Most of us technically went back to work last week, but between post-holiday malaise, the slow trickle of coworkers back from vacation, and remembering exactly what it is you do again, it can take a few days to get into the swing of things. So we've put together some work-related songs to provide a soundtrack to your week of getting back on the job in earnest. The subject of work is a time-honored one across styles and ages, though the genre is still dominated by songs about men doing grueling physical labor for hardly any pay (which, if you're reading this in an office, may help you appreciate your own job a little more). As always, contribute your own suggestions in the comments!
Bruce Springsteen, "Factory": I'm not sure you're allowed to make a list of songs about working without including the Boss. I mean, entire books have been dedicated to understanding Springsteen's efforts to chronicle the life of working America over the past four decades. But out of the wealth of material, it's his 1978 song "Factory," which depicts a son watching his father go off to work each day with "death in [his] eyes," that wrecks me every damn time.
Merle Haggard, "Workin' Man Blues": Merle Haggard first recorded this song in 1969, but elements of its sound arguably originate in the Dust Bowl migration four decades earlier that brought the Okie country style to central California, resulting in the "Bakersfield Sound," a rougher, twangier style of country than the one coming out of Nashville at the time. It's too bad the narrator has to slag off welfare recipients to prove his bona fides, but his resignation to working for the sake of his family—the flipside of Springsteen's somber realization of his father's sacrifice—cuts through Haggard's sometimes reactionary politics.
Bob Dylan, "Workingman's Blues #2": This song, off Dylan's 2006 album Modern Times, starts off with some familiar tropes—watching the "evenin' haze settlin' over town" in some pleasant hamlet, thinking about the travails of working life in America—but it gets weird fast. Within a couple of lines, Dylan's rasping about how the "buyin' power of the proletariat's goin' down" and how the pressure from foreign competition is driving down wages; by the end he's got a "brand new suit" and a "brand new wife"—but he's still singing the blues.
Mississippi Fred McDowell,"John Henry": "John Henry"'s been covered by all the usual suspects—Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Belafonte—but this version, by legendary guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell, puts a bluesy spin on the old folk tune. The song's been interpreted just as many ways—as an allegory about the dawning of the modern age, a parable of man versus machine, a paean to the power of work ethic and drive, or just a reminder that working too hard can actually kill you.
Hedy West, "Cotton Mill Girls": American folksinger Hedy West borrowed from folk tunes to write this song about factory girls "working 12 hours a day for 25 cents of measly pay" in the New England cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution, a worthy addition to the rich subgenre of songs about a new world of women's work. (West's version isn't available online—the performance below is by the old-time trio Shingle the Roof.)
Dolly Parton, "9 to 5": Dolly Parton's song about the trials of the office life heralded the start a new era of women's work when it was first recorded in 1980, but it's never lost its relevance, as evidenced by this 2010 version performed on David Letterman. When she sings "It's a rich man's game, no matter what they call it/And you spend your life putting money in his wallet," it's a good reminder that wariness of the rich bossman is just as enduring in American life as the aspiration to become him.
Devo, "Workin' in a Coal Mine": It's a pretty safe bet that no one in nerd-rock band Devo has ever worked in a coal mine. But their 1981 cover of this Allen Toussaint original, featuring a New Wave version of folksy twang and the clank of pick-axes, puts an irresistibly catchy spin on the classic tale of hard workin' woe. Devo say they're "too tired for having fun," but I'm not sure I believe them.
Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Sixteen Tons": Tennessee Ernie Ford's peppy pop version of the old folk song, performed in a tuxedo in front of a team of dancing girls, likewise makes hard labor sound like a blast, even though the lyrics—"Sixteen tons and what do you get?/Another day older and deeper in debt"—are grim as ever. (Someone may want to play this for Rick Santorum the next time he waxes nostalgic for the days of getting paid in company scrip.)
Geto Boys, "Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta": So this song isn't itself about work, but tell me you can listen to it without thinking of Office Space, that scathing indictment of the prosperous-but-soul-crushing post-industrial work—code monkey-dom, restaurant hostessing, middle management, consulting, paper-pushing—of the '90s. Now get back to your TPS report.
