ALEX JEFFERY, AUTHOR OF DONNA SUMMER’S ONCE UPON A TIME, ON DONNA SUMMER AND THE WORK SONG.
In the classic track from Once Upon a Time “Working The Midnight Shift”, Donna Summer’s Cinderella character hits rock bottom. Forced to take on demeaning (but never specified) labour, the song manages to evince a post-Fordist nightmare where the singer has lost control of agency of her body. Her breathy vocals are detached, signifying perhaps an out-of-body experience as she observes her body grinding away, the relentless music suggesting hands in busy, unceasing motion. Tucked away in the middle of the Side 2 suite, it was probably one of the last tracks that would have been considered as having single potential. However, over the years it has demonstrated a lasting cult appeal, attracting covers from Holy Ghost! and occasional Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante.
As a “work song” it bears comparison with those that came before (the cheerful bluebird assisted dusting parties of Disney’s early fairy tales), and what came after (the similarly upbeat 1980s in particular). The 1980s were a decade when women’s working lives (and their relationship with leisure time) came increasingly under the spotlight. Work anthems like Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5’”, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” might have griped about the routine, but they did so with pep and a fixed grin, always suggesting that there was a cocktail waiting at the other end of the shift. “Working the Midnight Shift”, on the other hand, is openly dystopian, and this segment of the double album has drawn comparisons with Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis for the atmosphere in which they present their subject matter. In fact, from early on, Summer’s songs had taken on the subject of female labour, and two of her disco period songs (“Lady of the Night” from 1974 and “Bad Girls” from 1979) were unambiguously about sex workers. These empathised with their subjects and, for the most part, celebrated them, observing how resiliently they dealt with difficult working conditions. This theme carried through to “She Works Hard For The Money”, the song that became the fifteenth biggest selling song on the 1983’s Billboard year-end chart, and ensured that Donna Summer would not only remain associated only with disco and the 1970s. As well as remaining a staple on 80s radio and retro aerobics playlists, the image Summer fashioned for the song and album (pink waitress uniform, white shoes, indelible smile) has become one of her most memable.
The popular music video for the song contains yet another Cinderella narrative, with the unglamorous female subject rising early to clean, getting man-handled as a waitress over lunch, and finishing the day as sweatshop seamstress to make ends meet for her (presumably) one-parent, two-squabbling-kids family. In the opening dream sequence, we see the protagonist’s Cinderella fantasy receding into the rear view mirror, glimpsing a flashback into her past as an aspiring dancer. There was perhaps a half-decent 80s romantic comedy in the video’s synopsis, but, confusingly, Summer herself, an experience stage actress in her past, didn’t get to play the central character. It’s odd looking back to realise this, but the reason, according to the director Brian Grant, was that “nobody would believe her as a waitress because she was Donna Summer, a famous pop star”. There was speculation that MTV’s colour bias had got the record company nervous, and the role was eventually given to a white actress. Whether true or not, it appeared to be the right move for the times as the video was hugely successful and Donna Summer became the first Black woman to get heavy rotation on the channel.
In a story that was later often repeated, the real-life inspiration for the song was one Onetta Johnson – a restroom attendant spotted napping on the job at Chasen’s Restaurant (a star hangout in Beverly Hills since 1936 that eventually went into decline, and closed in 1995). Summer’s version of the legend is that she was moved by the woman’s situation to blurt out “she works hard for the money…” and, immediately realising the song potential of her new catch phrase, sketched out the lyrics on a piece of toilet paper. Within forty-eight hours the basic track was assembled. Johnson herself, who it turned out was working a second job as a lab technician and trying to put a son through college, ended up being featured on the back sleeve of the album. After the notoriety of the song, Johnson became a minor media star herself, fielding autograph hunters and appearing in various documentaries. She would at one point cheekily claim authorship of the song’s catchphrase herself.
It later became obvious how much Summer must have wanted this role for herself, and, perhaps partly in retribution, she took every opportunity available to play the waitress. On the album sleeve, she got to dress in the pink serving outfit that would become one of her signature looks and debuted the persona on the Johnny Carson show during pre-release promotion. The waitress character would be returned to as the years went by, each time embellished with another layer of camp. The music video already seemed to be paying homage to the Village People, its cast of female worker stereotypes (secretary, waitress, nurse), all pirouetting their way enthusiastically down a New York street with prime 80s moves choreographed by future Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips. At Summer’s 1984 Grammy performance, a femme-astronaut with bubble helmet was added to this sisterhood of professions. Then in 1985, she reprised the role again at Disneyland’s 30th anniversary concert, this time holding a tray with ketchup and mustard on it, almost as if she had become one of Disney’s cartoon characters. This was a remarkable image transformation for a woman who rose to fame by simulating orgasms. Most bizarrely, when performing the song during Japanese shows to support her 1991 album Mistaken Identity, she was handed an apron, silver foam crown and mop during the intro and then got to enthusiastically scrub the stage floor. Once Upon a Time might have given the character her grand début, but it was “She Works Hard For The Money” that gave Summer ample opportunities to play Cinderella throughout her career. Taking pride in how the song became ‘an anthem for many working-class people’, the image it projects also helped prevent her from being overly identified as a diva.
Alex Jeffery writes and teaches about popular music, and currently lives between London and Berlin. Alex lectures on popular music in several institutions in London, including City, University of London BIMM London and the University of Cambridge. He has also worked as associate editor at the long-running music review site MusicOMH, and runs the YouTube channel DocPopterTV, which posts audiovisual essays on his research and other audiovisual creative work.