When I learned that Dolly Parton had rerecorded her hit 1980 working-class anthem “9 to 5” as a jingle called “5 to 9” for Squarespace, website builder of choice for “creatives,” as an ode to side hustles, I joked on Twitter asking some unknown entity to “pls hold all my calls” because I was “coping.”
I love “9 to 5.” I’ve sung it at karaoke countless times, despite its basic incompatibility with my voice. I’ve put it on at Democratic Socialists of America meetings. It’s one of the greatest musical odes to class struggle in American history. Now it’s being repurposed to laud how capitalism forces us to work endlessly just to survive.
Then I thought about it for thirty seconds. It’s not surprising in the least that a song with such widespread appeal would be turned on its head — literally, formally, figuratively, in every goddamned way — and pointed away from its original message (fuck the boss) and toward a new one (be the boss and never stop working), all in service of selling a product and lionizing our contemporary economy’s grotesque features.
Nor is it surprising that Dolly herself would participate in such a flipping of her own song.
Dolly has long avoided explicitly political stances. At the 2017 Emmys, she, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, who starred together in the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, for which the song was written, presented the award for Best Supporting Actor. During their speech, Tomlin and Fonda called Donald Trump a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” — which is what they call the boss in 9 to 5. Dolly stood between them, looking thoroughly displeased.
Recently, Dolly revealed that she refused to accept an offer for the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump twice during his term in office — less a rejection of Trump and more a refusal to be associated with politics at all. When asked on NBC’s Today if she would accept the medal from President Joe Biden, she demurred. “Now I feel like if I take it, I’ll be doing politics, so I’m not sure,” she said. Politics, she has told other interviewers, are “not my place.” “I’m an entertainer,” she says. And I take her at her word.
Dolly has not put her life in the service of politics. She makes music. She also owns a theme park where she, like any boss, exploits her workers and exploits them badly. Sometimes, she funds philanthropic projects. Most recently she donated a million dollars to COVID-19 vaccine development. She also grew up “dirt-poor” (her words) in rural East Tennessee and worked to make a living before she became a CEO — a position pointed out in the Squarespace ad in question, which features a shot of Dolly on the cover of a magazine with the headline “SINGER, SONGWRITER, CEO.”
But of course, the song “9 to 5” is deeply political. It even follows the structure of a good organizing conversation:
Identify the issues
Barely gettin’ by
It’s all takin’
And no givin’
They just use your mind
And they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you
Crazy if you let it
Name the enemy
Want to move ahead
But the boss won’t seem to let me
I swear sometimes that man is out to get me
Find common ground
You’re in the same boat
With a lot of your friends
Waitin’ for the day
Your ship’ll come in
And the movie whose soundtrack the song appears on and which Dolly stars in is an unabashed portrait of militant feminist workplace struggle. But to hear Dolly tell it, her decision to do the movie wasn’t about politics. In fact, she worried about what her more conservative fans would think about her doing a movie with “Hanoi Jane.” But the movie’s politics can fly under the radar because they don’t take a position on any one politician or political party. That seems to be where Dolly draws the line, too. She’ll give hundreds of thousands of dollars to victims of fires, but denouncing Trump is a step too far.
That’s fine. I don’t need her to have my politics to appreciate the political aspects of her songs like “9 to 5.” I also don’t need her to share my politics to recognize the way My Tennessee Mountain Home captures the lived experience of so many poor and working-class people in Appalachia. And I don’t need her to share my leftist politics to know that Dolly gives millions of people, in particular Tennesseeans, a reason to be proud of the place they come from, when much of mainstream culture dismisses them as backward and beyond hope.
Dolly is special. She’s also just doing her job, which at this point involves appealing to masses of people by repeating certain gimmicks she’s come to be known for (boob jokes, big hair) and always remaining in the media eye. Hence, a commercial for Squarespace. Is it ironic that “9 to 5” has been flipped from a song about working-class rage and power to one about self-exploitation in the service of “passion”? Sure. But the cruel fate of “9 to 5” is the fate of any cultural production under capitalism: turning from artistic expression into consumer good.
Dolly herself doesn’t need whatever money she was paid to rerecord the song to survive. She’s wildly rich. I won’t purport to know her motives for recording this jingle, and I wish she hadn’t done it. But “9 to 5” the song and 9 to 5 the movie had major appeal because they spoke to the shared experience of working-class women. And at the time, the organizing that inspired the movie and the song was so powerful, and effected such deep cultural shifts, that even someone as allergic to politics as Dolly felt compelled to write about it.
I am less interested in what Dolly does or doesn’t do with the song, and more interested in creating the conditions where a song with the line “you spend your life putting money in his wallet” can once again land at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.