Dolly Parton is an American icon who’s hard to hate, but the corporate media still managed to find fault with her Super Bowl ad on Sunday. Partnering with Squarespace, Parton resurrected a song from her 1980 musical “9 to 5” and redubbed it “5 to 9,” celebrating the dreams and “side hustles” that many Americans pursue outside business hours.
“Working five to nine, you’ve got passion and a vision,” Parton sings in the colorful and delightfully choreographed ad. “It’s hustlin’ time, a whole new way to make a livin’. Gonna change your life, do something that gives it meaning.”
From a drab office, the camera pans to young men and women dancing across a landscaping business, a carpentry shop, a beauty salon (in which Parton makes a cameo on a magazine cover), and a cakeshop. “You got dreams, and you know they matter,” Parton continues. “Be your own boss and climb your own ladder.”
It’s an ad for Squarespace’s website platform, but it’s also a peppy tribute to creativity, passion, and work ethic. The reaction from most corporate media, however, largely slammed the song as “off-key.”
The Washington Post accused Parton of “advocating for overworking yourself in a time when people barely have the energy to take care of themselves.” Slate called the song “off-key,” noting that “the rise of the gig economy … often replaces full-time opportunities with freelance or part-time ones while presenting it as a hustletocracy fueled by ‘passion.’”
NBC News published a piece titled “Dolly Parton’s 2021 Super Bowl commercial is playing a rich man’s game,” which called the commercial “a perfect storm of gig economy propaganda” that “downplay[s] how hard it is for so many gig workers to make ends meet.” New York Times editor Jessica Bennett lamented, “As American women deal with ongoing job losses, economic challenges and just plain fatigue, they could use a more accurate anthem.”
Newsweek called the ad “a ballad extolling an economy that requires too many to endlessly work just to survive,” saying, “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.” Newsweek’s David Sirota continued, “That used to be the American Dream.”
While Sirota is certainly right that hard work should ideally be enough to “make ends meet,” Dolly Parton seems to have a better grasp on the American Dream than he does. Born in a one-room cabin in Tennessee, Parton is no stranger to poverty. Her parents paid the doctor who delivered her with a bag of cornmeal. Reminiscent of the entrepreneurs Parton cheers in the video, her father was a sharecropper who was eventually able to own his own tobacco farm.
Parton’s own career is a testament to the American Dream, as she went from singing about corncob dolls as a young girl and playing on a hand-me-down guitar from her uncle to now being an icon who needs no introduction. More than attaining commercial success, however, the American Dream is about the freedom to work hard at something you believe in. The entrepreneurial spirit captured in the Super Bowl commercial celebrates the courageous Americans who do just that.
Many of the criticisms leveled at the ad warn that making a living as an Airbnb host or an Uber driver isn’t sustainable, and Parton shouldn’t be encouraging people to leave their reliable jobs for these gigs. Of course, no one disagrees that it’s tragic the coronavirus lockdowns have cost jobs and forced many Americans into financial hardship. But these criticisms miss the commercial’s message.
Dolly Parton isn’t necessarily advocating for people to make a little extra money as delivery drivers in addition to their 9-to-5 jobs (though I’m sure she would applaud the work ethic of people who do). The careers exemplified in the commercial look like full-on small businesses, launched not as permanent “side hustles” but as potential full-time passions. In fact, the Super Bowl commercial explicitly encourages, “Make your 5 to 9 full time,” and Parton sings, “Be your own boss and climb your own ladder. That moment’s getting closer by the day.”
In its announcement of its partnership with Parton, Squarespace described the song as “a modern rallying cry for all the dreamers working to turn an after-hours passion or project into a career with Squarespace.” The ad isn’t just celebrating people who work their 9-to-5 jobs and work a side gig. It’s also encouraging those who, discontent with working for big national corporations, choose to start their own businesses in their local communities.
“My advice to entrepreneurs during this challenging time is don’t give up,” said Parton in an interview with Squarespace. “Don’t stop working and don’t ever stop dreaming.”
There’s nothing un-American or wrong with working for a corporation, but there is something uniquely American about the innovation, creativity, and hard work that Dolly Parton represents and celebrates. Far from out-of-place in the middle of a pandemic, a message of innovation and hard work has enabled Americans to overcome adversity with resilience and hope.