Dolly Parton Is Awesome But This Super Bowl Ad Shows We Live in a Dystopia

Dolly Parton 9-5 workers gig economy
Dolly Parton onstage during the 61st Annual Grammy Awards on February 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. The dystopian 9-5 Super Bowl LV ad glorifies the gig economy and the 12-hour workday. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

This story is co-published with The Daily Poster

Amid stagnant wages, dwindling retirement savings, skyrocketing health insurance bills, and ever-higher rents, Big Business finally has a way to fix the Dickensian economy.

No, it isn't higher wages, Medicare for All, the promised $2,000 check, or even a whittled-down $1,000 check. Instead, this Super Bowl Sunday, the nation will be told that the long-sought answer is the Great American Side Hustle—the mythical 1099 talisman that will supposedly liberate us from the economic hardship of the low-paying day job.

This message of liberation comes in the much-touted ad from website hosting company Squarespace.

If you think about this ad for only five seconds between beers and football, it will seem kitschy and cool, especially because Dolly Parton is generally awesome, and the specific song is a classic.

But if you ponder the spot for five minutes or more, you may start to sense the disturbing assumptions and propaganda baked into the message—and they reflect both a dystopian reality and an insane ideology that we have somehow come to accept as "normal."

Think about what you just watched: You saw Initech drones slogging through the drudgery of the eight hour day, and then the moment the clock struck 5 p.m., they didn't go home to family nor did they head to happy hour with friends. They flipped open laptops for their next work day—presumably necessary not just for a bit of work satisfaction, but also for survival in a paycheck-to-paycheck economy.

The twist on the song 9 to 5 makes this all the darker. The original song is, in part, a criticism of economic inequality—it laments jobs that pay so little you are still "barely getting by," and it says the slog is "a rich man's game" forcing you to "spend your life putting money in his wallet." But at least it was a 40-hour work week. Now, a century after the brutal battle for an 8-hour workday, the new version is a musical celebration of a 12-hour work day from 9 to 9.

Now sure, you can roll your eyes and say "come on, it's just a Super Bowl commercial"—but that's actually part of the point here.

Popular culture is one of the most powerful conduits of ideology because it hits us when our cognitive defenses are down. Indeed, precisely because movies, television shows and consumer product commercials present themselves as apolitical, we don't view them through the cognitive filters that compel us to look skeptically at, say, a political candidate's ad—and so those pop culture messages can circumvent those filters and deliver equally politicized messages right into our minds.

Though I've been obsessed with the link between popular culture and political ideology (I wrote this book about it), you don't have to believe me about the subversive connection. You can read President Dwight Eisenhower, who in a 1953 letter explained how political ideology is often most effectively transmitted through "the field of entertainment, dramatics, music, and so on" because those allow its objectives to be concealed to the casual consumer.

In this case, Squarespace isn't doing anything singularly outrageous or even deliberately nefarious or political. The company is simply reflecting a larger culture, and you could argue the ad's positive subtext is about the value in trying to start one's own business rather than working for a faceless corporate monolith.

But that's not an option for lots of people, so the real message here valorizes the side hustle economy and normalizes its radical assumptions that workaholism is necessary and that there is no separation between work and the rest of your life. These are themes that have been similarly promoted by Apple and other tech companies, all while corporate political operatives insist that the gig economy is rescuing workers from the burdens of unionization, such as decent pay and benefits.

But why do we now accept all of this as normal? Why do we tolerate—or even celebrate—the idea that a second or third job and a 12-hour day is necessary just to subsist?

Previous generations fought for humane laws governing work and they fought to build unions that would negotiate better pay so that there was less necessity to try to piece together more money on the side just to make ends meet.

That used to be the American Dream. But such stability and security has become an anomaly.

On the whole, Americans work longer hours for lower wages, fewer benefits and less vacation time than most other workers in other advanced economies, and for the most part, that's not by choice. In our deregulated, winner-take-all economy, we do not have guaranteed access to the basic requirements for survival (food, affordable housing, medical care, education, retirement), and as unions have been stomped into the ground, there are few countervailing economic forces compelling big employers to provide those necessities.

The result: In the last few decades, $50 trillion has been redistributed from the bottom 90 percent to to the top one percent—and in just the last 20 years, the bottom 50 percent lost $900 billion of net worth while the top one percent increased its net worth by $21 trillion. Amid this epic transfer of wealth, millions of Americans are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living, leaving many older workers unable to retire, and leaving nearly half of all people under 35 working side hustle jobs.

Younger generations never experienced an economy that reliably made sure most single-earner households could achieve middle-class status with one job. Older generations have experienced a transition from that kind of economy to the Two-Income Trap to today's side-hustle dystopia. Along the way neoliberal ideology, and popular culture have sold us the idea that working ourselves to death is actually a virtue.

Books like Do What You Love and Work Won't Love You Back tell that larger story. So does Squarespace's new commercial, which turns a song lamenting the job grind into a ballad extolling an economy that requires too many to endlessly work just to survive.