The dream of escape
He was looking for a job and then found one. Heaven knows, that made him miserable. Quite what would have cheered Morrissey up in the 1980s was a mystery to us all, of course, and the mere commencement of regular employment was never going to be equal to the task http://tinyurl.com/6klgz3
. The Mancunian song-writer's travails with travaille are typical. I once read a review that observed that there are many songs about the telephone, and all of them are sad. There are many about work. Nearly all of them are bitter where they are not caustic.
Much of the time, being at work is like being at school again. Music touches the free soul within us, so how can that spirit feel liberated if we are being told what to do? Perhaps music is more than that; perhaps it is the soul. Johnny Marr, Morrissey's guitarist in The Smiths, testifies: 'If you've got a certain vocabulary on the guitar, you know how to play what you feel. You can voice it without all the hassle of turning it into words and concepts … You don't have to translate to make your point. You don't even have to be making a point - it's turning your daydreams into sound.' i
And in which context is the mind most prone to daydream? Work is manic, a bore, a grind. It is the bad days and the sad days. We gotta get out of this place. It is slavery, and music is liberation. The song is the voice of the soul seeking escape from its temporal prison to a kind of heaven; 'I know why the caged bird sings'. Music is our window on paradise. When we hear a particularly favoured piece of music, and it touches the core of us and lifts us up, often when played by someone else or overheard on the radio (a context that heightens its sensory pleasure, through the sense of receiving it as a gift) we feel that we are so happy we could die and exclaim: 'I want this played at my funeral!'
Music is the most corporally felt art. We can even absorb sub-sonic and super-sonic vibrations - which explains why older recordings on valve-based technology, without the topping and tailing of the 'cleaner' digital processing, often sound warmer. When we say that that a song has a certain 'feel' we are talking more literally than we imagine.
As well as being opposites, body and soul, labour and music, are intimately related. The history of music - at least, folk and pop music - is intertwined with that of work. West African women sing as they pound the corn, and maintain the metre with each strike. The babies in their backpacks learn perfect rhythm at an early age. In the Western Isles of Scotland, there are songs composed by the weavers to accompany their time-consuming labour. The song-writer draws upon the monotonous, and on occasion despised activity, for material both while and by trying to escape it, or to make the working experience less arduous and more comforting.
We always have a song on our brain. It is a curious act of either God or neuro-chemistry (not two mutually exclusive concepts, I know) that the song running around the circuits is not always a favoured one. You try hard to get Love Minus Zero/No Limit cerebrally implanted, but up pops the Birdie Song or Tainted Love. This raises a question over the limits to our personal autonomy: do I really own my consciousness? But the devilish tricks of the sub-conscious sometimes have a pleasing side-effect. My favourite bit of the survival drama Touching the Void is the moment where stranded mountaineer Joe Simpson, crawling back towards base camp from the crevasse below Siula Grande with a broken leg, relates that he had the irritating Boney M tune 'Brown Girl in the Ring' running around his head as he entered a near-death, delusional state. Determined that this must not be his final experience of life on this earth, he summoned a final effort of will, crawled a little further, and raised the cry that finally alerted his colleagues at the camp.
At work, as much as anywhere else, we will have a song on our brain. So does it matter that the lyric, if it relates to the world of labour at all, will be derogatory about the day job?
Dreams of escape
The contrast between the misery of work and the ecstasy of the world outside is often portrayed as a vision of extremes, as in The Bangles' Manic Monday
, where the dream is an actual dream, drenched in erotic rapture, only to be punctured by the alarm clock announcing the start of a working day.
As we shall see in the next chapter, the theme has echoes in Emile Zola's masterpiece Germinal, in which the starving miners dream of a Utopia of justice amid the physical torture of their unrelenting labour and meagre living standards (see Chapter 2). There is certainly a deep psychological compulsion to dream of paradise when weighed down by the duty of an unloved job; and there can be ample opportunity to dream such dreams when locked into tedious activity for eight hours at a stretch. For workers who spend their days at the PC, many employers prevent access to the more interesting parts of the world wide web, precisely to prevent such day-dreaming. It would be preferable if managers were to invest their initiative and time into ensuring work were more purposeful and less boring, though for some tedious but necessary tasks, this is a considerable challenge. The human mind is instinctively restless, creative and social. We are not well equipped, temperamentally, to do many of the tasks which we as consumers want to be completed. Our desires create work that may be creative and interesting (desire for music, literature, drama); but our needs create work that is often less so (rubbish collection, collecting bills, harvesting fruit).
