The Very Radical Politics Of Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’


When you hear that opening to the 1980 Dolly Parton hit, you naturally start preparing yourself for what’s coming next – ♪ Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living ♪ ♪ Barely getting by, it’s all taking and no giving ♪ That may seem like a weird characterization of an Academy Award-nominated song by a woman who’s been dubbed the queen of qountry – a national treasure, who’s been nominated for 47 Grammys, won over 150 awards, has composed over 3,000 songs, a broadway musical and she’s released 64 studio albums. And a woman who has said for years that she modeled her look after the so-called town tramp. The people they called trash – in my home town, here in Sevier county, the loose women, well that was the women that I thought were, were, beautiful. So, I’ve been at it all my life trying to be gaudy. But when you start to break
‘9 to 5’ down lyric-by-lyric, by the end, you’re almost expecting
Parton to call for the overthrowing of the bourgeois in her
sweet Appalachian tones. It’s such a perfect embodiment
of the radical labor movements that were taking place in the United States
throughout the 1960s and 70s. But the song is also an unintentional
melody of the sort of radical politic that Dolly Parton, herself,
represents in her life and work. ♪♪ Dolly Parton is an American icon. Her look, her sound, her whole damn existence. Now that I’ve made it,
no matter how hard it gets, I’m not about to b*tch about it now. She was born in a small town in Tennessee, in a small log cabin, one of 12 kids. We had a roof over our head, I always say, even if it did leak. We had something to eat on our table, even if it wasn’t exactly what we wanted. We had a bed to sleep in,
even if there was a bunch of us in it. She started singing at the age of 10, but her career really launched in 1967 when she became a regular
on the Porter Wagoner show. Right now I want to call out a little gal here that her and I have had a lot of
luck with a couple single records- I haven’t called you out yet,
wait just a minute there, kiddo. Within a few years, she became the
queen of country, with hits like ♪ He said you can just call me Joshua ♪ ♪♪ ♪ Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene … ♪ ♪ And I will always love you ♪ I wanted more than to,
just be a farmer’s daughter, even though I’m proud to be.
I just wanted pretty things, I wanted money to buy things that I had
always been impressed with as a child. But, at the foundation of what makes
her iconic is how Parton stands as both a rebuke to and embrace of
the expectations of a woman from the poverty-stricken foothills of Appalachia. We were a very proud people,
people with a lot of class. It was country class
but it was a great deal of class, and most of my people were not that
educated but they are very very intelligent. Good common sense,
‘horse sense’ we called it. And while Parton herself stays
away from talking politics, her own life has been a testament
to how she has stood with people. I don’t care what – whether it’s your race, or whether you’re green, blue,
black, red, or alien grey, or whether you’re male or female, or transgender. If you do work, you should be
paid and appreciated for it, and you should be respected and
appreciated for who and what you are. She makes people feel good about
who they are, whether they’re an evangelical Christian or gay drag queen, or both of those things combined, right? Dolly represents, she’s their avatar.
She’s somebody who can be someone’s icon. And to fully understand Parton as
that kind of radical everyperson icon, we have to look at ‘9 to 5’ –
the film, the song, and the album. ‘9 to 5’ was the title song for
an office revenge comedy with the same name, and it starred
Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton. The premise of the film is pretty
straight-forward: These three women work for this guy. He’s rude, lies, gives opportunities earned
by women to less-deserving men, and he genuinely seems to believe
that sexual harassment is as necessary as his morning coffee. Mr. Hart I’ve told you before,
I’m a married woman! And I’m a married man.
That’s what makes it so perfect. Oh Mr. Hart… [screams] – Look I want you.
– Oh for heaven’s sake! What are you doing? Mr. Hart! Call me Frank. One day, during a particularly
inspired weed-smoking sesh, the three women relish in fantasies
about how they’d like to exact revenge. And a series of events lead them to,
eventually, kidnapping him. ♪♪ While they’ve held him hostage,
the women take over the office and start enacting a series of reforms –
like equal pay between men and women, better work hours, even an in-house
daycare for parent employees. The movie ends with a
happy ending for the ladies, and the boss gets what he deserves – abducted by the Indigenous of the Amazon.
