Pop Psalms: Dolly Parton's "9 to 5"

John J. Thompson

Editor's note: Our free Pop Psalms ebook, featuring all 12 essays in one place, is available here.

I bought my first 7” single with my own money in the fall of 1980, at the age of 10. It was a quirkily comedic lament called "9 to 5," written and performed by country-music superstar Dolly Parton for the hit comedy of the same name. I had been forced to see the film at a birthday party my mom made me attend, and while watching working women Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin tie up their sexist boss Dabney Coleman seemed meaningless to me at the time, it planted the seeds for a new appreciation of country music—and Parton's particular brand of wisdom.

Though I could not relate to the workaday office culture depicted in the song or the movie, the meticulously crafted and righteously indignant lyrics of Dolly’s song somehow appealed to me. It was ubiquitous on the radio and something about it struck a chord. I was definitely not a normal kid, I know. My musical tastes were undisciplined by social constructs. I was often as moved by the ideas in a song as I was by the music. The style of “9 to 5,” which blended elements of pop, disco, rhythm and blues, and country, seemed to imply that Dolly’s grievance was universal. Her effervescent brand of country also suggested that while her circumstances sucked, she would not let The Man get her down. I played that little record hundreds of times, studying the musical track, the lyrics, and the delivery. As cheesy as it seemed on the surface, it also seemed profoundly true.

Parton herself may have never worked an office job, but her skills as a writer have always allowed her to transcend her own experiences. Tomlin and Fonda were already known as activists by the time “9 to 5” came out, but Parton had been more careful about her social and political positions. She came from the country music scene, after all. She knew that it was still a man’s world, and if she wanted to have any influence, she’d have to be smart about it. Her male counterparts—artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson—had been singing about workers' rights for decades. But many in her audience still preferred their women at home instead of out in the workplace.

“9 to 5” kicks off with a frenzy of typewriter clicks (actually achieved by clicking her long fingernails against each other) and a pulsing rhythm that sounds like something from a Rocky movie. Dolly paints a picture of the life of an underpaid and underappreciated cog in a corporate machine. Others up the chain were getting rich or climbing the ladder off of her work without giving her credit, let alone fair compensation. This was no fantasy grievance, either. In 1979 the Bureau of Labor and Statistics confirmed that, on average, women were paid just two-thirds of what men were paid for the same jobs. They were also less likely to be promoted to executive positions. And this was not merely a contemporary problem. Though not explicitly addressing gender equality, themes of labor injustice are dominant throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. Dolly's quirky little song, it turns out, hit on some timeless, biblical truths.

Dolly paints a picture of the life of an underpaid and underappreciated cog in a corporate machine.

In Ecclesiastes, the Hebrew word “hebel” is used to describe work—as well as wealth, pleasure, wisdom, and more. While hebel is often translated as “vanity” or "meaninglessness," it may be better understood as "breath" or "fleeting." While it makes a certain kind of sense to say that something as small and temporal as a breath might not have much meaning in the grand scheme of things, it certainly is important. Try skipping your next few hebels (breaths) and see how you do. When the author of Ecclesiastes describes work as hebel, might he be saying that although the impact we make with our work is small and seemingly insignificant, when added up over time, it leads to something big?

Parton’s grievances, including her admonition that “it’s all taking and no giving,” are about the hebel of it all. We get up every day and hustle until we drop, but it's never quite enough. While Ecclesiastes’ author measures life in breaths, Dolly measures it in eight-hour workdays. Women had been fighting for the right to work for decades, and in 1980 they had seemingly arrived, en masse, into the workforce. Was it the Promised Land they had been hoping to find or just another kind of bondage? On a deeper level, are all those days really meaningless or do they add up to something?

The frustrating beauty of the wisdom found in Ecclesiastes is its refusal to tell us what we want to hear, or really to give us any kind of clear-cut answer. In chapter 3, after that poetic “a time for everything” opening, we are given a wonderfully bleak meditation on the meaninglessness of all things based on how we see them. We also have a reminder that God, who set all of this in motion and remains engaged with his creation and in ultimate control, is not subject to its limitations at all. While there is a limited time and designated place for everything we do, everything God does “stands forever.” The best we can do, according to this sage, is to enjoy what we have and find whatever meaning in our work that we possibly can, because we cannot hope to see any of this from God’s point of view. We are stuck down here, “under the sun.” He is not. He made the sun.

"9 to 5" was one of Parton's biggest hits. It dominated the country and pop charts and remains one of her most popular songs to this day. There's no denying its power on a purely musical level. Still, I'm convinced that the reason it has transcended trends, genres, and the film that launched it is the profound resonance of the lyric. Yes, women deserve to be paid 100% of what men are paid. Yes, women should not be discriminated against when it comes to promotions. Some 40 years on, we still have work to do on those fronts. According to Ecclesiastes 5, we should not be surprised when we see oppression, injustice, and rights being denied. There is nothing new under the sun, after all. I suppose our only answers are to be found somewhere that is not under the sun at all.

Topics: Music