Artistically, Manic Monday is a delight: a chick lit novel in three minutes, set to the kind of exuberant, soaring melody that is pop music done perfectly. It covers the four big obsessions of the song-writer over the ages: love, sex, money and work, and throws in a Bridget Jones-style line about anxiety over what to wear. She has relationship and money pressures: has to earn for two in a job she hates, living with a boyfriend who displays real talent in the sack but has serious deficiencies in his work ethic. Despite his romantic ardour, she dreams of sex with someone else. And is the Sunday afternoon delight really worth her Monday-to-Friday grind? Should she ditch the boyfriend, hitch up with a higher earner or set out on her own to free herself to train for a career that is rewarding? We demand a sequel.
In a similar vein is 'Clock Goes Around' by Kirsty MacColl http://tiny.cc/Ibbem
, with the similarly plaintive lines around the pain of Monday morning; fear of being late, and fear of the boss. It is one of the less well known songs of this under-rated song-writer, but it always receives a rousing rendition when fans of the late singer meet at Soho Square, London on the Sunday closest to her birthday in October - a gathering that has been growing in size every year.
One striking thing about songs about work and careers is the song-writing strength: there is scarcely a duff recording and some unquestionable classics, from Old Man River to Lily Allen's 22. If I could have nothing but songs about work on the i-Pod, it would suffice for a long train journey (or a tedious shift doing repetitive work). Curiously, or perhaps aptly, the only one I wouldn't download would be Sheena Easton's Nine to Five (Morning Train) - one of the few to strike a positive tone about the working and commuting experience.
Does the misery of work inspire popular music's finest song-writers such that they reserve some of the finest work for the subject? Heart-breaking tedium in the workplace is poignant not just due to the unstimulating nature of the tasks or sense of their ultimate futility, but for the deep sense of loss; of missed opportunity; of crushed spirits and buried talents.
Is there something in the deep pain of unlovely work that provokes inspired musicianship? How can songs that tell of daily routine, boredom, clocking on or clocking off inspire such soaring emotion in such lasting works? The answer may be that the songs are not really about work, but about longing: longing for the mysterious beauty of the moments that make life worth living, but whose finitude makes our hearts ache. It is the very sharpness of the contrast between such ecstasy and the undifferentiated greyness of so many working lives that gives the songs' lyrics their direction and their emotional punch. They mourn the transience of freedom and its loss, and just as the sentiment yearns for liberation from other people's orders, the music lifts us out of our temporal bodies into our spirits.
Roots and slavery
Barack Obama was not the first individual of colour to stand on a ticket for the US presidency. In 1872, Frederick Douglass was Victoria Woodhull's running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket. The great orator and writer, a freed slave, made a most poignant observation of slaves in the field:
'While on their way (to work), the slaves would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out, if not in the word, in the sound; and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which, to many, would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.' ii
Slavery is the midwife for our popular music. The rock and pop songs we hear on the radio every day would either scarcely exist, or would sound very different indeed from the heavily guitar, blues-based style with which we are so familiar, without the influence of the 'field holler' and work songs of the slaves and the chain gangs of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The term 'The Blues', describing both existential angst and a type of music, is derived directly from the working experience. Curiously, the lyrical content of blues music rarely touches on work itself - as though it were too horrible a subject to commit to paper. If one looks at the words of 'classic' Delta or Chicago blues songs, the dominant theme is sex.
It was left to song-writers from later generations, and often more privileged backgrounds, to pen the most poignant observations of the plight of those condemned to hard labour. Oscar Hammerstein II, grandson of the tobacco millionaire and theatre impresario Oscar Hammerstein I, composed the legendary lines for Old Man River
about sweating and straining, in sharp contrast with the serene passage of the effortless river. Without explicitly mentioning race or slavery, it is an impressive polemic.
Prison occurs frequently in popular song. For Jim Croce, at least, it seems to be a mere inconvenience, and preferable to a dead-end job. In Working at the Car Wash Blues, he casually mentions doing 90 days at the County Jail, reserving harsher judgement for the indignity of working at the car wash.
In general, lyrics portraying the bitter poverty, hardship and suffering of labourers or slaves tend to be penned by professional singer-songwriters. In addition to Hammerstein, examples are Sam Cooke (Chain Gang
) and Bob Dylan (North Country Blues
). Allen Toussaint, writer of Working in a Coal Mine
, had humble beginnings, but spent his adult life in the music industry and never actually worked as a labourer in any form, though he did complete his national service. Those who actually had experienced extreme poverty and discrimination, such as Big Bill Broonzy or Robert Johnson, tended to write about other aspects of life.
But, here's the paradox: the people who actually did suffer slavery tended to write laments, rather than protest songs. The real venom came decades later, from middle-class kids whose only experience of 'slavery' came when their mums asked them to tidy their rooms. And please turn the amplifier down, at least when I've got visitors for tea.