Because, why not? Now, again, on a superficial level
the movie comes across as your run-of-the-mill cute office comedy. But it was released in 1980 –
a year that ended the decade of one of the most militant and successful
eras for labor and women’s rights. Throughout the late 60s and 70s, the United States experienced
a labor upheaval. Hard-earned union rights
were being rolled back, and workers across industries
pushed right back. From postal employees to California’s
Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, to the coal miners of
Harlan Country, Kentucky, workers were shutting down their industries
to demand rights and protect their unions. And right alongside, if not within,
these movements, there were civil rights and women’s
rights groups also pushing for economic and protective
equality in the workplace. Think, for example, the 1980
clarification that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that sexual harassment was,
in fact, totally illegal. So, it’s in that context that
the film ‘9 to 5′ comes out – it mixes two of the largest movements
of the previous 20 years and uses comedy to make a
radical point about workers’ rights and sexual harassment in a way
that’s palatable and not preachy. I mean, think of it this way: Three female
workers, feeling detached from their labor and suffering abuse from
their boss, overthrow him and introduce reforms that benefit both
men and women equally. The film may as well be called: Now, that’s the film –
what about Parton’s song? In the same way the film
“9 to 5” is a worker’s homage to her sweat and toil
as well as her revolt, the song ‘9 to 5’ is her
lament, but also her hope. This chorus – catchy and relatable – actually does a pretty good job of summing up philosopher Karl Marx’s theory of worker alienation, which is a huge part of his overall critique of capitalism, and not something you’d expect from a catchy pop country song. According to Marx, because workers
don’t control the work that they do – in any real sense –
their lives lose a sense of purpose because they become, in that
process, commodities themselves. They’re just a means to an end,
the end being profit for the Boss. In the song ‘9 to 5,’ Parton
makes this alienation pretty clear with lyrics like, ‘Yawn and
stretch and try to come to life,’ ‘They use your mind,
but they never give you credit,’ ‘barely gettin’ by,
it’s all takin’ and no givin,’ ‘you’re just a step on the
boss-man’s ladder.’ But, when you take that song
and hold it next to the film ‘9 to 5,’ the song becomes a radical critique. But there’s more. Parton released the song on her
24th studio album, entitled 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs. This album, filled with original songs and covers, captures Parton’s working class sympathies and experiences, sometimes in a surprising way. It takes a hard look at the
class struggle in America. Songs like ‘Deportee,’
songs about coal miners, songs about being poor in a small town, songs about rural poverty. Take, for example, ‘Poor Folks Town,’
an original song on the album. And another original,
‘Sing for the Common Man.’ Then there’s ‘Deportee,’ it’s a cover
of proud communist Woody Guthrie’s protest song about a
group of Mexican workers who were killed in a plane crash
over Los Gatos, California in 1948. And in media coverage, they were
simply referred to as ‘deportees.’ Each song in the album illustrates a
different aspect of working-class America, and, together, they create perhaps
Dolly Parton’s most provocative, definitely most radical, homage
to the everyday person. She’s someone who understands
what it’s like to be hungry, to be without electricity, to be
lacking in basic needs and resources. I think it gives her songwriting,
and for that matter her philanthropy, a great sense of empathy. But Parton has notoriously
stayed away from getting political. She’s actually got a pretty good swerve. Where do you stand on this election? Right now, I just – I just don’t know. It’s just the greatest show
on television right now. That, however, hasn’t stopped her
from pushing policies in her own way. Take, for example, two of
her biggest philanthropic efforts: the Imagination Library
and the My People Fund. The Imagination Library is a charitable
effort that Dolly started originally in her home county that
gives books to young children to encourage them to read. It’s since expanded into several
countries, across many states, and become one of the largest
children’s literacy programs in the world. To date, the Imagination Library has
given out 100 million free books to kids all over the United States. The My People Fund provided $1,000 a month for six months, with a final check of $5,000, to 1,300 families who
had had lost everything in the 2016 Tennessee wildfires. I know it’s been a trying time for my people and this assistance will help. She gave this money to the residents of
her hometown with no strings attached, didn’t tell them how to spend it,
understanding that they would have the agency and the knowledge
to do what they needed to recover. In the end, the Dolly Foundation would
give over $8 million to impacted families. Nobody but you would
be so kind and generous. I’m sure anybody up here would
do that. These are good people. And that’s what Dolly Parton
as a radical icon comes down to: Someone who believes that
people are fundamentally good and that they deserve good. Alright, how many of you guys actually
thought you’d spend some time watching a video about how
Dolly Parton is a Marxist icon? You’re welcome! Let us know what you guys thought.
Also let us know what else you want us to cover in future
episodes of Pop Americana. And we’ll see you next week. ♪♪

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