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Dolly Parton's 2021 Super Bowl commercial is playing a rich man's game

As much as we all love Dolly Parton, it’s still disappointing to hear her literally sing the praises of “working, working, working.”
Dolly Parton performs on the Pyramid Stage on Day 3 of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 29, 2014 in Glastonbury, England.
Dolly Parton performs on the Pyramid Stage on Day Three of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 29, 2014, in Glastonbury, England.Matt Crossick / PA via AP file

On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in America’s pandemic Super Bowl. As always, part of the spectacle has nothing to do with football: The Weeknd will be performing at halftime, and a slate of celebrity commercials are already racking up views on YouTube.

One of the higher-profile ads is a “reimagining” of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” commissioned by website builder Squarespace. Sadly, this tone-deaf misstep from the beloved icon may be the biggest upset of the day.

Dolly Parton herself is no stranger to good press. To say that the country music legend is beloved is a massive understatement.

Dolly Parton herself is no stranger to good press. To say that the country music legend is beloved is a massive understatement; the woman has been up to her ears in goodwill since she burst onto the country music scene in 1967 with her tongue-in-cheek chart-topper “Dumb Blonde.” Despite her penchant for self-deprecation and healthy sense of fun, Parton is also a shark in the boardroom. She outfoxed the hapless Nashville, Tennessee, power brokers who once tried to control her career and has since built herself an empire.

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Her reputation as a savvy businesswoman is well earned, but so is her legacy as a philanthropist. There’s a reason Parton is not only respected, but genuinely adored, and her big heart is a major factor. Just this month, we’ve read about how Parton refused to use her position to skip the line for a Covid-19 vaccination (after she donated $1 million toward its development) and how she turned down a Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Donald Trump — twice. (The latter move thrilled many fans who read it as a sign of the famously cagey star’s true political leanings, but it ultimately proved to be more about scheduling than her personal politics.)

This is Parton’s very first Super Bowl ad, featuring her reworked classic anthem “9 to 5.” Fans were initially excited to see what the reigning Queen of Country Music had cooked up, but it quickly became apparent that Parton had made a rare miscalculation.

Rather than paying homage to the spirit of the original song, which made no bones about the exploitative nature of the daily grind, the commercial for Squarespace features a tinny ode to the side hustle. Its office workers are portrayed as being overjoyed to continue working after hours, their side hustles are painted as freeing, fun and fulfilling, and the song itself encourages them to "be your own boss, climb your own ladder."

It’s a perfect storm of gig economy propaganda. And it’s a particularly disappointing message to hear from someone like Parton, who once warned us, “You're just a step on the boss man's ladder,” and made her cinematic debut as a secretary who gets so tired of her boss’s sexual harassment that she almost shoots him.

That cinematic debut — in 1980’s “9 to 5” — helped make Parton an even bigger star, while also highlighting the kind of drudgery, disrespect and degradation that so many workers, especially women, face on the job. (The song was written specifically for the film’s opening credits.) It echoed the goals of the real-life and still-active 9to5 movement, which fought for better pay, better working conditions and an end to sexual harassment at work, issues that still plague millions of workers today. In an inadvertent hat tip to the anarchists of Chicago who called for “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!” back in the 19th century, the “9 to 5” theme song warned that working eight hours a day in a dead-end job was already no way to make a living (“Barely gettin' by/ It's all takin' and no givin'”) with the implication that even this was already too much to ask.

Now, Parton’s silvery voice is being used to promote the false virtues of working overtime, when so many gig economy workers are barely scraping by and the tech companies who employ — but misclassify — them are raking in boffo profits. The gig economy is a wretched alternative to a stable paycheck and proper benefits, and efforts to paint it as a matter of “independence” or “being one’s own boss” downplay how hard it is for so many gig workers to make ends meet. The lack of a safety net has become even more apparent thanks to the increased demands and dangers of the Covid-19 pandemic Parton herself has helped combat; delivery drivers, grocery shoppers and other gig workers have become a lifeline to so many, and yet they remain stripped of the protections and dignity they deserve.

Now, Parton’s silvery voice is being used to promote the false virtues of working overtime, when so many gig economy workers are barely scraping by.

As author Sarah Smarsh notes in her new book, “She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs,” Parton has long been a voice for poor and working-class women, and her kitchen-table approach to feminism has resonated with generations of women who couldn’t afford to take off work for a protest, but nevertheless knew how to fight for what they deserved.

Knowing this context, it’s so disappointing to read the lyrics to this new song and hear her literally sing the praises of “working, working, working.” It’s not “fun” or “empowering” to juggle multiple jobs; it’s an indictment of a system in which people aren’t paid fairly and workers are squeezed down to the last drop of energy.

That all raises the question: Why did she do it? Parton’s every public move is so calculated, and she is so protective of her image and her legacy, that it really is jarring to see her disappoint so many fans in one fell swoop. It will do little to tarnish her glittering legacy, but it still hurts. As music critic Hilary Hughes explained for Slate, “The commercial will air and the world will move on, but the fact remains that Parton—an artist deservedly lauded as one of the most skillful, altruistic, and generous performers of all time—diminished one of the most potent, and beloved, messages behind her own work while dressing it up as a tribute.”

One imagines that the Squarespace executives who pitched the idea to her played up the “empowerment” angle, maybe framing it as a means to encourage more creativity and experimentation. The press release chirps that the song is intended “to celebrate a new generation of entrepreneurs, and empower anyone with a dream to get started,” which seemingly falls neatly in line with Parton’s own rags-to-riches story. I’d bet my bottom dollar that the true horrors of the gig economy and of America’s broken economic system never came up.

And as much as we all love Parton, she’s still a capitalist and still a very, very rich woman; she has a vested interest in boosting her public profile, and Squarespace surely paid dearly for the privilege of borrowing some of her sparkle. Parton doesn’t need the money herself, but between funding her philanthropic efforts, supporting her family and local community and expanding her empire, I can see her welcoming an influx of filthy lucre. The reality is that it made good business sense, and she's always been a shrewd businesswoman.

As Dolly Parton herself once said, “It’s a rich man’s game,” and it looks like she’s still in it to win it.