So, when Big Bill Broonzy, who had some experience of poverty, sings one of the few blues songs that edges on protest, 16 Tons
by Merle Travis about working and working, just to get further in debt, there is some resonance, but most singers of the laments of slavery and the production line are well-off musicians. 'Chain Gang' was written by a black American artist. But at the time Sam Cooke was the soul superstar of his age, at the peak of his career. He penned 'Chain Gang' to give himself a harder edge, and show that he could extend his repertoire beyond gospel tunes and love ballads.
The listener, of course, does not know if the description is documentary or fantasy; auto-biographical or research. Regardless of source, the messages contain the power to be absorbed.
It was a chronicle of slavery that gives songs about work perhaps their finest moment. Redemption Song
is a poem, an anthem, and an epic, haunting tale. Surprisingly free of bitterness, but unsparing in its commentary, Bob Marley's classic relates the lost lives and aspirations of a dozen generations. It is a rare example, comparable to Martin Luther King's speeches, where a polemic rooted in bleak tragedy and in one campaign achieves transcendental significance; the call to free oneself from 'mental slavery'; for redemption and healing, triumph over the instinct for revenge. Marley echoes the theme of all songs of labour, that become his 'songs of freedom'; the cry of the soul. The stirring anthem itself is as much the message as the written word.
White working class folk have their own anthems. Like Redemption Song, Billy Bragg's hymnal 'Between the Wars
' possesses the sense of having always existed; more discovered and nurtured than composed. And as with Bob Marley's lyric, he adopts the first person singular to represent collective suffering. The 'I' raised a family during times of hardship with the sweat of hard labour. Though not slaves, the industrial working class of the British Empire suffered short lives, modest wages, rickets and poor housing. Bragg asks why those who did the work shared so little in the prosperity and paints a touching image of ordinary communities cherishing peace and green fields in contrast to the sky dark with bombers.
The mining community portrayed by Bob Dylan's 'North Country Blues' suffer rather more, and is a reminder that offshoring was a contentious issue in the 1960s, though tended not to be described as such, nor cause great anguish in the mainstream press, until it began affecting white-collar jobs in the 1990s. The key lines describe the compelling logic that the ore the miners produced turned out to be cheaper in the South American towns, where the miners work for next to nothing. http://tiny.cc/wH8Sb
This gives pause for thought. The widely popular logic of the 'law of the irreducible minimum' - essentially that the owners and managers of capital will always seek the bare minimum wage that is compatible with keeping workers in subsistence - is actually not well founded, even in pure business terms, as shall be discussed further in the next chapter. There may, however, be exceptions. When workers are in plentiful supply, the skills required are minimum and the bulk of the value lies in the ground, not the workers' heads, the only routes to decent standards may be either strong labour laws or the exercise of conscience. For the most part, this book rests on the strong evidence that recognising inter-dependence and treating workers well helps to build strong companies. These principles may not work for all people and for all times however, as the chilling lines in North Country Blues remind us.
One of the pop anthems of the early 1960s was 'We Gotta Get out of this Place
' by The Animals, which is not just the dream, but the plan of an escape from dead-end jobs in a working class northern English town, with a touching tribute to a father who's tired and going grey through too much work. The song was later adopted as the unofficial theme tune of US soldiers in Vietnam. It is an apt reflection of the passion that can infuse songs about the desire to escape dead-end jobs that one should be capable of voicing the desperation of soldiers immersed in a war that was horrific even by the nightmarish standards of the mid-20th Century.
1968 and all that: the counter culture
It is common to refer to the 'mythology' of the 1960s, but it could be that its influence is, if anything, understated. From the moments when the Lady Chatterley obscenity charge failed and a working class young woman Mandy Rice Davies quipped of Lord Astor's feeble cover-up 'Well, he would, wouldn't he?' deference was out of fashion. Casual dress, rock n roll and computers became the norm. For all the talk of more recent generational clashes, the really big divide is those born before or after the Second World War, especially in terms of taste in music. You can go to a Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen concert and there are people in their 20s dressed in kaftans and sporting long hair, singing along to every word.
Satire also became mainstream in the 1960s, and the counter culture had much to say on work and employment; much of it caustic - which, taking the longer view, was unfortunate, given that in the human relations schools there were many promising ideas in the 1950s and 1960s; promising green shoots that got firmly trodden on by the elephantine debates between conservatism and Marxism - which remained a powerful force in the West through the '60s and 70s.
On economic views, and certainly on employee relations, there was no deep-rooted ideological renewal, so the negative attitudes towards the corporation that came with the 'tune in, drop out' culture, allied to a fashionable satirical sneer, ironically propped up the conservative view that work was and should be miserable for the working classes. It was strange to be growing up in the West in the 1960s and 1970s where it was screamingly obvious that Japanese manufactured goods were better because the companies were better managed and the workers not on strike, yet almost no one on the left or right dare raise the question of 'management'; an odd prejudice that continues to this day in other forms - for example, a reluctance to blame the culture of management for the credit crisis and to obsess about regulatory structures or individual politicians or high-profile executives.
