How Rihanna’s ‘Work’ Became An Anthem For Our Overworked Generation

Photo: YouTube

Osman Faruqi is a Sydney-based writer, political campaigner and hip-hop nerd.

Approx 5 minute reading time

It’s the mantra of Millennials. Despite the lazy stereotypes perpetuated by older folk, we’re one of the hardest working generations in recent history.  We’re so innovative we even invent bizarre new kinds of coffee, like skinny soy lattes, to keep us going. Like other generations before us, we rate music that best describes our lives. Our parents listened to artists that captured the countercultural movement, like Dylan and Hendrix. In the 90s when everything seemed so carefree and the future was still hopeful we loved the Spice Girls. But now something weird is happening. The music we love is starting to hit too close to home.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics a bigger proportion of young Australians are in the workforce today than compared to the 1970’s. On top of that, greater numbers of us are working more than 40 hours a week compared to then as well.

But over the past few weeks something weird has happened. A soul crushing, debilitating motto has crept into the most unusual of places… our favourite songs.

Two of the biggest musical hits so far in 2016 are Rihanna’s “Work” featuring Drake and Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home” featuring Ty Dolla $ign.

They have a lot in common. They’re both bangers. They’re both tracks with female vocalists featuring male rappers. They’ve both smashed the charts. And they both feature a chorus that consists predominantly of the anthem of our generation: “Work, work, work, work, work.”

To be fair there are some key differences. Rihanna’s track is more dancehall and reggae influenced while Fifth Harmony’s has classic R&B vibes. Interestingly “Work From Home” was actually originally titled “Work” but was renamed at the last minute to avoid confusion with Rihanna’s song.

The writers and musicians behind these songs had a feeling that the repetitive, hypnotic choruses that evoked feelings about one of life’s most mundane activities would resonate with the key, ideal audience for pop music: young people. And they were right. Both songs skyrocketed up the Billboard charts, the ARIA charts and the Spotify charts.

But why? Isn’t pop music supposed to be an escape from the dreariness of modern life? Isn’t it often dismissed as low-brow and anti-intellectual? Isn’t pop music supposed to free us from the shackles of labour relations that keep us chained to our desks and smartphone email apps. We’re supposed to lose it at the club to songs about partying, drinking and drugs (if the 90s and 00s were anything to go by). Instead we’re packing ourselves onto peak hour public transport, jamming headphones in our ears to listen to music about work, on the way to work, and doing the same thing in the evening as we leave work.

The most fascinating thing about both songs is that they don’t just describe work in the abstract, but link it to another basic human act – sex. Both songs describe the impact working long hours can have on our sex lives, as well using “work” as a metaphor for sex itself.

On Rihanna’s “Work”, Drake raps:

“You need to get done, done, done, done at work, come over

We just need to slow the motion… But I know you need to get done, done, done, done”.

Basically Drake’s saying hurry up at work and come home so we can have sex, equating the idea of finishing sex with the idea of finishing work.

Fifth Harmony identify a similar anxiety:

“I know you’re always on the night shift, but I can’t stand these nights alone”

Both songs nail the repetitive, boring nature of most work through their music and lyrics but also contrast its expansion into all aspects of our lives with the negative impact being overworked can have on our sex lives.

We know this feeling all too well. There’s plenty of research showing how overworked we are and the implications this can have on our lives and mental health. Because we’re working harder and modern technology requires us to be constantly switched on, our personal and work lives become more blurred. Which is basically the subtext of both songs and why our love for them is so fascinating.

I’m not totally sure whether Millennials are loving the songs because they, like Rihanna, Drake and Fifth Harmony, would much rather be having sex than working, or because they’re just catchy tunes.

Ironically I’ve found the songs to be great to listen to when I am, in fact, at work. There’s something subversive about turning the repetitive, dull nature of most work into dope, sexy music.

Seriously, how good is our generation: we work harder than everyone else and our best artists turn our relatively mundane experiences into subversive, fun music that we consume like crazy.  But are there any worrying implications resulting from our love of music that risks stressing us out and reflecting our anxieties back to us? Does it mean we’ve lost the battle to separate out our work lives from our actual lives?

I don’t think so. If anything, the songs turn the mundane, repetitive nature of work into something fun, motivating and catchy. As weird as it seems, listening to songs about work makes it a lot easier for me to… work. The day flies past when Rihanna and Drake are the soundtrack to your life, trust me.

And while we work hard, we’re also a generation that parties hard. Try and stop us from having fun and we’ll fight back. If we’re going to have to work longer and harder than the generations that came before us, we may as well make it fun. Bump Rihanna in the morning on the way to work. Put on your headphones at your desk right now and drop the track. Go out tonight and lose it to her dancehall beats.

Because if they’re going to make us work, work, work, work, work, we may as well get some fun out of it!