This Labor Day I've been thinking about a compelling blog post by Madwoman With a Laptop I recently read in praise of quitting one's job, one's academic job particular. It rightly points out that quitting can be both an affirmation of oneself and a refusal to keep putting up with the usual bullshit. In today's labor environment, most workers don't belong to a union, lack job security, and are constantly being squeezed by their employers. Real wages have been stagnant for decades. In many professions, like teaching and higher education, the work is being de-professionalized and casualized, with educators losing authority and status along with taking pay cuts. To stand up and say, "screw you assholes, I fucking quit!" is one of the few weapons the American worker has to fight back with. Most people, unfortunately, do not have the ability to so easily give up their jobs, and must remain shackled to them, losing a bit of their soul every time they punch the clock. When I was luckily able to leave academia for a much better and more fulfilling job as an independent school teacher, I felt completely liberated.
That said, I've had my share of shit jobs in my life, and these five songs were all coping mechanisms. There are plenty of songs that celebrate workers as everyday heroes, and they tend to have an optimistic tone even if they discuss the travails of the workaday world. (Pat and the Blenders' "Hard Workin' Man," Huey Lewis and the News' "Working For A Living," Merle Haggard's "Working Man's Blues," Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" etc.) That's all well and good, but working is much more about drudgery than heroism. That's why they call it work, right? Here's five songs to hate your job to:
1. Johnny Paycheck, "Take This Job And Shove It"
This is the true worker's anthem, a cathartic exercise in wish fulfillment. Note that the singer of the song does not actually tell his boss to "take this job and shove it," but rather fantasizes about doing so. This is reality for most workers: they want so badly to tell their superiors to go to hell, but can't bear the financial cost of doing so.
2. Bob Dylan, "Maggie's Farm"
The Bobfather might metaphorically be speaking of his own emancipation from the hidebound world of folk music, but the literal meaning of the song concerns telling a tyrannical boss off. Around the time I left academia I would blast this song in my apartment, and it felt soooo good.
3. Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Sixteen Tons"
This one's for my grandpa, who was a working man all his life. I remember as a kid, when he was almost 80 years old, coming home from his job at the gas station where he still had to work long after age 65. Cancer struck pretty early into his "retirement," which was so short that it hardly deserves the name. He came from Missouri, and loved Tennessee Ernie Ford. Like the character in the song, my grandpa once lived in a company town where he was at the mercy of the company store. This song is a a classic working-class lament: you bust your back smashing the coal face every day only to end up even deeper in debt than when you started. It's a scenario that's still sadly relevant today, even if the mineshafts have turned into cubicles and cash registers.
4. Bruce Springsteen, "Factory"
This dirge is told not from the point of view of a worker, but his son, who sees his father being gradually ground down over the years by his factory job. "It's just the working life" he sighs. I've seen so many people close to me seem physically and spiritually beaten by their jobs, and those who have retired are suddenly so much happier and healthier. The awful situation for today's workers, who have so little voice and are constantly being squeezed and pushed to the breaking point, is doing untold damage to the health and souls of so many people in this country today.
5. The Smiths, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"
The whole song isn't about working, but these lines just say it all:
"I was looking for a job
And I found a job
And heaven knows I'm miserable now
Why do I spend valuable time
On people who don't care
If I live or die?"