Part of the counter-culture meant sneering at work, the corporation, the 'old school'. An inverted hierarchy is established, in which the conventional trappings of white-collar success are turned around: not working is preferable to work, unless one is engaged in political activism or creative endeavour; voluntary and public sectors preferred to companies; menial jobs to management, and smaller firms to large corporations. To be a manager in a corporation is to have sold out, completely, scarcely better than being a child molester or paid-up Nazi. The closer one's economic activity is to a corporation the more one is contaminated, whether the company in question manufactures armaments or medicine (indeed so-called 'big pharma' continues to be the subject of an extraordinary amount of bile considering the lives that it saves).
The counter-culture, though un-self consciously impractical and uninterested in economics, does have some shape as a philosophy. It is incoherent on the matter of the workplace, but has much to say about work, and careers, and the corporation, even where it doesn't appear to. It is more than collection of slogans you can put on a t-shirt, and has had a huge impact upon contemporary mores. Take Bob Dylan's 'It’s Alright Ma’
', from the Bringing it All Back Home album. Unless I'm missing some influential discussions on the blogosphere, it isn't always accorded its rightful place as the manifesto of the 1960s.
It takes aim at the 'human gods' of corporate marketing, responsible for turning each and any item into a commodity, even plastic toys of Jesus Christ (In passing, looking at those lyrics and lines from 'With God on Our Side', it shouldn't have been so surprising that Dylan converted to Christianity a decade and a half later).
Advertising signs are a con, he asserts. Then he takes aim at respectable middle-manager folk who despise their jobs, apparently jealous of those who are free. The same duality of work versus freedom appears; the leitmotif of the chronicles of labour that we see through all artistic forms across the centuries. The same despised people see everything as an investment or a commodity, even the flowers they grow in their gardens.
The song takes on all the attitudes and values of the conservative establishment; its sexual hypocrisy; its belief in security through the arms race, provoking Shakespearian observations on finitude. Above all, the message is that the corporation, the 'safe' career, the defence industry, the conservative values wilfully distort the true human spirit.
It is the most devastating critique of inauthentic bourgeois attitudes and calculating capitalist instincts. Yet it remains a truth, not the truth. Is cultivating flowers for profit really any different from selling songs on an album? And even the advertisement industry is closer to a game of cat and mouse than a rigged trap that reliably 'cons' consumers. Marketing professionals will cheerfully admit that around half their expenditure is wasted - they just don't know which half.
The instinctive existentialism of the counter culture laments the loss of authenticity from being constrained to follow corporate orders, or conform to the rules of bourgeois respectability. This yearning is timeless, but some aspects of societal context have altered profoundly since the 1960s. The hegemony of a white, conservative ruling class which in those days had a near-monopoly on global economic power has ended. The multi-national corporation you work for nowadays is as likely to be Indian as North American, and even the President of the United States is a liberal of part-African descent. The Cold War is over, prompting a dissolution of previously tightly bound conservative institutions, especially in Anglo Saxon countries, of corporations, the military-industrial industry, conservative churches and the state. This is part of an unravelling that has diminished previously clear dividing lines of class and political culture.
It is liberating, but confusing. Inauthenticity and authenticity can be found anywhere. The military-industrial complex is not fighting socialists and trade unionists, but extreme neo-Nazi misogynists who make Dick Cheney look like a social democrat. It's difficult to know where to make a stand. Cynicism is now a cliché, and the satirists are the new establishment.
And the counter culture has crept into corporate life. The traditional response to informal aspects of hippy life being adopted by successful capitalist enterprises such as Virgin or Ben & Jerry's is that they have 'sold out', but the reality is more complex. What are they selling out from, or to? Many ethical organisations end up being far more profitable than those without a care for social responsibility. As our inter-dependence as a society intensifies, along with our increasing need to nurture skills and careers within organisations, and an increasing reliance on a fragile environment, the ethical and the commercial perspectives are nudging closer together. Sustainability is becoming a plea for business as much as by the green movement, not least since the absurd short-termism leading up to the credit crunch wiped out many shareholders. One of the pioneers for a sustainable future is an investment bank, Greentech. The lines are all blurred now: left is the new right. In summer 2009, when the liberal British newspaper The Observer sacked its management commentator Simon Caulkin, who for years had chronicled the effects of the prevailing managerial orthodoxy of targets, mechanistic modelling, short-termism and so on www.guardian.co.uk/profile/simoncaulkin
. It did so in a bid to 'cut costs', according to management-by-balance-sheet convention; almost certainly it failed even in this bid as the decision had the immediate effect of dozens of long-standing, highly influential readers cancelling their subscriptions. Yet this decision came just at the point when many people in supposedly illiberal corporations have begun to drop the bean-counting and embrace teamwork and social responsibility. Companies as unlikely-sounding as Exxon Mobil and Ford are now far more likely to uphold enlightened management principles than many trade unions and the dismal Guardian/Observer 'newspaper'.
