurity and disillusionment. Who wants to think about their 9-to-5 when the world is hanging in the balance?

Flash forward to 2016: Songs about work fit right into today's concerns over economic instability, Trump, and taxation. Countless members of America’s increasingly overworked population fret daily about retirement plans, job security, and financial security — factors that might contribute to an ever-shrinking tolerance for artificially sunny attitudes in pop music. The past few months of pop headlines are full of apropos examples: Rihanna releases the theoretically controversial but widely beloved “Bitch Better Have My Money”; Kanye West asks the billionaires of the world to fund his “work”; Justin Bieber apologizes for past digressions that he suggests came from being caught up in his career; Kesha is martyred in the name of contractual obligation to a job that, however seemingly glamorous, keeps her financially chained to an institution whose work culture can be grotesquely corrosive.

Work can also serve as a counterintuitive signpost of fun and pleasure, which is what keeps songs that address it from sounding boring. When Rihanna chirps, “Get ready for work, work, work, work, work, work,” listeners implicitly understand that she's finding something to celebrate in the routines of modern life. “You need to get done, done, done, done at work / Come over,” Drake answers during his verse — one of the most relatable sentiments you'll find on the radio. The song joins several other recent hits where "work" serves as a euphemism for sex as a kind of hustle — not unlike the radio-friendly double entendres that are deliberately and explicitly introduced in Fifth Harmony’s recent single, “Work From Home.” Here, the work metaphors serve the sole purpose of slipping past censors, resulting in ridiculous, campy lyrics like “Imma give you a promotion / I’ll make it feel like a vacay, turn the bed into an ocean.” (The song’s video extends this sex/work metaphor to comical effect, featuring a number of excessively handsome construction workers whose jobs involve the suggestive use of a jackhammer, among other phallic objects.)

More often, though, contemporary songs that address finances and the more laborious aspects of a job do so as a way of tarnishing the shiny façade of celebrity. Social media and tabloid culture have combined to give more visibility to the humans who power America’s pop machinery today than ever before — as a culture, we're fascinated with finding the real people behind the airbrushed masks. The idea of relatability has rarely felt more salient. The protagonists of Keeping Up With the Kardashians constantly reference the work that goes into their mythmaking; similarly, audiences are endeared when musicians irreverently refer to their art and stardom as mere work, because it makes them more human. As a result, the gap between the entertainer and the entertained continues to narrow. Artists who insist on their status as workaholics are making a statement about what it's like to make music – or to live at all – in an economically wracked, Trump-addled country where even the most exclusive creative profession is still a job.