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A Cup Of Ambition And Endurance: '9 To 5' Unites Workers Across Decades

Jul 11, 2019
Originally published on July 11, 2019 1:43 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


This year at the Grammy Awards, backed by a chorus of contemporary Nashville stars, Dolly Parton brought the house down with a song older than most of the performers onstage. It's the same song Elizabeth Warren walked out to when she announced her presidential run in February. The story of that song begins decades ago, behind a desk.

"It was the kind of job where you were just not seen." Karen Nussbaum has spent most of her career as a labor leader and organizer, but she started in the early 1970s as an office worker, in a job she says she does not remember fondly. "You were just part of the wallpaper," she says. "I remember sitting at my desk one day and a student came in — I worked at a university — and looked me dead in the eye and said, 'Isn't anybody here?' It was those kinds of things that just got under your skin a lot."

Nussbaum and some friends got together to talk about their frustrations. The result was a new organization with the mission of supporting women in the workplace, which they called 9to5. When their story made its way to Jane Fonda, whom Nussbaum knew through the antiwar movement, it helped inspire something else: A movie starring Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton as three fed-up working women, with Dabney Coleman as their insufferable boss.

9 to 5 was a revenge fantasy for women who felt overworked, underpaid and disrespected. The film hit No. 2 at the box office in 1980, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. But its original theme song, written and performed by Parton, had a life of its own, reaching No. 1 on three different Billboard charts and earning an Oscar nomination. It begins with a sound like a typewriter, which Parton happened on by clicking her fingernails.

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"I think the song is brilliant," Nussbaum says. "It starts with pride: 'Pour myself a cup of ambition.' It goes to grievances: 'Barely getting by.' It then goes to class conflict: 'You're just a step on the bossman's ladder.' And then it ends with collective power: 'In the same boat with a lot of your friends.' So in the space of this wildly popular song with a great beat, Dolly Parton just puts it all together by herself."

Rebecca Traister, a New York magazine writer who comments frequently on feminism and politics (her most recent book, Good and Mad, is about the power of women's anger), says the song had a similar effect on her when she worked as an administrative assistant. Though the song was more than 20 years old by then, she and her friends would still sing along to it on the local bar's jukebox when work left them stressed out and feeling stuck.

"It's a song that contains complaints about so many frustrations and inequities and injustices within a workplace — some of them gendered, some of them capitalist, some of them about how power is so unequally distributed," Traister says. "It is simultaneously a song of angry complaint and immense good cheer. And there is something about that combination that makes it kind of addictive and fun."

A different take on the song emerged last spring, when This American Life commissioned Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards to record a cover of "9 to 5" for an episode dealing with workplace harassment. Garbus, who was a secretary, cleaned houses and stocked grocery shelves on her way to a music career, says Parton's lyrics capture so much about the reality of workers' daily lives — and their dreams.

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"How much dreaming it takes to get through some of those days, some of those miserable days that feel dehumanizing, cleaning up other peoples' messes and generally being treated like trash, how much dreaming is needed in those times to get up the next morning and do it all again," she says.

Garbus' version of the song ends abruptly on the line "It's a rich man's game, no matter what they call it," leaving things on a far more pointed note than the original. "I felt like I didn't want to be cute with it," she explains. "I wanted it to end with a period, exclamation point, question mark."

Whether one is ending it with a question mark, belting it out in a bar, organizing labor or running for president "9 to 5" is a song that pretty much anyone who's ever had to work for a living can relate to — especially women.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLLY PARTON SONG, "9 TO 5")

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Almost 40 years ago, Dolly Parton clicked her fingernails and came up with a sound that seemed a lot like a typewriter.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLLY PARTON SONG, "9 TO 5")

MARTIN: That's how one of her most famous songs came to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Working 9 to 5. What a way to make a living, barely getting by. It's all taking and no giving.

MARTIN: "9 To 5" was written for the movie of the same name, and it became an anthem for working women. It's still so popular that Elizabeth Warren plays it on the campaign trail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The next president of the United States of America, Senator Elizabeth Warren.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLLY PARTON SONG, "9 TO 5")

MARTIN: As part of our series American Anthem, NPR's Lynn Neary explores how what seems like just a catchy pop song actually has some very powerful things to say about working life.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Longtime labor leader and organizer Karen Nussbaum started her career back in the early 1970s as an office worker.

KAREN NUSSBAUM: It was a kind of job where you were just not seen. You were just part of the wallpaper. I remember sitting at my desk at lunch one day, and a student came in - I worked at a university - looked me dead in the eye and said, isn't anybody here? And it was those kinds of things that just got under your skin a lot.

NEARY: Nussbaum and some of her friends got together to talk about their frustrations. That led to a new organization. It was called 9to5. Nussbaum knew Jane Fonda through the anti-war movement and told her about it. That inspired Fonda to make a movie starring herself, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton as three fed-up working women. Dabney Coleman played their insufferable boss.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "9 TO 5")

DABNEY COLEMAN: (As Franklin Hart Jr) Judy, you've got to help me. That mob has gone crazy out there. They're trying to kill me.