The counter culture represents the perennial human desire for the 'pure' human existence of freedom of expression and spirit, unburdened by duty or compromise. At its best, it has represented respect for personal autonomy, promotion of artistic expression, an end to deference and social snobbery, and a challenge to 'do as you're told' mentality. Its greatest achievement was the central role it played on challenging prejudice, particularly on grounds of race. For all their apparent hedonism, white middle class young pioneers of the counter culture, such as Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo, Joan Baez and hundreds of thousands of others, dedicated much of their young lives to attending rallies, distributing leaflets, promoting boycotts, such as that against Woolworths for its segregated canteens in the south United States, and so on, to lead a campaign against a monstrous social evil - a crusade from which we all benefit and on occasion take for granted.
At its worst, however, and towards the end of the 1960s, the counter culture lost its campaigning edge and became self-indulgent. As well as being a liberating force it has also encouraged inverted snobbery, laziness, exploitation and narcissism.
In the late 1960s, many lyrics left the playful, or exuberant irreverence of songs like 'We Gotta Get out of This Place' and acquired a more cynical edge. The Rolling Stones sang 'Street Fighting Man' and a clever profile of Satan in 'Sympathy with the Devil'. In 1970's Won’t Get Fooled Again
by The Who, though the instrumentation is bold and soaring, particularly the echoing keyboards and ringing open guitar chords, the words have resigned air, questioning the point of revolutionary change, with a 'plus ça change' mood. Promises of a better working life or a better politics are illusory, argue Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey, concluding, after the epic final keyboard solo, with the two-line verse that memorably asserts that the new boss is the same as the old.
In the student protests in Paris in 1968, there were sinister Maoist tendencies that appeared to protest against learning and betterment, not just the inherited privilege and school uniforms of the Gaullist Republic; foreshadowing the genocide of educated people by the Pol Pot regime a decade later.
The counter-culture has often meant sneering at social climbing, elocution lessons, smart dress and good manners. Our grand-parents may have valued such qualities, but they represented the 'old order'. Of course much irony and hypocrisy lies in the fact that middle class students only had the freedom to engage in such fancies because their parents and grand-parents had held the social-climbing values that they did, and ensured that their often ungrateful offspring had a good education and more leisure time than they could have conceived possible. The anti-work and anti-corporation sentiments are utterly baffling to the migrant worker from the poor background who seizes any chance of economic security, no matter how dull the daily duties, and will prefer the 'inauthentic' corporate lifestyle to the horror and desperation from which they have often escaped. Taken in extreme forms, a supposedly liberal movement has on occasion sat in awkward opposition to the drive for some of the world's poorest people to gain a decent standard of living. In his book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll, Elijah Wald quotes a member of the black Los Angeles group Fifth Dimension, who said of the white counter culture ethos: 'Drop out? Wow man, what we got to drop out of, anyway? You don't want your fancy house or your good job? Shit, let me have it, man, 'cause I've been trying to get something like that all my miserable life.'
After 15 years or so, the musical upheaval that began with the Beatles, Stones and Bob Dylan ran out of steam, and it was difficult to shock, or to find new musical influences for inspiration. It seemed that the only way the '60s could renew itself was to intensify the anti-establishment rhetoric. In lyrical content, the punk and new wave movement was rebellious: anti-monarchy, anti-military, anti-corporate and anti-work. The Clash wrote sarcastically about Career Opportunities
: the ones that never knock. Eddie and the Hot Rods in Do Do Anything you Wanna Do
sang passionately about how being someone was the opposite of the day job.
More thoughtfully, and intriguingly, The Jam penned a series of songs about employment, class, and the corporation in the All Mod Cons and Setting Sons albums. The conventional dream of escape appears in 'To Be Someone
', pleading that it must be wonderful to be a famous sports star or singer.
, from the same album, takes a nastier edge, sneering at the stockbroker with class envy and a violent, vengeful menace, even including a Maoist outburst of hatred over his Cambridge University degree. Yet the music sparkles; the guitar is crisp and smartly timed; the vocal alternately spiky and tender. These two Paul Weller-written lyrics are followed on Setting Sons by the less celebrated songwriter Bruce Foxton in one of the more thoughtful songs about work in the long history of the canon. The lyrics of Smithers-Jones
follows the smartly dressed commuter in an apparent repeat of the verbal mugging that befalls Mr Clean. Imaginings of an alternative dream-like existence are interspersed with the description of the commute. Yet (spoiler alert) in a surprising twist, the eponymous anti-hero of this short song ends up a victim of a corporate downsizing and becomes the hapless victim of capitalist logic with whom we are invited to empathise. The naked class war of the album's most famous anthem, Eton Rifles
, becomes more understandable reading about Paul Weller's own experience witnessing pupils of the renowned public school jeering at individuals on one of the 'Right to Work' marches that were held during the mass unemployment of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The upper class, like corporate executives, often go out of their way to merit their bad press.
