The white-collar office may be the best friend the entertainment industry has these days. The computer has erased the difference between work and play--YouTube, Web comics, online TV series--and nowhere is this symbiosis more important than in music. The iPod and iTunes, which allow you to take your music collection on your commute and to your desk, made Apple cool again. Radio stations market their online streams to cubicle jockeys. The music biz owes its digital-age existence in large part to officeworkers and their earbuds.
But somehow this love affair has never reached the creative level. We have office sitcoms, office novels and office movies, but where are the office pop songs? Rock music has never lacked for zillionaires to romanticize farmhands and factory workers. But what of the John Henrys plowing sweatily through PowerPoint presentations? White-collar employees, who make up 60% of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are largely absent from pop lyrics, except for novelty songs and minor works. (The Bangles' Manic Monday mainly proves that the songwriter Prince is more convincing on the subject of sex than commuting.) As far as songwriters are concerned, the Dilberts of the world can buy their MP3s, but they can't have noble souls and inner lives.
Except in the music of Fountains of Wayne, the New Jersey power-pop band, who are to accountants what Bruce Springsteen is to refinery workers. Their songs probe the hearts of a paper pusher stuck in traffic, a heartbreaker who works at Liberty Travel and a hungover salesman cramming for a presentation. They are very likely the only band ever to have rhymed "making the scene" with "copy machine." FOW's new album, Traffic and Weather, chronicles a flirtation with a DMV bureaucrat and a lonely-hearts tale involving a food-industry lawyer and a teen-magazine photo editor.
FOW songwriter Adam Schlesinger says there's a write-what-you-know element here: he and co-scribe Chris Collingwood spent years as temps, doing legal transcription and computer programming, respectively. "Work is just what most people do," he says. "Including us." Members of FOW don't lionize work, but they don't condemn it either. Rock bands traditionally write about white-collar work as corrupt (the Beatles' Taxman) or for suckers (Bachman-Turner Overdrive's Takin' Care of Business). FOW write about it the way country and folk singers write about manual labor: as a fact of life. Besides, Schlesinger adds, the life of a nonsuperstar rock band is not that far removed from a lot of day jobs: "We spend most of our days at computers or traveling to and from a place of work, just like everybody else."
Maybe lashing out at the corporate world doesn't work as well in American pop culture because the corporate world co-opts rebellion so well. For businesses from FedEx to CareerBuilder.com there's no better way to reach white-collar workers than with ads that say white-collar workers are idiots. In the TV sitcom The Office, the lousy boss, Michael Scott (Steve Carell), is the one who walks around singing Todd Rundgren: "I don't want to work/ I want to bang on the drum all day."
The most rebellious thing of all may be to suggest that white-collar workers can be complex, sympathetic, even noble. If this idea hasn't broken through in mainstream pop, there's a market for it on the Internet, that brackish borderland between work and play. Jonathan Coulton went online to release Code Monkey, his Rick Springfield--esque single about a computer programmer who endures the taunts of a dim-witted manager because the programmer is in love with the receptionist. "It's about having an escape fantasy but being unable to act on it," Coulton, a programmer himself, says. "We spend so much time at the office, it's fertile ground for emotional content."
Somebody must agree; the song became an Internet hit, with around 1 million downloads, Coulton claims. Most of them were free, but he's successful enough that he's getting by without a day job. Let's hope that he--and any other songwriter who wants to capture how the audience really lives--remembers that many of the rest of us still have one.