Study Guide

9 to 5 Technique

  • Calling Card

    We've spent more time crushing after Dolly's clever quips than we're willing to admit. But let's talk a little bit about what the eclectic singer really is known for. Is it her music? Her unusual voice? Her candidness? Her propensity for wigs, make-up, and a self-proclaimed "cheap" look?

    Dolly playfully cultivates her image to—as cliché as it may sound—become one of a kind. In fact, the endlessly charming and funny Dolly Parton is a master performer who has a tight hold on her public image. She literally never goes out without her makeup and wig on (even when she was headed to the set of Nine to Five only to get different makeup and a different wig put on). The public has seen Dolly as a sweet-faced young country singer, a children's philanthropist, a heart-broken lover (or musical partner), and even an impossibly sweet brothel mistress

    "9 to 5" presents Parton playing with yet another persona: Dolly as the put-upon working girl, speaking out on behalf of all the young women who are just trying to get by in the world. The message is no less interesting because Parton herself is often praised as a shrewd businesswoman.

    Whatever title she gets tagged with, positive or negative, Dolly Parton usually has a humble, clever response, like that a "strong Southern woman" is "somebody that’s confident in who they are. I’ve always believed in my talent. And I’ve always had more guts than talent. So I’ve always had to go that extra mile. I’ve always wanted to be a star. [...] So I knew there was a price to pay for that." (Source)

    "9 to 5" may be a worker's lament, but it has that almost ridiculously chipper quality that Dolly Parton carries into all of her roles, on film and off. She consistently presents herself as friendly and open, telling fans and reporters that she loves them and giving out quaint life advice. After a 1980 interview with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, Siskel said, "This will sound crazy, but when I was interviewing Dolly Parton, I almost felt like she had healing powers." (Source)

    And honestly, he's right: even in a song about workplace fatigue, it's hard not to get sucked in by Dolly Parton's infectious charm.

  • Songwriting

    Earlier we said that the song's lyrics read kind of like a communist manifesto. That might have been an overstatement, but a) we were trying to get your attention, and b) we think there's a grain of truth there.

    So, stick with us for a minute. Compare "9 to 5" with a few traditional labor songs ("Hard Times" is a good one). Music has been important to the labor movement for as long as there has been a labor movement, and workers have often used songs in protests and strikes. Parton was writing for a Hollywood movie, not a group of real riled-up workers, but the song has a spirit of workers' solidarity that ties it to a broad American tradition of work songs.

    Check out the lyrics to an old song for the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or Wobblies), one of the most radical labor unions in union history:

    "Dump the Bosses Off Your Back," by John Brill:

    Are you poor, forlorn and hungry?
    Are there lots of things you lack?
    Is your life made up of misery?
    Then dump the bosses off your back.
    Are your clothes all patched and tattered?
    Are you living in a shack?
    Would you have your troubles scattered?
    Then dump the bosses off your back.

    Are you almost split asunder?
    Loaded like a long-eared jack?
    Boob - why don't you buck like thunder,
    And dump the bosses off your back?
    All the agonies you suffer
    You can end with one good whack
    Stiffen up, you orn'ry duffer
    And dump the bosses off your back.

    Here are some "9 to 5" lyrics with similarities:

    Workin' 9 to 5
    What a way to make a livin'

    They just use your mind
    And they never give you credit
    It's enough to drive you
    Crazy if you let it

    Want to move ahead
    But the boss won't seem to let me
    I swear sometimes that man is out to get me

    You're just a step
    On the boss man's ladder
    But you got dreams he'll never take away

    It's a rich man's game
    No matter what they call it
    And you spend your life
    Putting money in his wallet

    Sure, the Wobblies are a little more militant in their approach, proposing a general dumping of the bosses (and, implicitly, an overthrow of the country's economic system). Parton's slightly more muted message calls out the boss for his wrongdoing and asks for a little more opportunity to pursue her own dreams; she's more irritated and exhausted than insurrectionary. But her anthem—and its lasting popularity—is a part of a folk tradition of work music that has deeply influenced country, rock, and hip-hop.

    Not so keen on bellowing out folk anthems from the 1910s? Go find Aesop Rock's hip-hop adaptation of the "9 to 5" concept—he even quotes Dolly.