Bernstein and Parton: outside the counter culture
For all the influence of the 1960s and the punk culture, it would be quite incorrect to portray the polemic against work and the boss as a left-libertarian phenomenon. It is much broader than that. The Greenwich Village-era Bob Dylan, and the punk-age Joe Strummer and Paul Weller, may have sounded subversive with their bitingly satirical lyrics. Neither, however, outflanked wholesome country & western star Dolly Parton for sheer cynicism towards the hollow promises and crushed ambitions of the workplace experience with her hit 'Nine to Five
Of course, the catchy pop song and lilting deep-South accent - which we associate with conservative values - disguise the radical nature of the message. We are more affected by such apparently superficial matters than we may care to admit. It is similar with foul language; the background and accent of an individual can determine how offended we are. If an Irish comedian uses the f-word at us, we think 'how charming!'. If a trader from the east end of London or the Bronx does so, we think 'Oh my God. I'm going to die.'
Nine-to-Five has a feminist agenda; that low-paid women are often the unrecognised strong performers in an organisation, whose efforts are claimed by more powerful men, as your dreams are shattered. This theme is developed further in the 1980 movie of the same name, with the sub-heading: 'Getting even is a full-time job', in which Dolly teams with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to square matters with the 'sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot' boss. The lengths to which the women go to wreak revenge is testimony to the extreme emotions generated by work; or at least, by the kind of boss who views management rather in the same way that an executioner looks at an axe.
In the song, Dolly does not shy from making points about economic exploitation, either, complaining that everything is skewed to the interests of the rich man. Look on and admire, Woody Guthrie. Had she laid down the track in the 1950s, Senator McCarthy might have been calling her in for one of his little chats. Should the US ever get a revolutionary leader, she will come from a Confederate state and wear eye-shadow.
The Broadway musical West Side Story - pre-dating the counter-culture official by a few years - contains the intriguing lyric in 'Gee Officer Krupke
' in which the working class youngsters justify not bothering with the dead-end job, asserting that they are anti-work. The paucity of opportunities open to them is pithily set out.
It could be that the lines between the old guard and hippy culture are less distinct than their public images; or it could be that work is the one issue on which you can be as irreverent and subversive as you like because, deep down, everyone think that work is and should be miserable.
Just about the only glimpse of a world of opportunity in the 'day job' (unless one counts Sheena Easton) comes from an unlikely source. Mark Knopfler in Sultans of Swing
comments on the tension between showbiz and regular employ by hinting that amateur jazz musician Harry may have made the right choice by keeping music to the evenings and weekends, and that he's doing all right in his day job. Harry does live in London, of course, where there are more opportunities than many of the rust-belt or Deep South cities and towns that give rise to many of the plaintive laments about the drudgery of labour.
What work ethic?
The counter culture would appear to be a rejection of the Protestant work ethic, often cited as a major factor in the industrial development of Western Europe and the USA. Such supposed veneration of honest endeavour is largely a myth, however. To a large extent, in the centuries preceding the 1960s when the counter culture exploded into life, it was deeply conservative forces, rather than progressive ones, that championed leisure and expressed contempt towards work and the corporation. The ultimate status was not to have to work, accompanied by a condescending attitude towards those in 'trade'. This was particularly pronounced in Europe, where new money was ghastly, and old money had dignity.
When Mrs Graham, of Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, earns her living by painting landscapes, she is pointedly put down at a social setting by Jane Wilson who observes that she too paints, 'but as an accomplishment, not as a living'. Such attitudes and class divisions have persisted to the modern day, for example in popular sports, many of which were founded by Victorian Britain. Certain pastimes that were considered to be pursuits for gentlemen (and white gentlemen, at that), and continued their amateur status in cricket until 1962 and until 1995 in the case of Rugby Union - a sport founded on the principle 'if they can't pay, they can't play'. In cricket, as recently as the 1950s you had to be both white and a wealthy amateur to captain England or the West Indies.
In this strange anti-work culture, it was considered vulgar to earn your living from sport, and a matter of high status if you inherited enough money that you did not have to. Far from venerating duty and professionalism, the culture was to look down upon such dedication and to regard 'professionals' as lower class. The attitude, of course, was not confined to sport. The terms 'new money' and 'trade' were pejorative among the upper classes until well into the 20th Century - and the attitude persists today, with different vocabulary. The ultimate kudos lay in being able to trace one's ancestry back to the Middle Ages. Quite why it was superior for one's distant forebears to be robber barons rather than honest farmers or fisher folk has long been a source of mystery to me. All you had to do to launder your reputation as well as your money was come up with a coat of arms. Even more puzzling is that individuals who partied all night, slept half the day and holidayed through the summer on the basis of an allowance from Daddy should be more highly respected than those who built up a business from scratch.