Billy Bragg, "St. Monday": If you've got a case of the Mondays, British folkie-socialist Billy Bragg can sympathize—he's a hard-working man, don't get him wrong, but Mondays? Still the weekend. Totally don't count!
The Clash, "Clampdown": Punk bands didn't glorify the dignity of work or mythologize the noble struggles of the working man; instead, they declared the working world to be hopelessly corrupt and announced their intentions to stay as far away from it as possible. The Clash want no part of the factory, warning "It's the best years of your life they want to steal." What's more, they say, if you stick around too long, you'll turn into the boss one day; coming from proudly leftist frontman Joe Strummer, that's not a promise—it's a threat.
Pink Lincolns, "I've Got My Tie On": This 1988 track by Florida punk band Pink Lincolns drips with scorn for ties and the people who wear them. The sarcasm is laid thick over furious guitar and clattering drums, with lead singer Chris Barrows scoffing "I've set my watch I've set my goals/when I get old I wanna be fat," and turning his nose up at the perks of tie-clad life: a name on an office door, a penthouse, a Rolls-Royce. The tie-wearers, he claims, have "picked their side"—if there's class warfare to be had, they started it.
The Ramones, "The Job That Ate My Brain": The Ramones aren't big fans of suits and ties either. Facing the nagging boss in his office attire, Joey Ramone laments that he "looks so lame I wanna die." Bad as the dress code is, though, the job, with its crazy pace and staring coworkers, sounds even worse—though I bet the supply room at least has some extra glue lying around.
The Specials, "Rat Race": British ska band the Specials may wear suits on stage, but don't let that fool you—you won't find them standing around the water cooler. They're particularly disdainful of the pseudo-intellectual, qualification-holding, concern-feigning rich kids whose description sounds like a prototype of the character in the wildly popular Gap Yah videos.
They Might Be Giants, "Minimum Wage": This might be the shortest song about work ever written. But really, what more is there to say? If you've ever had a crappy service-work job, you know exactly what they mean.
Of course, these are just a few of zillions of work-related songs out there. Tell us some of your own favorites.
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Merle Hoffman's career as an abortion rights pioneer began with a part-time job as a medical assistant for a Queens family practice. Two years before Roe v. Wade, her doctor boss (whom she later married) founded one of New York City's first abortion clinics, installing Hoffman, then 25, as its de facto manager. Thus began her life as an activist. "The act of choosing whether or not to have a child is often an act of love, and always an act of survival," she writes. Ultimately, Intimate Warsis as much about her personal journey as it is a snapshot of how the 39 years since Roe have affected one clinic.
Most mainstream videos feel like little more than an opportunity to watch half-naked women drink champagne atop expensive cars. Gone are the days of "Thriller" and "Take on Me." Instead, MTV has a show called "I Just Want My Pants Back."
But while MTV's busy remaking Teen Wolf (seriously!), hard-of-hearing performers are hard at work producing and publishing videos of their favorite songs. You can now find dozens of videos online reshot and translated into American Sign Language. The Deaf Performing Artists Network (D-Pan), an organization that promotes and produces entertainment for the deaf or hard of hearing, has made some higher-quality examples, but most of the videos out there are labors of love by fans who sign to their favorite songs.
White Stripes, "We're Going to Be Friends": Similar to a great cover song or drag show, the best ASL videos don't just translate lyrics, they reinterpret the energy, style, and even the meaning for audiences. Produced by D-PAN, this video substitutes Jack and Meg White lounging on a couch for a playground full of children. Cute, wholesome, and still indie somehow.
Marilyn Manson, "This Is the New Shit": This compelling performance is made even better by the performer Bjorn Storm's disclaimer that while Marilyn Manson's music deals with "sensitive" issues he believes in "full inclusion of the diversity that occurs within our music." There are fewer fishnets and high heels as the original Manson clip, but the same badass spirit. Maybe even more badass for being so DIY. He's doing something right, the video has nearly a half-million views on YouTube.
