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Top 10 '80s Songs About Work

Anthems for the Harried Worker Bee

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Though I'm puzzled as to how most rock musicians could know anything at all about how it feels to work like the rest of us, pop music has always boasted a certain amount of pontification about matters of the workplace. That's because most listeners of popular music must drag themselves every day to less than ideal locales to do far from exhilarating jobs for which they receive little appreciation or recognition. Here's a look - in no particular order - at some of the decade's most memorable musical meditations on this subject, ranging from dark and edgy to slight and simplistic.

1. Huey Lewis & the News - "Workin' for a Livin'"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Chrysalis/Capitol

On this underrated 1982 offering from bar-band-gone-pop Huey Lewis & the News, the parallels between the struggles of a hard-working bar band and the average working stiff almost come off as convincing. After all, the prospect of not getting a raise when it's needed or expected as well as the speed at which wages slip away are highly familiar subjects for those of us who aren't rock stars. Above all, however, the "takin' what they're givin'" capper to the chorus expresses most clearly the frustrations of 9-to-5 life. The song itself lacks the doo wop charm of the superior, sparkling "Do You Believe in Love?" - also from the LP Picture This - but it retains a scrappy, yeoman's charm nonetheless.

2. Bruce Springsteen - "Working on the Highway"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia Records

It's difficult to pick out just one '80s song about work by Bruce Springsteen, an artist who has always retained a fierce sympathy and fascination for the plight of the working man. Still, this lesser-known tune from Born in the USA stands perhaps as Springsteen's most direct examination of the way in which work can trap us and lead us to desperate acts in order to avoid wasting away in its grip. Or maybe that's just the Marxist in me, but work and a feeling of doom are certainly not strangers in American life. Springsteen just happens to be one of the few artists brave enough to revisit the subject again and again, even if this tune sports a peppy musical tone and rhythm that sets it apart from similar, darker compositions.

3. Loverboy - "Friday Night"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia Records

Everybody expects a Loverboy song to make this list, but I'm going to toss a curveball and leave off the ubiquitous and overrated "Working for the Weekend" to make room for this lesser-known rocker from 1985's Lovin' Every Minute of It. The reason for that choice is that, aside from the title, the band's most famous tune really isn't about work at all. "Friday Night," however, celebrates directly the shedding of another grueling work week with the help of an endless party. Like Springsteen, Loverboy here presents fast cars as solace in the face of life's drudgeries, but the band also manages to inject something at least somewhat profound in the observation that working often amounts to "biding one's time" waiting for a better day.

4. Billy Joel - "Allentown"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia Records

Billy Joel has not always been at his best when he goes for social commentary (see "We Didn't Start the Fire"), but this tune is an appropriately sympathetic and detailed treatment of an issue that continues to haunt the American worker. The erosion of industrial bases has long devastated communities, but Joel's lyrical specifics and biting understanding of what it feels like to have one's livelihood rejected or shelved really hits hard emotionally. "No, I won't be getting up today..." Gut-wrenching.

5. Donna Summer - "She Works Hard for the Money"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Island/Def Jam Records

Well, this one's a no-brainer, a great pop song that deftly combines the '80s social issue of the ever-increasing flood of women into the workplace with good old-fashioned wage-earner struggles. The song's lyrics chronicle the tough times a waitress has in making ends meet, and there's a definite poignancy to the way the tune's protagonist somehow finds a way to feel her work is worthwhile. The fact that the lyrics can also function as a warning to men everywhere serves as a nice bonus. Former disco queen Donna Summer makes her '80s stamp here, and the tune manages somehow to be both timeless and dated.

6. Bruce Hornsby & the Range - "Every Little Kiss"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA Records

It's not surprising to find on this list another Bruce who released a classic '80s album (1986's refreshing The Way It Is) and who displays a knack at writing high-quality, socially conscious pop songs. In the case of this tune, Hornsby organically writes about something he knows well as a native of the shipping center of coastal Virginia. His dockworker protagonist longs for a better life but doesn't complain about breaking his back. And at the heart of the song is romantic yearning, a layer that provides extra emotional punch.

7. The Bangles - "Manic Monday"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia Records

This Prince-penned monster hit for the Bangles is an '80s classic on several levels, but its treatment of matters of the workplace stands as particularly unique. Dread surrounding the onset of Monday is definitely not a new subject for pop music, but the song's bridge cleverly turns the topic on its head. As Susannah Hoffs sings of an inconveniently timed amorous proposal from her lover, "Manic Monday" becomes a wistful meditation on the clash between mundane obligations and the joys of life.

8. Sheena Easton - "Morning Train (Nine to Five)"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of EMI
Perhaps no song on this list paints work in a more agonizing way than this early-'80s Sheena Easton gem. After all, work is the one thing that keeps her poor, train-riding beau away from the apparently constant pleasure provided at home by Easton's sex-starved narrator. Oh, the clockwatching that must go on at this guy's office! On the other hand, the sex might not be as satisfying if the lovers lolled at home together all day, with one or the other asking for a romp every day at noon. Then again...

9. The Members - "Working Girl"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Arista Records

A lost new wave classic celebrating the male animal's elusive pursuit of a Sugar Mama, this catchy tune became a minor American hit for the reggae-influenced British punk rock band in 1982. And while it doesn't get too deeply into the particulars of the work done by the titular female character - other than brief references to a "factory" and "9 to 5" - the tune does a good job of exploring the guiltless leeching ambitions of the aspiring kept man who also serves as narrator. More than anything, though, it boasts an explosively infectious chorus that qualifies this song as the best kind of ear candy.

10. The Alarm - "Devolution Workin' Man Blues"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of IRS Records

Sometimes unfairly characterized as a poor man's U2, the Alarm always had an interesting and gritty take on human struggle, and this tune is a worthy entry in the labor song pantheon. The song's images of the protagonist walking the streets alone, defiant in the face of indignity, could stir the heart of the most stony conservative (or not). Well, let's not ask too much from a pop song. Suffice it to say that the salt-of-the-earth theme works well with the Alarm's ragged sound. This 1989 track from Change is but one of many Alarm songs that master such an earthy, inspiring tone, but it's a fine one on which to end this particular list.

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