Certainly in Britain - the only culture about which I could write with authority on such a sensitive, deep-rooted subject - this Victorian attitude that it is better to inherit money than to earn it remains deeply ingrained. Through inheritance, wealth appears effortless, while the term 'trade' retains a pejorative tag. Secretly, most British people want to inherit money, rather than have to work for it, even as they reserve their bitterest venom for undeserving 'scroungers' on welfare benefits. In autumn 2007, the Conservative Party in the UK promised to slash inheritance tax. Panicking, the Labour Government imitated their move. Can one imagine similar emotions emerging over tax breaks for apprenticeships? Meanwhile, support for assisted suicide grows.
Many of the counter-culture fore-runners such as the Romantic poets of the 19th century and the Bloomsbury set of the 1920s enjoyed leisure time almost unimaginable to those of us living today, supported by an army of servants. As George Orwell poignantly described in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the world of culture had a formidable front door that was closed to those without money. Shut out of this world, but unwilling to settle for middle-class comfort and anonymity, Gordon Comstock fights a futile war against both, as will be discussed further in the next chapter.
Many rock lyrics take up the theme, and assume that creativity and authenticity can only be achieved outside the conventional workplace. Thus, when Mick Jagger mocks the father of the subject in 19th Nervous Breakdown
that he is perfecting ways of making ceiling wax, is this a working class rebellion against the business class (which is how I first understood it) - or the longer established custom of well-off creative types sneering at 'trade'? One can witness same phenomenon in many playgrounds, where the geeks are the ones who study, and the cool set enjoy their leisure.
The Victorian attitude pops up in the unlikeliest places. Iggy Pop, interviewed by Alan Yentob for the BBC, describes the guitarist Ron Asheton of the group Stooges that they belonged to in the late 1960s: 'Ron has never had an upfront, straight day in his life. He never worked a job. Didn't have to pay for his house. Never gave himself the option to look into the abyss of possible reversal of fortune. What a great guitar player!'
Indeed, the term 'trade' is so tarnished it can scarcely be uttered in polite company - something I have experienced at first hand by learning my craft on trade magazines. As I proudly drew down my first £9,500 a year as assistant editor of Carpet & Floorcoverings Review, and travelled Europe interviewing the manufacturers, wholesalers and shop-owners who furnished the continent's floorings I found not dour, humourless, grasping individuals, but generally urbane, intelligent, often multi-lingual people with pride in their professionalism and care for their customers. I would far rather have lunch with a delegation of Belgian carpet manufacturers, than with the judges of a TV talent show.
To the traditional upper class attitude of peering down over the pince-nez at the 'tradesman', one can add the counter-culture hostility to business and the corporation. The unfashionable distant cousin of the economy, the supposedly inarticulate, philistine and socially awkward relative Trade, is almost universally shunned, even while we quite happily enjoy all the benefits that the industrious fellow delivers. The very people most likely to pour scorn on such humble activities tend also to be those keenest on having the finest food, home comforts, and lifestyle accoutrements, brought to their door.
Even within business management theory, there is a bias towards those who have inherited, rather than earned wealth. The cult of 'maximising shareholder value' that has dominated since the 1980s gives the impression that the owners of an enterprise constitute the only stakeholder that matters. 'Value' becomes something that wealthy institutions shop around for, rather than something that is created by inventive individuals producing goods and services that people want. Investment and business analysts forensically analyse short-term profit figures and money flows to assist the army of speculators and investors. In such an environment, it was easy for Bernie Madoff to trick thousands of wealthy individuals and institutions out of billions of dollars with his Ponzi scheme. So while 'maximising shareholder value' appears to be the cutting edge of dynamic, competitive capitalism, in reality it is anything but: it is an anti-entrepreneurial, age-old prejudice. It is remarkable how the United States has directly copied the mistake of late 19th-Century Britain in valuing speculation and inherited wealth over entrepreneurialism, badly damaging its productive capability in the process.
Do the lines in songs matter? Probably, they wouldn't, if they didn't happen to be grafted on to centuries of prejudice, especially from conservative upper classes and anti-corporation left-wing campaigners. And even then, it is not exact to suppose that different listeners are equally affected by lyrics, or that all listeners are affected; or that even where they are, the impact upon life decisions is marked. Pink Floyd's The Wall was a particular favourite among engineering students in the late 70s/early 80s, but the album's most famous song 'We don't need no education' hardly dissuaded these individuals from cramming for their A-grades. Doubtless many of them are now building bridges in the Gulf or running parts of BP. One has to credit people, including young people, with the intelligence to distinguish between a character's role and a message. More recently the rap star Eminem has written dark tales featuring violent and misogynist characters, but it isn't necessarily a reflection of his own views or an attempt to project those views on to others; and many listeners can make the distinction. The impact of the portrayal of the workplace is more likely to be indirect and subliminal.
