The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5″

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Dolly Parton – “9 To 5″

HIT #1: February 21, 1981

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

One of the biggest hits at the 1980 box office was a bawdy screwball comedy that ends in a vision of a socialist, feminist workplace utopia. In 9 To 5, various sitcom-style hijinks lead three office-worker women to kidnap their harassing, belittling asshole boss. They pretend that he’s away on a business trip, and they use his faked signature to put all sorts of pro-worker initiatives into place at their office. This — spoiler alert — leads to a happier and more productive workplace.

9 To 5 was a cultural phenomenon. The newly inaugurated Ronald Reagan screened the movie at the White House and got upset over a scene where the three women bond by smoking weed together. 9 To 5 opened at the end of 1980 and earned more than $100 million at the box office. That year, only The Empire Strikes Back made more money. (Other big hits of 1980: Stir Crazy, Airplane!, the Clint Eastwood/orangutan sequel Any Which Way You Can. Weird year.)

Two of the stars of 9 To 5, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, were screen veterans who had plenty of experience at the movie’s style of broad physical comedy. The other was Dolly Parton, who’d never acted in a film before, and who stole the movie. At the end of 9 To 5, onscreen graphics let us know that the asshole boss had been abducted by natives in the Brazilian rain forest and that Parton’s character — a secretary who’d been demonized because people had wrongly assumed that she’d been banging the boss — had quit to become a country singer. It’s a fun alternate origin story for Dolly Parton, who was already one of the biggest country stars in America. With 9 To 5, and with her theme song for the movie, Parton moved beyond that and became one of the biggest names in American popular culture.

9 To 5 is a fun movie, but Dolly Parton’s actual backstory is, to my mind, a whole lot more interesting. It’s American myth: A girl is born in a one-room cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Her father is an illiterate sharecropper, and she’s one of 12 kids. But through sheer talent and charm and business savvy, this girl rises up to conquer country music and then Hollywood. She writes “Jolene,” an absolutely perfect song, and “I Will Always Love You,” a song that will eventually appear in this column, on the same day. She becomes a movie star. Today, she’s still around, a near-universally beloved ray of human sunshine who owns the amusement park that’s named after her.

Parton grew up desperately poor, but she’s said, again and again, that her family always found ways to be happy in the face of that poverty. She was a talented kid, performing on the radio at 10 and at the Grade Ole Opry at 13. She moved to Nashville the day after she graduated high school, and she started writing songs for country stars like Skeeter Davis and Hank Williams, Jr. She also signed with Monument Records and made girl-group-style singles. She wanted to make country, but her label thought she was more of a pop artist. Eventually, both Parton and her label were proven right.

In 1967, a young Parton joined the cast of The Porter Wagoner Show, a syndicated variety show, and she got a chance to show that she belonged in the world of country music. Wagoner, an established country star, used Parton to replace the popular Norma Jean, who’d left the show to get married. At first, Wagoner’s audiences weren’t happy with Parton stepping into Norma Jean’s shoes. Within a year, though, Parton and Wagoner were recording hit duets together. Within two years, Parton and her uncle Bill Owens had founded their own publishing company.

In 1970, Parton’s “Joshua” became her first #1 hit on the country charts. It took her longer to cross over to pop. 1973’s “Jolene” was the first Parton single to land on the Hot 100; it peaked at #60. Those early Parton records are great, but they’re also pure country, a hard sell for top-40 radio. In the late ’70s, though, Parton made a concerted effort to break out of country and onto the pop charts. She hosted her own TV variety show for a year in 1977, and that same year, she scored her first real crossover hit when “Here You Come Again,” a song written by the Brill Building veterans Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, peaked at #3. (It’s a 5.)

