Introduction by Dr. Liane Davey
Having a terrible job seems like a rite of passage when you’re young. Most of us expect to pay our dues with some craptacular grunt work gig that pays peanuts. Maybe you scooped ice cream at a swelteringly hot beach-side stand, cleaned toilets at the local fast food dive, or doted on snotty-nosed kids while their mom played tennis with the girls. At that stage, the right mix tape on your walkman (for those of a certain vintage) and any task could be tamed.
Somewhere along the way, you expected the tasks to become more interesting (or at least a little less demeaning), the bosses less tyrannical, and the coworkers less clumsy, cliquey, or clueless. But maybe it didn’t happen. Now you’re back to the old formula—music to get you through. And so here we have music to survive your toxic workplace. Songs for the company with the most inane and arcane policies. Songs for the organizational culture that’s clandestinely cutthroat or nauseatingly nice. Songs for the evil, incompetent, or spineless boss. Songs for coworkers who work you up or get you down. And let’s not forget, songs for those customers who think they have the right to treat you like dirt. Here’s to hanging in or moving on and finally finding the team you deserve!
Thirteen tracks to take on those toxic work environments:
Don’t Fuck With My Money – Penguin Prison
I had a Network Admin gig with garbage pay. Got a call from a headhunter about a few day gig in New Jersey with all expenses paid and 2.5 times the pay. I took vacation and went. My boss ( the owner) found out and wanted half of the pay. I refused and I got fired. It ended up being one of the best things that could’ve happened to me. Life score!
A Wish Away – The Wonder Stuff
I’m lucky never to have had any truly terrible jobs, mostly because I’ve been my own boss for almost all of my career, but while I was at university I worked in a few insalubrious kitchens, either as a cook or pot-washer. One of the first was washing up in a hotel restaurant kitchen. I don’t remember a lot about it now except that we had a small radio with a mono speaker; and one night, on BBC Radio 1, I heard The Wonder Stuff for the first time. I went on to buy all of their records and see them play live many times in the coming years from Birmingham to Cambridge to the Glastonbury Pyramid Stage and although I wouldn’t call them my favourite band, I’ll always have a soft spot for the irascible Miles Hunt’s catchy melodies and wicked sense of humour. And for some reason I will never forget standing in front of that big stainless steel sink in a steamy, airless kitchen with my head turned to that tinny little radio and thinking to myself: “This record is something special”.
Optimistic – Sounds Of Blackness
When I was really going through it with my job, right when all the chaos was happening, I had to make a playlist to get me through the day. In the mornings, I needed to inspire myself and not let the situation bring me down. I needed something to say, “Forget it, forget you, forget everything,” you know? Because I was really at my breaking point. I was still stuck in a victim mentality. So, I started off with Sounds of Blackness’ “Optimistic” because I needed some optimism before diving into music that might reinforce why I disliked my job. Rap music, in particular, was very aggressive and made me resentful from the start. Whenever I checked my emails, I’d think, “Man, they’re going to mess with me today. I don’t have time for that blah, blah, blah.” That’s how I felt. But this playlist helped me shift my mindset. So, I would start with “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness. Even to this day, it’s the song I play whenever I need a lift. I also remember Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Keep Your Head to the Sky.” It resonated with me and became another source of inspiration.
Sklave – Kraftklub
I was 17 when this song was released, so it doesn’t really remind me of an awful work experience, but it made me realize even at such a young age that I don’t wanna just live for a job and be a literal slave for a big group. The lyrics are pure „toxic work environment“ and show how most of us lie to fit a work description, experience (sexual) harassment, have so much more workload anyone could ever possibly mention to finish and most can’t speak up or say no.
Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2 – Pink Floyd
I remember the days that I felt like a brick in the wall, just following what others were telling me to do and letting life pass by. Do I really want to be a coadjutant actor from my one life story film? Maybe taking a step back and feeling shouting “Teachers, leave the kids alone” was what was needed! And I did it 😉
Ditty – PaperBoy
My first job was delivering newspapers via bike. A paper boy. Not Paperboy, the California rapper behind the 1993 top ten hit, Ditty. An actual old-timey paper boy. Riding a bike at 6am, strapped with bundled newspaper, in whatever weather God decided to bestow upon me, was a bad gig.