On the other hand, young people can be intensely impressionable, as the insecure souls search for clearly demarcated tastes and views. Sometimes, their preferences and loathings for certain bands, looks, clothes, political opinions or football teams are declared with feverish certainty precisely because they are brittle, and the declaration is more an expression of a desire to be noticed than a settled view. They are susceptible to the lure of cults, gangs and followings, which have propaganda as much as any political party. It can never be certain just how deeply throw-away slogans like 'drop out', 'get high' or 'kill the police' sink in. It is an age at which it is nearly impossible to distinguish between a borrowed view and one's own. Those grounded in strong values from their family can withstand the fatal lure of the underworld as an alternative lifestyle and have the good sense to study in between drug-taking sessions and music festivals, but others do fall by the wayside.
In between the dramatic extremes, some lives take on pastel hues. In a touching lyric, Lily Allen in the song 22
tells the tale of a young woman about to turn 30 who has spent her 20s hopelessly adrift between conflicting desires for career, having a good time and finding a husband. Torn between the three objectives, she is not satisfactorily achieving any of them, and each night out and each one night stand bring her less and less fun. 'When she was 22, her future looked bright/She's nearly 30 now and she's out every night' sings Lily, quite perceptively for one only in her early 20s herself. She continues: 'She's got an all right job/But it's not a career/Whenever she thinks about it/It brings her to tears'.
This introduces a subtle dilemma that many people face in their working lives: the indecision induced by a job that is 'not bad'. The drama of Germinal or Grapes of Wrath, as we shall discover in the next chapter, describe situations where desperate people have little to lose. If you have something, but it is of uncertain value, do you throw it away for a future that may be worse? Lily Allen has a sharp eye for spotting that something which is merely 'all right' can induce feelings of panic and despair; that anonymity and mediocrity can be more feared than tragedy. Aimee Mann, looking back at the early 30s rather than forward, sings in 31 Today, from her 2008 album Smilers: 'I thought my life would be better by now/I thought my life would be different somehow,' registering the same hint at meaninglessness in a comfortable but aimless life.
When she herself was turning 30, Aimee Mann wrote an incomparably beautiful song that does hint at the joy of doing what you love for a living. 'I’ve Had It
' is included by Nick Hornby in 31 Songs and he wonders if she takes her gift for granted, and whether she should have used such a sublime tune on such an ordinary tale. His is a fair point, but the lyric may be a little like a Doris Lessing novel: apparently plain, but telling more than it seems. It relates the tale of the members of the band making their way into New York, with humdrum ordinariness. But there's a curious observation on the beauty and transience of life when she muses that this is indeed their prime, and was he expecting some other kind?
It is a fine line between one's prime 'turning out to be OK', like Aimee's; or in danger of becoming an anguished scream of unfulfilled potential, like Lily Allen's subject in 22.
Lines in songs can often be surprisingly open to multiple or alternative meanings, such as the sociological context of the swipe at the ceiling wax manufacturer in 19th Nervous Breakdown. Pub arguments will break out over certain lines in You're So Vain, nearly 40 years after Carly Simon's release. Even the simplest lines carry a sub-text. The common refrain 'I didn't mean to hurt you' probably really means 'Sorry I slept with someone else' - or rather: 'I regret being found out'. Entire web communities have grown up in recent years discussing the meanings of the lyrics of Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and many others - discussions that often leave me stranded, if I'm perfectly honest.
'Ode to Billy Joe', about an apparent teenage suicide, gained much of its enigmatic appeal apparently through having numerous verses cut from the original version. What exactly was it that the young couple were throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge? We relish not knowing. We are much happier with ambiguity in song than in film. An unresolved ending in a movie can be frustrating, though French movie-goers seem to be more comfortable than those in the US. Music, by contrast, is the language of dreams, and we are more likely to welcome exploration than resolution.
There are powerful recurring themes in the songs about work, but no concerted 'message', and this is not a polemic against their influence. Art may influence life, but does not dictate it. The influence of the often negative messages about the day job is probably at least as much benign as malign. For every impressionable youngster throwing away a trade and pursuing a drug-fuelled artistic ambition on the basis of scant creative ability, there is an enlightened entrepreneur determined that life in his or her company should not resemble the dark satanic mill.
Our best response is not to 'campaign' against the more misleading or prejudicial anti-work attitudes, but to open an internal dialogue with the dominant themes in our own psyche. To what extent does my upbringing and their influences; familial as well as cultural, towards work and careers, affect me for good or ill? How much of it should I cherish and how much should I question? To be someone must be a wonderful thing. But everyone is someone, and that's a good place to start.