In America, we live to work and work to live — and we never stop complaining about it. Even folks who love their jobs are never satisfied. If baseball weren’t our national pastime, bitching about our stupid jerk-face bosses surely would be.
Luckily, we pause once a year on the first Monday in September to commemorate Labor Day, a celebration of the American worker. Since musicians aren’t immune to the workaday blues, there are plenty of great tunes to spin on this holiday, and what follows are 20 of the finest Labor Day work songs. Unless you’re stuck in a cubicle, play ‘em at an unreasonable volume.
Dolly Parton, “9 to 5”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 1 for 2 weeks; Peak Date: Feb. 21, 1981)
Parton could have paired these lyrics with some minor-key acoustic strumming and had herself quite the sad-bastard ballad. Instead, she takes what little spending money she has and hires herself a horn section. The boss man can steal her cash and hog all the credit, but he won’t ruin our gal’s fun. “There’s a better life,” Parton sings, her chirpy tone signaling anything but cynicism.
Loverboy, “Working for the Weekend”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 29; Peak Date: Feb. 13, 1982)
Let’s face it: No matter how great your job is, there’s always something you’d rather be doing. Work is work; it’s a means to an end. As these Canadian pop-rockers remind us, we’re all gunning for those two days a week when we’re free to Windex our red pleather pants and take a stab at romance.
Britney Spears, “Work Bitch”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 12; Peak Date: Oct. 5, 2013)
Whoever says the classic American go-getter spirit is dead hasn’t heard this inspirational Britney Spears club jam. It’s all about how hard work is the key to success, and if Ben Franklin had known electricity would lead to music this sexy and uplifting, he’d have invented it sooner.
Sam Cooke, “Chain Gang”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 2; Peak Date: Oct. 8, 1960)
Even the crummiest jobs have one thing common: You can quit ‘em. The one exception is the unenviable task Cooke describes in this song, a tribute to the prisoners forced to pay for their crimes by building and maintaining our nation’s roadways. All day long, they grunt and sweat, working on highways and byways that represent freedom for everyone but them. Cooke understands their sorrow, even if no one else does.
Donna Summer, “She Works Hard for the Money”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 3; Peak Date: Oct. 6, 1983 )
The next time your waitress brings you runny eggs and burnt bacon, and you’re tempted to throw a fit and send your breakfast back, remember this ‘80s dance gem. That server you’re about to berate is doing the best she can, and she probably works twice as hard as you do. Plus, she’ll just spit in your hash browns when she brings them back.
Johnny Paycheck, “Take This Job and Shove It”
(Hot Country Songs Peak: No. 1 for 2 weeks; Peak Vate: Jan. 7, 1978)
This is the ultimate worker’s fantasy, and yet it’s just that: a dream that may never come true. While this song has become an anthem for disaffected laborers everywhere, the choruses are prefaced by “If I ever get the guts to say…” and “When I get the nerve to say…” Johnny Paycheck needs that paycheck, even if his woman done left him, and he’s got nothing good to spend it on.
Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “Takin’ Care of Business”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 12; Peak Date: Aug. 10, 1974)
Depending on the kind of day you’re having, BTO main man Randy Bachman is either sympathetic to your plight or incredibly patronizing. You see, he and his bandmates don’t have to punch a clock. They spend all day busting out silly boogie-rock tunes like this one and laughing all the way to the bank. “If it were as easy as fishin’,” Bachman sings, “you could be a musician.” Yeah, well, it ain’t. Guess it’s back to the construction site.
Bangles, “Manic Monday”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 2; Peak Date: April 19, 1986)
In the eyes of Prince, who wrote this Bangles smash, the worst thing about work is that it sometimes stands in the way of sex. If it were Sunday, Susanna Hoffs could stay home and get it on with Valentino. But she’s supporting both of them, so until Val gets off his ass and finds a job, no one’s getting any nookie. Except Prince, of course.
Styx, “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 21; Peak Date: Nov. 18, 1978 )
Sometimes, the only thing worse than having a job is not having one. The dude in this quasi-Springsteenian prog-rock hit just wants to get off the unemployment line and into some oil-stained coveralls. Back-breaking labor? Sign him up. It beats having his friends and family laugh in his face.