Jane Fonda had the idea for the 9 To 5 movie, and she named it after 9to5, an advocacy group for working women that had been founded in the early ’70s. (Fonda knew the founders from her time in the protest movement.) It was Fonda’s idea to cast Parton in the film, and the role was written with her in mind. Parton agreed to make the movie if she could also record the theme song. Parton loves to tell the story about how she wrote that theme song on the movie’ set, making the beat by playing her acrylic nails like a washboard. She sang the song for Fonda and Tomlin while they were still filming, and the two of them were astounded. Fonda was especially amped, since she knew the film was more likely to be a hit with a song like that attached.

I love that story, and I love the way Parton tells it. But “9 To 5″ was also a sharp, canny career move. It’s a bouncy, driving song, and that tapped-out beat gives it resonance with the movie. The clicks and dings in the song’s beat are there to evoke the sound of secretaries’ typewriters, but they also give it just a hint of disco thump. As a song, “9 To 5″ exists in a sort of genre-free nether-region. It’s got bursts of horn, bluesy piano runs, and playfully twangy guitars. Toward the end, some excited session-musician saxophone comes tootling in. Parton’s bandleader Gregg Perry produced and arranged the song. It’s not disco or R&B, but it’s not really country either. It’s an expertly calibrated down-the-middle pop move from a songwriter who’d been pushing hard to conquer that world.

On paper, Parton’s lyrics look downright angry. She writes from the perspective of a wage slave, and her opening lines — “Tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen/ Pour myself a cup of ambition” — are great storytelling details. From there, she builds into a crescendo of frustrated fury, culminating in some lines that might as well be Zach De La Rocha: “It’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it/ And you spend your life putting money in his wallet.” But Parton never sings it that way.

A key aspect of Dolly Parton’s persona has always been her ability to radiate cheery good nature even in the face of extreme hardship. Parton’s tremendously moving 1971 classic “Coat Of Many Colors,” for instance, is a story-song about Parton, as a kid, being proud to wear the ragged and sewn-together clothes that her mother had made for her. She brings that same gift to “9 To 5.” Parton belts the song out with dizzy sort of euphoria. She sings those angry lines with a relentlessly upbeat charm, and they don’t come out sounding angry.

When she was first trying to make the 9 To 5 movie, Jane Fonda had conceptualized it as a drama. She’d turned it into a comedy instead when she realized that nobody wanted to go see something preachy. The song “9 To 5″ accomplishes the same thing. It hides class resentment in a thumping beat and a big hook and a movie-star smile, but that resentment is still there. In the film, the song plays over an opening-credits montage of women arriving at their jobs in the big city. It sets the tone beautifully.

“9 To 5″ is a short song, and it’s almost consciously low-stakes. The track doesn’t have the same emotional punch as many of the straight-up country songs that Parton made during the ’70s. It’s a calculated pop crossover move, but it’s an effective calculated pop crossover move. It communicates both the movie’s sensibility and the character that Parton plays, both in 9 To 5 and in real life, telling us most of what we need to know about her in less than three minutes. It worked for the movie, and it worked for Parton, too. We’ll see her in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Swedish pop-punk band Millencolin’s 1995 cover of “9 To 5″:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Aesop Rock turning the opening lines from “9 To 5″ into a mantra on his 2001 track “9-5ers Anthem”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Blackalicious sampling “9 To 5″ on the first part of the 2002 Zack De La Rocha/Saul Williams/Lyrics Born collab “Release (Part 1, 2 & 3)”:

(None of the rappers on “Release” has ever had a top-10 hit, but De La Rocha’s band Rage Against The Machine did get to #69 with 1999’s “Guerrilla Radio,” their sole Hot 100 single.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “9 To 5″ soundtracking a murder montage in the 2018 film Deadpool 2:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tune-Yards’ This American Life-commissioned 2018 cover of “9 To 5″:

(There’s also a pretty great 2010 Saturday Night Live Digital Short called “Stumblin'” that parodies “9 To 5″ and features frequent Number Ones subject Paul McCartney. For whatever reason, though, it’s mostly been scrubbed from the internet, and you have to venture off into sketchy foreign streaming-video platforms to find it.)

Tags: Dolly Parton