Nirvana, "Sliver": ASL videos usually don't replicate the polish or production values of corporate music videos, but that almost makes them better—nobody loved "Walk this Way" for for its production values. Plus it's fun to picture these guys explaining their video project to grandma.
Kanye West, "Good Morning": Good choice for a message about deaf eduction. If only we could get the cartoon bear in Kanye's video signing.
Paula Abdul, "Opposites Attract": For those of you who refuse to acknowledge videos made after the '80s, don't worry. For better or worse, ASL performers are digging into the crates.
Know some good ones I've missed? Put 'em in the comments.
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A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing
By Lawrence M. Krauss
For particle physicist Lawrence Krauss, the revelation that the universe is expanding ever more rapidly reinforced a more basic question: How did it first come into being? Here he seeks clues on scales impossibly small (the insides of protons) and unimaginably large (the shape of the heavens). With its mind-bending mechanics, Krauss argues, our universe may indeed have appeared from nowhere, rather than at the hands of a divine creator. There's some intellectual heavy lifting here—Einstein is the main character, after all—but the concepts are articulated clearly, and the thrill of discovery is contagious. "We are like the early terrestrial mapmakers," Krauss writes, puzzling out what was once solely the province of our imaginations.
Barack Obama got it hardest from late-night talk show hosts in 2011. According to a study published by George Mason University's Center for Media and Public Affairs, the president was the No. 1 target of the three leading late-night comics—Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon—in politically-themed segments and opening monologues, accounting for a grand total of 342 jokes made at Obama's expense.
Depression-era populists invoked the Boston Tea Party as a rallying cry against corporate greed. Here, Thomas Frank (What's the Matter With Kansas?) lays out with biting wit how today's conservatives co-opted that symbol and forged a pseudopopulist front to defend the enablers of market failure. The enemy of the 99 percent, he contends, is more the intellectual than the robber baron. "Erasing class distinctions," Frank writes, "is one of the conservative revival's great recurring techniques." Perhaps the Occupy movement is his unmentioned antidote, and his timely book a guide to help real populists elude their saboteurs.
They say that the way you spend your New Year's Eve is a sign of how you'll spend the rest of the year. We can only hope the same doesn't hold true for New Year's Day, when you're forced to face not only the consequences of the previous night's escapades but the yawning expanse of January drudgery. But they also say that misery loves company, so we've rounded up some songs to help you get through the morning after. (Extra perk: All the Sunday-morning-themed songs—and there are four of them—are accurate this year.)
Johnny Bond, "Sick, Sober, and Sorry": Crooning cowboy Johnny Bond says he's full of regret after a night of drinking too much, but he sure doesn't sound it in this cheery 1951 country tune that pretty much sums up the hangover experience: "Well now, I'm sick, sober and sorry/Broke, disgusted and sad/Sick, sober and sorry/But look at the fun I had."
Lee Hazlewood, "The Night Before": In this spooky, bleary recollection of a whiskey-fueled evening of dancing, Hazlewood's plaintive psych-country tune tells of waking up Sunday morning to empty bottles, a tearstained pillow, and the sound of a woman's departing footsteps, leading him to wish he could just "turn back the clock" and undo all the deeds of the eponymous night before.
The Beatles, "The Night Before": Despite sharing a name with Hazlewood's song, this 1965 Beatles track is a different beast. But don't let the uptempo beat, warbling guitars, and catchy harmonies fool you—this tale of the morning after a one-night stand is also one of woe:"Love was in your eyes the night before/Now today I find/You have changed your mind/Treat me like you did the night before." This may not technically be a paean to drinking too much, but as a testament to the aftermath of a big night out, it qualifies. (Plus, I'm guessing many in the crowd who wake up aching Sunday morning will find the story it tells all too familiar.)
Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, "Sunday Morning Coming Down": This chipper country song's a classic of the hangover genre—perhaps the classic. Written by Kris Kristofferson and originally performed by Ray Stevens, this version features Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, each of whom recorded their own solo versions as well. Cash was certainly no stranger to come-downs, Sunday morning or otherwise, so when he sings "I woke up Sunday morning/With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt/And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad/So I had one more for dessert," you might not want to follow his lead.
The Weeknd, "Coming Down": The Weeknd's version of coming down sounds a lot more harrowing than Cash's and Kristofferson's. His 2011 album House of Balloons features one song after another about debauched, drugged-out, borderline depraved partying that you just know isn't going to end well—and sure enough, towards the end of the album, Abel Tesfaye's left singing to his girl that "the party's finished and I want you to know/I'm/all alone/I'm feeling everything before I got up" atop an eerie, woozy background. The party may be over, but probably not for long.
Ma Rainey, "Booze and Blues": As my jazz guitarist-sister put it, in this 1924 song, a blueswoman extraordinaire bemoans an extraordinary hangover. After a night of boozing, blues pioneer Ma Rainey gets woken up by the cops, carted off to the courthouse, separated from her man, and sent to jail for sixty days, presumably only to repeat the whole thing again soon enough. The song ends with Rainey lamenting, "I spend every dime on liquor/Got to have the booze to go with these blues." Bet that puts your hangover in perspective.
Modest Mouse, "The Good Times Are Killing Me": The music backing this track is buoyant, but beneath the bright, easy guitar and upbeat tempo, the lyrics are as gloomy as you'd expect from the Portland-based indie band, reminding you why this 2005 song belongs on an album called Good News for People Who Love Bad News: "Fed up with all that LSD/Need more sleep than coke or methamphetamines/Late nights with warm, warm whiskey/I guess the good times they were all just killing me."
The Hold Steady, "Killer Parties": Partying is killing the Hold Steady, too—though honestly, they couldn't tell you for sure. Craig Finn rues a rough night over the crush of sad guitars on this mournful 2004 track: "Killer parties almost killed me/If she says we partied then I'm pretty sure we partied/I really don't remember/I remember we departed from our bodies/We woke up in Ybor City." You may wish you could depart from your body right now, but count your blessings—at least you're not in Ybor City.
Tom Waits, "Anywhere I Lay My Head": Speaking of waking up in unexpected places: Tom Waits' "Anywhere I Lay My Head" could be a lullabye for the inebriated. Sure, this song isn't explicitly about a hangover, and yeah, Tom Waits always sounds kinda hungover, but still, when you hear Waits growl the opening lines "My head is spinning round/My heart is in my shoes/I went and sent the Thames on fire/Now I must come back down" over elegaic horns, it's hard not to picture him reflecting back on a night of raging as you imagine only Tom Waits can.
The Chemical Brothers and Beth Orton, "Where Do I Begin": British folkie Beth Orton sounds dazed as she wakes up on—you guessed it—Sunday morning, unable to even "focus on [her] coffee cup" or figure out "whose bed [she's] in." From there, it's just a short leap to the kind of existential questioning surely familiar to anyone who's woken up feeling out of it after staying a little too long at the party. Orton asks, "Where do I start/Where do I begin?" in this soothingly melancholy song—at least until the beats kick in around the 3:18 mark.
(Unfortunately, the hangover-themed music video above cuts out halfway through the song—for the whole thing, play this one:)
The Smiths, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now": Only a couple of the lines in this Smiths whiner are about booze per se, but the song is all about regretting decisions that sounded like a good idea at the time—namely, drinking oneself into a haze and landing a job. If you're reading this at work right now, you may be able to empathize.
Bloc Party, "Sunday": The British band's take on the hangover song starts out like most, with singer Kele Okereke recalling the "heavy night" before and feeling like "we've come back from the dead." But unlike a lot of hangover songs, this one's got a happy ending—he still loves you in the morning, even "when you're still hungover," even "when you're still strung out." Hey, he says, we deserve to party a little! So if your own heavy night left you filled with self-hatred, listen to this tender morning-after tune and remember: you're still worthy of love! Maybe even Kele Okereke's, if you're insanely lucky.
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