In 2013, Britney Spears’s “Work Bitch” heralded both the release of her eight album, Britney Jean, and her new job as a Las Vegas performer. In its video, Britney vamped on a pedestal among CGI sharks and cracked a whip over leather-clad backup dancers to demonstrate the painful pleasure of the hustle, which, according to her song, was a direct pathway to luxury and success: You want a Lamborghini? You better work, bitch! But if Britney had worked hard on Britney Jean—and by her account she had; in an open letter to fans, she called it her “most personal record yet”—her rewards seemed paltry. The album was her worst selling to date, and received mixed reviews; the New York Times declared that her music had “lost its snap.”
Three years later, a new pair of of work anthems have risen: Rihanna’s “Work,” which spent nine consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, breaking a record previously held by The Beatles, and Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home,” which debuted in late February and has since climbed to No. 6. This is possibly the first time that two songs in Billboard’s Top 10 have had nearly identical refrains, and given that pop hits in the run-up to summer have been more likely to invoke parties and vacations, it’s even more curious that said refrain is simply the repetition of the word “work.” (The two songs were briefly both titled “Work” until Fifth Harmony, whose hit was released in the wake of Rihanna’s, appended “From Home” to theirs to avoid confusion between the two.)
For songs structured around pulsing recurrences of “work,” neither stands as a straightforward paean to hard labor the way that “Work Bitch,” or even parts of Beyoncé’s “Formation,” do. In “Work From Home,” Fifth Harmony uses work as a euphemism for sexual seduction, rolling out one job-related double entendre after another (no getting off early, you’re always on that night shift) that turn especially cartoonish in the video, which finds the group members cavorting around a crew of sweaty, muscular construction workers who jackhammer, fill holes, and tend to gushing cement mixers. Rihanna sings “Work” in a liquid patois that makes much of the song outside of the titular line difficult for the casual non-Bajan listener to parse, and spends her double-video dancing, by herself in the mirror, with a group at a restaurant party, and on Drake in an abandoned mall. But these two hits, in which the insistent reminder of work, work, work, work, work permeates even ostensible realms of leisure, summon one of the gloomiest anxieties of our current moment.
The post-recession 21st century has been a strange and critical time for work. On one hand, we collectively have too much of it: over the last several decades, workers in the U.S. and elsewhere have clocked an increasing number of hours at work. In elite, white-collar professions, including medicine, law, and tech, employees are regularly expected to be available 24/7, answering emails or calls on weekends, nights, and holidays. At the other end of the economic spectrum, service sector workers eking by on minimum wage often must work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, especially in metropolitan areas where rents continue to skyrocket. And in addition to the vast amounts of time that we spend at work proper, the political theorist Kathi Weeks has observed that even much of our free time goes toward preparing for, commuting to, and recovering from work. Yet, for the average American worker, wages have not kept up with this increase in productivity, which means that people will be forced to delay retirement until later and later in life, if they can even afford to retire at all.
At the same time, as a society, we paradoxically also suffer from a shortage of work. In their book Inventing the Future, authors Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams trace the rapid growth of a surplus population, or people who are shut out of the formal labor market with few other means of survival. Globally, this includes such groups as displaced subsistence farmers in rural China, who migrate thousands of miles in attempts to find starvation-wage factory work, and other would-be workers in the global south, where crippling poverty and lack of sustainable employment have birthed slums and favelas in which these surplus laborers cobble together makeshift shadow economies through begging, selling black market goods, and other informal work.
But there are also burgeoning surplus populations in wealthy countries like the U.S., where the aftereffects of the Great Recession have meant that more and more part-time workers are still unable to secure full-time work. Currently, over 15% of the workforce performs temporary, contract, or otherwise precarious labor. Srnicek and Williams estimate that worldwide the surplus population now “significantly outnumbers” employed individuals, and will only continue to grow as a result of further jobless recoveries, automation, and deindustrialization. “What the next two decades portend,” they write, “is a future in which the global economy is increasingly unable to produce enough jobs (let alone good jobs), yet where we remain dependent upon jobs for our living.” Work isn’t working, in other words, and without a drastic upheaval of our current economic system, it may very well be what inaugurates humanity’s demise. We have already seen how the disappearance of industrial jobs has fueled vicious backlashes to immigration, the gutting of the middle class, and mass incarceration. What will our world look like once this condition is amplified tenfold?
This current state of simultaneous under- and overwork is the calm before the storm into which Rihanna’s and Fifth Harmony’s respective hits have arrived. Neither song is particularly celebratory—rather than extol the virtues of wage labor, they instead mirror back at us the collapse of the distinction between what is work and what is not. Sonically, they’re relaxed, especially when considered alongside the excited EDM stylings of Britney’s “Work Bitch,” suggesting that while we can’t get away from work, we may be tiring of mythologies that hype an untroubled relationship between hard work and the good life. Gone is the belief that work alone will deliver a Maserati or hot body. Now, the only certainty we have regarding work is that we must get up day after day to do it.
While most people who have achieved something are still likely to attribute that success to hard work, it’s becoming clear that an even greater number of people who fail to get ahead work just as relentlessly. Perhaps we’ve embraced “Work” and “Work From Home” because they allow us to acknowledge that reality while still trying to find pleasure in this moment—but more importantly, because these songs make no promises they can’t keep.