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It was the fall of 1999.
“Late night / Come home / Work sucks! / I know,” the lyrics of Blink-182’s “All the Small Things,” the most punk thing I’d heard to date in my young life, blasted from “Total Request Live” on the living room television.
“You don’t know!” My older sister, six years my elder, yelled, either coming home from or heading off to an endless-feeling shift at the local CVS, land of nubby gray carpeting and plastic name tags. “You can’t know until you start working,” she added. I had to wait about two more years until I could truthfully claim of deeply knowing the specific pain of monotonous hours, awkward customer interactions and malfunctioning registers all for a measly paycheck — and even then, my after-school job was hardly the most excruciating of its kind.
What we do for a living is often considered one of the most fundamental facts about us, like it or not. “What do you do?” is a classically American opening line for small talk. So much of our ethos is wrapped up in the original dream: You work hard, make a name for yourself and then live happily ever after. But there’s a flip side to that coin: long commutes, 80-hour weeks, backbreaking labor, the nagging feeling that you signed away your soul when you agreed to a job. Music, long an outlet for catharsis, has been a natural conduit for these frustrations. See: “Working Man Blues,” “Manic Monday,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Career Opportunities,” “Take This Job and Shove It.”
The most recent additions to the “work” oeuvre, though, aren’t lambasting the effort of a job like Mark Hoppus and co. did above. They’re embracing it. Two songs topping the charts offer strikingly similar choruses; both Rihanna’s “Work” and Fifth Harmony’s “Work from Home” repeat “work, work, work, work” over and over, at varying tempos, transforming from a noun into a directive of sorts. Fifth Harmony even dons hard hats, sledgehammers, tape measures, etc. to take over a construction site for their single’s video, evoking the sweat-inducing, muscle-flexing effort that line of work entails — and capitalizing on the many innuendos a construction site provides. Here, the women are clearly in control, both of their bodies and the blueprints at hand.
As J.C. Pan on Fader put it, “This is possibly the first time that two songs in Billboard’s Top 10 have had nearly identical refrains, and given that pop hits in the run-up to summer have been more likely to invoke parties and vacations, it’s even more curious that said refrain is simply the repetition of the word ‘work.'” Pan argues that this confluence is a mirror of our national anxieties about employment — we’re working harder and longer than ever with little certainty about what rewards that effort might reap. “Now, the only certainty we have regarding work is that we must get up day after day to do it,” Pan concluded.
Rihanna’s and Fifth Harmony’s latest hits are using “work” in a broader sense, focusing more on the effort it takes to get intimate with another human being than putting in hours at the office. Still, both carry the notion that work is a prerequisite for reward. The latter’s single uses plenty of work-related lingo to hammer home the theme, with references to night shifts, promotions and time sheets. And when “work” plays in one’s ears repeatedly, it’s difficult to avoid conjuring images of long hours and intense meetings.
Zooming out to look at pop songs from the last decade or so — in particular, those from female artists — hustle is king. Consider Beyoncé’s infamous question and answer: “Who run the world? Girls,” or Fifth Harmony’s unsubtle “BO$$,” that champions “Michelle Obama / Purse so heavy / Gettin’ Oprah dollars.” And we’d be remiss to neglect Britney Spears’ call to arms in “Work Bitch,” where the pop singer offers the sage advice that if one desires a hot body, a Bugatti, a Lamborghini, or a life sippin’ martinis, they’d “better work, bitch.” They’d better!
They’re fun, motivational songs. One can imagine pushing through their last mile in a workout to “Run the World,” or punching the air as “BO$$” plays in the background to get amped for a tough interview. When one doesn’t feel particularly “bossy,” a song can step in and provide a confidence boost where there once was none.
And maybe we need a boost: women consistently make 79 cents to a man’s dollar in this country, and the number shrinks even more when the sample size includes only Latina or black women. Women hold just 4 percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies and there are under 1 percent of black CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.
These “hustle” messages can feel like a product of anxieties about workplace performance — not to say that any one group is underperforming, but that societal factors can contribute to a feeling of underperforming. In short, a member of the minority (be it due to gender, race, or another factor) in the workplace may feel undue pressure to over-perform in order to feel worthy of their position, pressures that a white, male individual of the same experience and age may not feel.
In a study conducted by Essence about black women’s experiences in a white-dominated workplace, the magazine found “that scores of us are so worried about being perceived negatively that we hide our authentic selves in the workplace, choosing instead to tone down our appearance, soften our demeanor and hold back in our conversations.” Knowing this, the importance of empowering hustling anthems feel even more important. Sure, it’s just music, but these songs are also instances of women being unapologetic about their ambition — a notion that has yet to be fully embraced by society as a whole.
You won’t hear Beyoncé offering up a “work sucks / I know,” anytime soon, because in this economy, to be employed as a woman, more notably as a woman of color, is to feel the pressure of having to be the best. If we need Britney, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Fifth Harmony and co. to cheer us on until there’s better gender and racial parity in the workplace, we’re happy to sing along and watch them work, work, work, work, work over the male slacker anthems of yesteryear.
Follow Jillian Capewell on Twitter: @jcapejcape
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