Why Don't Happy Songs Exist About Work?

Why is it that no happy songs exist about work? What does that say about work in society?

How much of contemporary music is dedicated to a set of emotions around falling in or out of love, someone's death, having a child, or even more mundane things like going to a party, dancing, driving your car or seeing your friends.  There are so many songs on these topics.  


I could easily come up with songs on a litany of other far more random topics like the joy of eating peaches (Peaches, by the Presidents of the United States of America, 1996) or playing a video game (Pac Man Fever, Buckner & Garcia, 1991) or even about the relationship between a young boy and his pet rat (Ben, Michael Jackson, 1972). People are inspired to write and record songs that the listening public enjoy enough to play repeatedly.  

I went on a mission to find a popular song that established the joy that people took from work. I also spoke to people in genres that were less familiar to me in the hope that this was more of a product of experiencing only certain kinds of music. This meant a deep dive, particularly into the world of musicals, in case I hadn’t been aware of a well-known song. What people would say, almost to the person when I would ask, is something like. “That’s a good question. Hmmmm nothing comes to mind at all. Let me think about it and get back to you”.  

So, I’ve nothing in praise of a joyful day at work. 

However, the odes to the awfulness of work exist across generation and genre from “Take this Job and Shove it”, “9-5”, and “A Hard Day’s Night” to “She Works Hard for the Money”, “Manic Money” and “Heigh Ho” from Snow White.   

The spirit all seems to capture the thoughts from the song 16 Tons about working as a miner: 

You load 16 tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

St. Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go

I owe my soul to the company store

Pretty depressing, no? So what does it mean that nothing of the sort exists. It is problematic when popular culture fails to represent that idea that work can be a joyous thing. It isn’t always of course, but that doesn’t mean that most people have experienced some periods, even if they might be fleeting where work felt productive and made them feel happier or more fulfilled overall.  

I suppose I would argue that there are two parties responsible for the inability to create music that capture the competence, fulfillment and joy that can come from useful work. Predictably, that is the employer(s) and the job seeker(s). (I’ve decided to give musicians a pass on the issue for now). Each has a role to play in the work-happiness deficit.     

Employers need to be better about:

  • Understanding their work culture
  • Being transparent about their culture.
  • Offering salaries and benefits that enable people to grow as professionals and leave full lives outside of work.
  • Create opportunities for learning and growth
  • Allow all people to feel like they can flourish in this workplace including into places further up in an organizational chart

Job-Seekers need to be better about:

  • Doing the self knowledge work to know the kind of roles that they are excited to take on
  • Doing the self knowledge work to know the culture, boss, colleagues that enable you to thrive
  • Asking your most important questions directly as you go through an interview process and doing your research about the employer and colleagues to source what the place is like and if they/it aligns with your values
  • Seeing whether they too agree that someone like you with your skills and how you show up at work can thrive.  

For me these are the ways that employers and job seekers can begin to really see one another and start making beautiful music together.  

Meantime, I’d like to suggest that we consider Beyonce’s Single Ladies as a good place to start. If employers like an employee, then they should want to hire and keep them. If an employee knows their value in the marketplace, then they should be delighted to sing about it from the rooftops. But I accept. We’re a long way from where we need to be.

Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor.  A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship, and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn. 


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