JANE FONDA: (As Judy) Why would they want to do a nasty thing like that?

COLEMAN: (As Franklin Hart Jr) I don't know. I'm not such a bad guy.

FONDA: (As Judy) You're a sexist, egotistical, lying hypocritical bigot.

NEARY: The movie was the ultimate revenge fantasy for women who felt overworked, underpaid and disrespected. Dolly Parton wrote the song while working on the film. "9 To 5" was No. 2 the box office in 1980, beaten only by "The Empire Strikes Back." The song was No. 1 on three different Billboard charts. Nussbaum says it's a perfect anthem for working women.

NUSSBAUM: It starts with pride - pour yourself a cup of ambition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

PARTON: (Singing) Tumble out of bed, and I stumble to the kitchen. Pour myself a cup of ambition, and yawn and stretch and try to come to life.

NUSSBAUM: And then it goes to grievances - barely getting by, they always take the credit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

PARTON: (Singing) They just use your mind, and they never give you credit. It's enough to drive you crazy, if you let it.

NUSSBAUM: It then goes to class conflict - you're just a step on the boss man's ladder. And then it ends with collective power - you're in the same boat with a lot of your friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

PARTON: (Singing) In the same boat with a lot of your friends. Waiting for the day your ship will come in, and the tide's going to turn and it's all going to roll you away.

NUSSBAUM: So in the space of this wildly popular song with a great beat, Dolly Parton just puts it all together, all by herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

PARTON: (Singing) Nine to five, for service and devotion. You would think that I would deserve a fat promotion.

NEARY: More than 20 years after "9 To 5" first came out, Rebecca Traister was starting her career. Traister's a New York magazine writer who comments frequently on feminism and politics. Her most recent book, "Good And Mad," is about the power of women's anger. But back then she had a job as an assistant, which she says was just another name for a secretary.

REBECCA TRAISTER: It was a lot of getting coffee and making appointments and Xeroxing.

NEARY: Traister and her friends found their jobs frustrating and stressful. They had ambitions for the future but feared getting stuck. Sometimes they were just plain angry. They'd like to get together for a drink at a local bar where "9 To 5" was on the jukebox.

TRAISTER: We'd be sitting around tables drinking beer and talking, and everybody would pound their fists on the table or pound their nails. You know, there's the sound of the typing in the back of that song, the click, click, click, click, click, click? And, you know, we'd sing it. And it was - at that point, it was a 20, 25-year-old song.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "61ST ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS")

PARTON: Anybody out there work a 9-to-5 job?

(APPLAUSE)

PARTON: You can help us out on this one.

NEARY: Fast-forward another 20-something years to the 2019 Grammys, and Dolly Parton brought down the house with a chorus of famous young singers, including Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, belting out her famous song.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "61ST ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS")

PARTON: (Singing) I want to move ahead, but the boss won't seem to let me. I swear sometimes that man is out to get me.

NEARY: There's a reason "9 To 5" has such staying power, says Rebecca Traister.

TRAISTER: It's a song that contains complaints about so many frustrations and inequities and injustices within a workplace, some of them gendered, some of them capitalist, some of them about how power is so unequally distributed. It is a song that is simultaneously a song of angry complaint and immense good cheer. And there's something about that combination that makes it kind of addictive and fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUNE-YARDS SONG, "9 TO 5")

NEARY: A different take on the song emerged when the public radio program This American Life commissioned a new cover.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

TUNE-YARDS: (Singing) Tumble out of bed and I stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition.

NEARY: Merrill Garbus, lead singer of Tune-Yards, says she wanted to bring a new sensibility to the song.

MERRILL GARBUS: It is a great song because people can relate to feeling powerless.

NEARY: Though she is now a successful singer, Garbus has worked a lot of jobs over the years.

GARBUS: I shredded files. I restocked shelves at a grocery store. I was a secretary, a house cleaner.

NEARY: Garbus says Parton's lyrics capture so much about the reality of workers' daily lives and their dreams.

GARBUS: How much dreaming it takes to get through some of those days, some of those miserable days cleaning up other people's messes and generally being treated like trash. How much dreaming is needed in those times to get up the next morning and do it all again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

TUNE-YARDS: (Singing) They let you dream just to watch 'em shatter. You're just a step on the boss man's ladder. But you got dreams he'll never take away.

NEARY: Garbus' version of the song ends abruptly on a far more pointed note than the original.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

TUNE-YARDS: (Singing) It's a rich man's game no matter what they call it.

GARBUS: I felt like I didn't want to be cutesy with it. I wanted to land with a period, exclamation point, question mark. (Laughter).

NEARY: Whether ending it with a question mark, belting it out in a bar, organizing labor or running for president, "9 To 5" is a song that pretty much anyone who's ever had to work for a living can relate to, but especially women.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

PARTON: (Singing) It's a rich man's game no matter what they call it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.