My Culture Complex column in the print TIME this week asks the musical question: why aren’t there more pop songs about white-collar workers?
We have office sitcoms, office novels and office movies, but where are the office pop songs? Rock music has never lacked for zillionaires to romanticize farmhands and factory workers. But what of the John Henrys plowing sweatily through PowerPoint presentations? White-collar employees, who make up 60% of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are largely absent from pop lyrics, except for novelty songs and minor works. (The Bangles’ Manic Monday mainly proves that the songwriter Prince is more convincing on the subject of sex than commuting.) As far as songwriters are concerned, the Dilberts of the world can buy their MP3s, but they can’t have noble souls and inner lives.
There are exceptions besides the few I mention in the column, of course, and I spent a lot of time thinking about them as I wrote this. Herewith, just to piss off Lev Grossman, is my list of 10 notable white-collar pop songs:
1. Bright Future in Sales, Fountains of Wayne. Really, the whole column was an excuse to write about FOW and their new album. I could have composed a list of nothing but FOW office songs–Little Red Light, Hey Julie, etc., etc.–but I picked this one because it rocks the most. The self-destructive frat-boy narrator–“Seven scotch-and-sodas at the office party/ Now I don’t remember where I’m from”–was Andy Bernard before Ed Helms was.
2. Fred Jones, Pt. 2, Ben Folds. Rarely for a pop office song, this ballad treats its subject, laid off after 25 years on the job, as a tragic figure, with dignity and a smidge of pathos. The chorus is delivered by the young guard waiting awkwardly to escort him out: “And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones/ It’s time.”
3. 9 to 5, Dolly Parton. Just to be clear, I’m purposely leaving out Sheena Easton’s “Morning Train (9 to 5),” also from 1981. Waiting for your baby to come home from work doesn’t count.
4. Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins), XTC. I thought there must be more XTC office songs out there; Earn Enough for Us, though, could be about any job.
5. Code Monkey, Jonathan Coulton. The other excuse for writing the article was to interview Coulton, who although I didn’t know it beforehand lives about ten blocks from me. An intrepid YouTuber, Mike Spiff Booth, made a video entirely from World of Warcraft images (also embedded above). Coulton’s zombie tune Re: Your Brains counts too, though it stretches the joke a little too long.
6. Koka-Kola, The Clash. Advertising, party girls and blow. Need I say more?
7. Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head, They Might Be Giants. This time it’s advertising and car washes, so maybe this counts as only half a white-collar rock song. The other half might be Someone Keeps Moving My Chair.
8. Step Into My Office, Baby, Belle and Sebastian. This probably falls more into the category of office as metaphor. But a very cool and dirty metaphor, so I’m keeping it.
9. Frankly, Mr. Shankly, The Smiths. There’s no overt reference to the type of work here, so how do I know this is a white-collar song? Reason: like Morrissey would have lasted five minutes doing construction.
10. Synchronicity II, The Police. “And every single meeting with his so-called superior/ Is a humiliating kick in the crotch.” (See Sting hang from scaffolding in the video.) Sting, once a teacher, also wrote Don’t Stand So Close to Me, although that was rather more about extracurricular activities.
So you have my list (and a fairly good idea of how I was spending my time in the ’80s). But I’m sure I missed some low-hanging fruit out there. (Taking Care of Business and Manic Monday are in the column, BTW.) The Kinks, maybe? What have you got?