Huey Lewis & The News, “Workin’ for a Livin”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 41; Peak Date: Sept. 18, 1982)
Yet another jaunty tune with super-depressing lyrics, this ’82 Huey hit is all about how busboys, bartenders, and prostitutes essentially have the same job. In Reagan’s America, people were struggling, and in another couple of years, Springsteen would explore the topic with greater depth — and about 10 times more bar-band muscle — on “Born in the U.S.A.”
Wiz Khalifa, “Work Hard, Play Hard”
(Hot 100 Peak: No. 17; Peak Date: May 12, 2012)
Wiz and Britney should co-author a self-help book for discouraged job-seekers. Released a year before “Work Bitch,” this baller’s anthem is all about enjoying the spoils of hard-won success, and as Wiz raps in the third verse, “Make sure you do whatever it is that you gotta do/That’s your job.” Once you clock out, hit the club and burn those wages. You only go ‘round once.
Cher, “Working Girl” (1987)
Co-written by Michael Bolton, this ode to an ogled, mistreated secretary somehow didn’t make it on the 1989 Working Girl movie soundtrack. That’s a shame, because Cher kills it, as usual. Her “You gotta take a stand, girl!” plea turns Bolton’s cheesy “Livin’ on a Prayer” redo into something empowering.
Bruce Springsteen, “Working on the Highway” (1984)
There’s no escaping your destiny, and the tragic hero in this Boss rockabilly burner was born to toil on the blacktop. Initially, he does so of his own free will, but after he makes the mistake of eloping with a young girl whose daddy doesn’t dig him, he winds up back on the highway, this time wearing an orange jumpsuit.
Drive-By Truckers, “This F—king Job” (2010)
The hapless burger flipper in this neo-Southern Rock tune may seem like a screw-up — his crappy pay barely keeps the lights on in his dumpy apartment –but toward the end, Truckers leader Patterson Hood gives the story a bit more color. His luckless protagonist tried to follow in his daddy’s footsteps and get a good job, but he found the doors of opportunity had closed. It may be a song about farms closing down or American industry going overseas, and either way, all this poor fellow’s left with are fryolator burns and a little rugged pragmatism. “The livin’ and learnin’,” he says, “makes it all worthwhile.”
The Clash, “Career Opportunities” (1977)
Talk about dead-end jobs — in this ’77 punk rager, Joe Strummer tells the British government, “I won’t open letter bombs for you!” And he wasn’t just spouting off about nothing. Clash guitarist Mick Jones had once worked for a federal agency checking mail for explosives. A good day meant going home with all your fingers.
Thursday, “For the Workforce, Drowning” (2003)
Leave it to Jersey emo kingpins Thursday to make white-collar office work seem 19th century coal-mining. “These ties strangle our necks, hanging in the closet/found in the cubicle,” Geoff Rickey sings, sounding like the guy at the office who never chips in for birthday cake. Yeah, the copier leaves ink on your hands, but at least it won’t give you black lung.
Michael Jackson, “Working Day and Night” (1979)
For a guy who’s busting his hump around the clock, MJ sounds pretty invigorated on this Off the Wall groover. He’s looking forward to some post-work loving, and so long as his lady’s not off cheating on him, he just might get some.
Fountains of Wayne, “Bright Future In Sales” (2003)
Being a 20-something with a decent sales job means office parties with free booze and a little disposable income — which can be used to procure more alcohol. That’s kind of a problem for the constantly buzzed young’un in this modern power-pop classic, though he’ll learn to pace himself. Life is long.
Elvis Costello, “Welcome to the Working Week” (1977)
The first song on EC’s first album runs a mere 1:24 and pretty much says it all: “Welcome to the working week/I know it don’t thrill you/I hope it don’t kill you.” Costello is singing to some girl who’s wronged him, so he secretly hopes it does kill her, but in ’77, Elvis was fresh off his job as computer operator at a cosmetics factory, so he was totally down with the workingman.
Cam’ron, “I Hate My Job” (2009)
“All this bullshit for twelve bucks an hour?” Cam’ron raps in the first verse, right after he wishes his know-it-all boss dead. He should really get a new gig, but as he reveals in the second verse, he’s got felony convictions, and no one will give him a chance. To make matters worse, Cam’s lady is giving him grief, sending his clothes to his mama’s place. With a home life like this, dude’s better off at work.