Somewhere in the middle of carousing around last weekend, I caught the video for Donna Summer’s 1983 hit, “She Works Hard for the Money.” I’d never seen the video before and, even though the TV was on mute and I was in a crowded bar, I was drawn into its vision of labor, the daily drama of making ends meet. Now THAT, I thought to my entitled self, is working.
Although I could not remember a specific instance where I heard this song, which came out the year after I was born, the lyrics are somehow imbedded in my memory:
She works hard for the money
so hard for it honey
she works hard for the money
so you better treat her right
The video, however, stands in stark contrast to the upbeat tempo of the song. If you hear the song on the dance floor, it’s pure disco; if you watch the video, it’s heart wrenching, albeit a little melodramatic.
The video is unsettling, even in a bar, twenty-some years later, on mute, not necessarily because of the 1980’s fashion, but mainly due to the working woman’s passive behavior towards those who mistreat her. What surprises me is that Summers portrays the working woman on the cover of the album, yet in the video, she plays the narrator, omnisciently speaking for all the working women out there as she follows a white woman through her grueling day. So Summers is not the working woman, she’s just telling the story of a working woman who represents all working women.
The video begins with the working woman’s alarm clock interrupting her dream sequence, as she rises before the sun, optimistically greeting the street cleaners and newspaper men, before heading into her janitor job, where she is shown on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. Her next job begins at 9:00 AM, a waitressing gig at the local diner, where she jovially shrugs off sexual harassment from regulars, and seems to be manning every station in the restaurant. By the time the working woman reaches her final job, at a clothing factory, exhaustion has officially set in and yet she must endure.
Through all of this, Summers is singing, repeating the catchy chorus with an upbeat tempo behind distinctive synthesizer hooks that are somewhat deceiving. As the working woman clocks in at the factory, you see Summers, leaning against the time card box, with her sultry lips, hips and eyelashes protruding, repeating the chorus once more, with a matter of fact expression. She’s still singing.
When it is time for the working woman to go home, the viewer follows her as she walks across railroad tracks, to a small house, where she arrives loaded down with groceries, only to be greeted by her two squabbling kids, neither of whom offers to help with the groceries and, when the carton of milk spills on the kitchen floor, only laugh at their haggard mother. Still, Summers is watching, singing. Summers shows no sympathy in her facial expressions, rather she is hardened. As the working woman collapses on her bed, while her bratty kids are still bickering, she turns to a framed picture of her younger self, and then the camera pans out, as the woman recounts her day in an agonizing series of flashbacks.
Summers suddenly leaves her status as observer to intrude, disrupting the narrative by offering her hand to the working woman. But the woman rejects her help.
Finally, the video concludes with another dream sequence, in which a variety of working women, from police officers to doctors, are dancing in the street, Fame style, with Donna Summers, watching from above, poised on a fire escape. It’s a happy ending, but the viewer knows, as does Donna Summers, as does the working woman, that the alarm clock will sound soon enough and the woman will be torn from her dancing dream, only to repeat the working cycle all over again.
Now. Let’s put the video back into historical context. Take it out of the bar, in the year 2006, and put it back into 1983 – another period of time, another type of labor, another mindset. It’s 1983, the Reagan era; it’s several years after the 1965 Immigration Act has passed; you’ve got anti/pro welfare mother issues; black women were identified with that kind of labor and yet here is a black woman singing about a white woman, a single mother, slaving away; there were still American clothing factories, this is before it all went to China and way before American Apparel; it was not rare for a single mother to work three jobs at a time, without a pension plan or union protection. The working woman, who Summers was singing about, was, like America’s working class, in deep shit, future wise.
Also, it’s 1983; MTV has only been around for one year. Donna Summers, discovered and imported by the German producer, Giorgio Moroder, is the first African American musician the network places into heavy rotation. Now MTV has to deal with what radios never dealt with – actual black flesh. Her videos are totally of the era. Besides the 80’s fashion, which is all music videos are supposed to be about, Summers has a message behind her disco pop: she’s the narrator, ignored by the white woman, trying to get in, while the white woman is playing black/brown face, as a single mother in the hood.
The next year, 1984, Madonna would enter the picture and hijack all of the limelight from Summers, along with pretty much every other female musician for the next decade or so. Like Summers, Madonna has a feminist slant to her image, but it is more an issue of sex (the original Summers stance) than labor. Summers would eventually pursue a career in Christian pop and settle down in Nashville, TN.
Now it’s 2006. All of that has changed, obviously. In fact, the subject is outdated. Today, that white, single mother is probably in a cubicle somewhere, staring at a computer screen, while immigrants are doing the janitorial and factory work.
Where am I going with all of this? Oh yeah. I do not work hard for the money. Sometimes, I work longer hours than usual, but I never bring my work home with me or stress out too much. I have worked hard for the money before, I mean, not as hard as the woman in that video, but I’ve worked. I like to work hard, either for the money or for something I am passionate about at the time. But right now, I am a white, working girl, of the 21st Century, who happened to see a music video that made me think about things that one does not normally consider while drinking a whiskey sour in a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. So I decided to write about it in my blahg. Yet if you have the leisure time to spend on the Internet, if you are perched on Gawker all day long, perusing blogs, such as this one, you are not working hard for the money and you know it.