“a black man tryin’ to make it and that ain’t no fair”
But I’ve worked in worse conditions.
I had a stint at an after-school daycare. Paid to pretend I liked the undisciplined, misbehaved tykes under my care. Like a prison guard posted in the yard during rec time, except my only weapon was animal crackers and the inmates ate dirt and pooped their pants. I counted the days like I was the one locked up for a crime I didn’t commit.
“scoopin’ up crowds just like a steel shovel”
But I’ve worked in places with actual criminals.
I was an attendant at a gas station. Where drunks purchase 40’s with crumpled bills after they’ve been cutoff from the bar. Where construction workers buy day old rotisserie hot dogs. Where every door ding could be the starting note of an armed robbery. I once gave a guy free gas under duress because I trusted his word that he wouldn’t hurt me, more than I trusted that 911 button under the counter.
“hey, you don’t bother me and I sure ’nuff won’t bother you”
But I’ve been in greater fear for my life.
I worked at a hospital in the ER as a security officer. The primary gig was to protect nurses and doctors from violent patients, most of whom were high on meth. Which meant they felt no pain, feared no one and no thing, and thought they were invincible. To summarize, my job was to restrain Deadpool. Night after night. With a pair of handcuffs and a baton. Powered by cheap break room coffee and powdered creamer.
Oh yeah, I also had to take dead bodies to the morgue. In the basement of the hospital. In the middle of the night. Alone (hopefully).
“many say I front, but yo, had to have a break down”
Do the ditty if you want to. Like a one hit wonder, bad jobs come and go. Good thing life keeps moving forward. From Paperboy to Paper Boi.
Killing In The Name – Rage Against The Machine
Once upon a time, in the dreary confines of Corporateville, there existed a boss unlike any other. His name was Roger Swindlebottom, and he had earned himself a reputation as the most despised figure in the entire office. With his tyrannical ways and a face that looked like it had been chiseled out of granite by an angry sculptor, he struck fear into the hearts of his employees.
Roger reveled in his power, relishing every opportunity to exert his control over the hapless souls who toiled beneath him. He had a knack for turning the simplest task into a Herculean trial, just to remind everyone who was in charge. The sound of his booming voice echoed through the halls, a constant reminder that resistance was futile.
But among the downtrodden employees, one individual stood out. Hoof, a sarcastic and quick-witted fellow, had an uncanny ability to see through Roger’s bluster. He refused to be cowed by the boss’s relentless demands. Instead, Hoof chose to channel his frustration into a cunning plan.
With each passing day, Hoof compiled a list of Roger’s most absurd requests and outrageous commands. He meticulously documented the times when Roger insisted on having his coffee at precisely 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit or when he demanded reports be printed on baby blue paper only. The list grew longer, and so did Hoof’s determination to put an end to Roger’s reign of terror.
One fateful Friday afternoon, Hoof summoned the courage to execute his plan. With a smile on his face and a heart full of mischief, he gathered his fellow colleagues around a large conference table. As Roger burst into the room, his face beet red and ready to unleash his fury, he was met with an unexpected sight.
Before him lay a mountain of papers, each one a testament to his absurdity. The room erupted in laughter as Hoof began reading out loud, recounting Roger’s most ludicrous demands in a hilariously exaggerated tone. From the “No shoes allowed on Mondays” rule to the “mandatory interpretive dance breaks” during lunch hour, the list was a damning testament to Roger’s absurdity.
Roger’s face turned an impressive shade of purple as the laughter filled the room. He sputtered and spluttered, desperately trying to regain control, but it was too late. The spell had been broken, and his reign of terror had come to an end.
