The moment Dolly Parton preceded Beyoncé in becoming bigger than the music industry itself happened at some point around Valentine’s Day in 1981. At the time, her single “9 to 5” was surging to the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Singles, Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts simultaneously.
Can a hit song be so big that it defies the known standards of measuring success and loses some importance? In the case of “9 to 5,” yes. Four decades after its release, however, it’s time to reaffirm its legacy as one of the most socially impactful songs ever.
The platinum-selling single is the title track of a film that earned 10 times as much as it cost to make. 9 to 5 also spawned a six-season television show and award-winning Broadway play, and the song itself was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It’s entirely possible that due to the success of “9 to 5” — released 40 years ago today, on Nov. 3, 1980 — Parton will earn, at minimum, revenue equal to the median household income of the average American, yearly, for the rest of her life.
“9 to 5” elevated Parton from an integral cog in country music to a music, entrepreneurship and social rights superstar — plus, it allowed her to establish a career template by which other female country superstars (Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, Gretchen Wilson, Kacey Musgraves, Taylor Swift, Margo Price and the Highwomen, for starters) could achieve similar acclaim. With a similar blueprint, artists such as Beyoncé dominate the overall modern music conversation, which leaves room to consider “9 to 5” as a song that forever changed pop music, too.
It’s not that Parton wasn’t already a star: She’d emerged out of the bittersweet shadow of her role as Porter Wagoner’s singing sidekick in 1974, the same year she achieved her second No. 1 country single with the iconic “Jolene.” That song’s slight crossover appeal (No. 60 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts) kindled a fire for acclaim that spawned 14 solo Top 10 hit country singles before “9 to 5” topped the charts in 1981.
“In Nashville, I did well and was known as one of the big country artists, but I still wasn’t really selling any records. “Jolene,” which I think was my biggest record at that time, sold like 200,000,” Parton told Rolling Stone in 1980. However, the era in which Parton achieved her fame also included male country stars such as Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson — with “The Gambler” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” respectively, among others — earning as many pop crossover hits as Parton had in country.
While her career path as a dependable Top 10 country heavyweight was entirely sustainable, Parton knew her talent and ability offered more. In the same 1980 Rolling Stone interview, she offers the following regarding looking at her career at a crossroads:
So after takin’ all that into consideration and knowing that I had the freedom to do what I wanted, that I had the talent to back it up — and I had more personality and guts than I had talent, I guess — I just tried to figure out what things were workable and usable and tried to combine them to make something special.
By 1977, Parton had parted ways with Wagoner as her producer, too, though she was not entirely free of his sphere of influence. Show Biz, Inc., the same company that produced The Porter Wagoner Show, spent upwards of, in 2020 dollars, $400,000 an episode to produce Dolly, Parton’s own syndicated variety television show, which underwhelmed in the ratings and investment return. It only lasted one season.
Regarding that era, Parton shares a lesson learned in her 1978 biography Dolly: “It was really bad for me, that TV show. It was worse for me than good, because the people who didn’t know me who liked the show thought that’s how I was … I mean, I still come through as myself, even with all the other stuff, but not really like I should. Not my real, natural way. And the people who did know me thought I was crazy. They knew that wasn’t me. Including me. I didn’t know that woman on TV!”
Though the country hits kept coming, Parton’s self-driven desire for crossover success had hit a wall. That is, until Jane Fonda wrote a comedy about secretaries and their chauvinistic boss and went looking for a lead actress. The result was the polar opposite of what had occurred with Parton’s variety show just two years prior.
“I had never met [Dolly],” Fonda told Rolling Stone, “but I was really into her music. Anyone who can write “Coat of Many Colors” and sing it the way she does has got the stuff to do anything. This was not a woman who was a stereotype of a dumb blond. I felt that she could probably do just about anything she wanted, that this was a very smart woman. We developed a character based on who she is and what she seems like. Did we coach her? No. Her persona is so strong, you get somebody mucking about with that and making her self-conscious, and it could be negative.”