With a newfound sense of liberation, Hoof stood up on the table, facing Roger directly. He looked the boss square in the eye, and with a mischievous grin, he shouted, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”
The room erupted in cheers and applause as the words echoed through the office. From that day forward, the employees banded together, united by their shared defiance of Roger’s oppressive rule. They found strength in each other, and together they created a workplace where laughter and camaraderie flourished.
And so, in the tale of Roger Swindlebottom and the office rebellion, the once-hated boss became a mere footnote in the annals of corporate history. Hoof and his colleagues had shown that even in the darkest of times, humor and camaraderie could prevail.
And with a final defiant shout, the office resounded with the immortal words, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”
Stressed Out – Twenty One Pilots
A bad day at work always makes you reminisce about a time when all we had to do was bath. That was the only hard work that was there. That’s what I feel like when I listen to this song. The part where is says, ‘ wake up you need the money’ is my wake up call to keep working hard. We all need to after all.
I Walk the Line – Johnny Cash
I had the most toxic work environment and this song takes me back to that time. I was teaching at a Catholic school in California. This school was of course run by Catholic nuns. The punishment that they came up with for students who didn’t abide by their rules was to walk the line. The said line was actually a square painted on the blacktop in front of the office. Instead of participating in the usual recess activities of running around and playing, the “bad” kids had to walk the line and everyone had a front row seat to watch them. The nuns liked this as it allowed the kids to still be moving, getting some form of exercise. The faculty and staff even performed this song at our Spring Sing one year and everyone thought it was hilarious.
Now let’s get to the toxic part.
My principal got her just desserts and had to walk the line, but in a much different way. She had to serve a jail sentence because she stole cash and tuition checks from the school families and deposited them in her own personal account to support her gambling habit in Las Vegas! The staff was deprived of raises, the students were deprived of many things like having lunch tables to eat at, all because she was gambling funds away that were intended for the school. This is just one example of the toxic environment going on at the school, and what a whale of a one it was!
Best Day Of My Life – American Authors
well… the song that I play when I am REALLY not feeling it and need to get my butt moving is Best Day of My Life by American Authors
We Gotta Get Out Of This Place – The Animals
I’m not gonna name the place, but it rhymes with “Swole Moods.” Okay. So what happened? Well, at Swole Moods I had to deal with a lot of people who have a lot of entitlement – and people with a lot of entitlement, well that just wears you down after a while. People that are used to having what they want, when they want to have it – they don’t adjust to you not having things. It’s frustrating. It’s angering, it’s demeaning and it’s humiliating. It just makes you think you’ve got everything in the world and why do you need to be so cruel? Ultimately I had to realize, I was like, look, hurt people hurt, you know?
Looking for Something – Paolo Nutini
Back in 2018 i had a really bad boss that was like a toxic ex girlfriend, even after i moved to a new position inside the company he made sure to talk shit behind my back and was really a toxic male type boss who solved everything by yelling (he rarely made any progress though)
Frustration – Music2work2
I was on the gig of my dreams – a working musician, musical director, writing songs and working them up with a professional band – rehearsing three times a week – designing decals for the Tour Bus – turning down residencies in Vegas ‘cos we were taking the original stuff on the road and were going to build the audience one fan at a time – and yet… it didn’t happen. The talent and label owner were like family, the manager a brother and yet towards the end it got harder and harder until I had to leave. I don’t really know why it fell apart – there were money issues and personnel problems and plans that just never seemed to work out, but by the end – when you wake up one day and you know you have to pull the trigger – when you know you have to walk away from something you have put your life into – three years where nothing is left on the table – and you have to speak, face to face to your family and leave – yeah – that one was hard. I wrote this during the time and as the liner notes say – “The frustration I’m referring to is not the angry, cheated emotion – it is the sad one. The frustration of not getting what you want; to be frustrated in one’s efforts.”
Want more musicto community lists? Check out our previous playlisticles: Groove in The Green, 16 Top Cover Songs, 10 Songs to Stargaze, 6 Songs for the Future, Sounds like David Bowie, 7 Misheard Songs, Censored, 15 Great Songs for your Vampire Ball, 11 Powerful Songs in Flim, 7 Top Cowbell Songs,