As a song, “9 to 5” fuses simple and complex skills into an effortless sonic blend, ultimately forging Parton’s flawless and universally beloved persona. That she wrote it by clacking her acrylic fingernails together to simulate the rhythm of fingers banging on a typewriter shows a level of talent meeting wild serendipity that could only happen in very specific circumstances: namely, with an artist like Parton, while making a film like 9 to 5.
In the studio, it was Gregg Perry’s composition, arrangement and ability to get the best out of a dream team of session musicians that allowed such a magical twin-platforming to occur. The piano under Parton’s frenzied vocals belongs to Wrecking Crew member Larry Knechtel; the Seawind horns that vamp throughout “9 to 5” are also the horns that played on every Quincy Jones-produced Michael Jackson song; and drummer Rick Shlosser was a session player with folk-rock roots.
The finished melody borrows from the East Tennessee folk traditions of Parton’s childhood and highlights her understanding of poetic meter. When coupled with lyrics derived from her reading of the script and conversations about her role in the film with its sociopolitically progressive writer, Fonda, the song becomes entirely, and uniquely, Parton’s alone.
They let you dream just to watch ’em shatter / You’re just a step on the bossman’s ladder / But you got dreams he’ll never take away / You’re in the same boat with a lotta your friends / Waitin’ for the day your ship’ll come in / An’ the tide’s gonna turn and it’s all gonna roll your way …
There’s as much second-wave feminism as there is Shakespearean drama in Parton’s lyrics, and the use of the term “bossman” as an antebellum nod to white patriarchal control structures makes apparent a deceptive lyrical potency. However, Parton explicitly told Rolling Stone that “9 to 5” is not “a message song.”
“[“9 to 5”] is about women, but there’s women and men in the office,” she shared. “I didn’t want to get involved in a political thing. I think it’s very obvious what it’s sayin’. It’s mostly about this boss and these three women — not bosses in general or the plight of secretaries.”
Parton, of course, is known for writing powerful, message-filled lyrics while mostly staying quiet about social and political issues. (“I learned a long time ago to keep your damn mouth shut if you want to stay in show business,” the country icon told ABC News in 2018.) So although Parton herself doesn’t fully cosign the song’s feminist reading, “9 to 5” has ultimately has stood for four decades as both a great pop hit and a shining testament to women’s empowerment.
The incredible success of “9 to 5” spawned a five-year run that saw Parton meet her expectations of matching her male counterparts, then boldly exceed them. By 1983, she’d released “Islands in the Stream,” a Bee Gees-penned, triple-platinum pop crossover hit — and a global No. 1 — duet with Rogers. She’d also starred in the films The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Rhinestone alongside Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone, respectively. By 1984, she’d received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1985, Parton invested $5 million ($12 million in 2020 dollars) in the Silver Dollar City amusement park in her native Sevier County, Tenn.; one year later, the park was rechristened as Dollywood. Her success with “9 to 5” platformed her professionally to a place where she could make such a move, which would later spawn further business ventures in her home area and, at least partially, increased its visitors and population. Per census data, the population of Pigeon Forge jumped 66 percent between 1980 and 1990, and over 100 percent from 1990 to the present day. If Jay Z is a “business, man,” then Dolly Parton is a nation’s treasure.
The issues Parton raises and, unwittingly, has come to embody via “9 to 5” are still prevalent, of course. Every time you see McEntire on the silver or TV screen or hear Twain singing songs with a vamping, rock core, she’s there. When Wilson asserts herself as a liberated, redneck woman who “don’t give a rip” or Swift makes savvy business moves, Parton’s there, too. When Musgraves dares to blend country with other genres, Price asks what’s up with the pay gap, and the Highwomen partner up — yup, Parton’s there.
In 2012, Glamour’s Laurel Pantin noted, “[Seeing] Beyoncé and Dolly Parton on the street would be like seeing a living unicorn.” It’s a terrific way to describe Parton-as-superstar’s impact after 1981 and “9 to 5.”
LOOK: Dolly Parton Through the Years
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