We commissioned an original cover of Dolly Parton's “9 to 5” for our episode Five Women. It’s by Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards and it’s fantastic. You can download the song.
Chana Joffe-Walt reported the story, and Robyn Semien co-produced the show. They talked about how the song came to be.
CJW: I was working on Five Women, and I told a friend about my interview with Kristen, and how angry Kristen was about what she considered Don’s sexual harassment. When I mentioned that Kristen had started fantasizing about kidnapping Don, my friend said, “That sounds just like the movie 9 to 5.” I’d never seen the movie. More importantly, Kristen hadn’t either. She’d experienced a kind of rage that was common enough to be depicted in a movie released a decade before she was even born! Then Robyn, when I played you a draft of Five Women, you had the idea to commission a cover of the song.
RS: I thought it’d be fun to have a new, modern take on a song that—even if you haven’t seen the movie—I think everyone knows, right? It’s so catchy. It’s Dolly Parton! I wanted that song reimagined in some way that would be surprising, even for all of us who know the original. Right away, really the only person I wanted to make a cover of the song for us was Merrill Garbus.
CJW: I was one of those people who hadn’t seen the movie but did know the song. I started listening to it again in the middle of working on the show and damn: It is perfect. It’s an anthem. It’s funny—a couple people in the office had asked me if reporting this story was getting to me, and I always said no. But I felt emotional about this song in a way that I think is not normal!
RS: You did? I didn’t know that! Not normal how?
CJW: I was laughing—no, cackling—walking up Sixth Avenue listening to it. I was just emerging from weeks of hearing people talk about realizing the shitty workplace experiences they’d had were not just theirs alone, and then there’s Dolly decades ago singing about the same thing. I think it just hit home how old this experience is, and how powerful it is to push back against it. Why did you know you wanted Merrill?
RS: I’ve been a Tune-Yards fan for a while now. I remember seeing a video of Merrill years ago—she was performing in what I think was a bookstore, or coffee shop. She does this incredible looping thing with a pedal. It’s all very percussive, and industrial sounding and layered. And then her voice. She has this beautiful, sometimes aggressive, sometimes light and melodic, alto voice. Her harmonies are so tight they make me feel like laughing. When she sings, you can imagine having a conversation with her, like what her speaking voice would be. I just thought we’d be the luckiest people if we could get her to do her take on “9 to 5.” Ira emailed her your script and in a day she said yes.
CJW: I remember you saying you did not want it to sound bluegrassy. It was important to you that it be something different. It’s a strange pairing, and you were so specific.
RS: Yeah, I wanted it to be unrecognizable in the intro. The Dolly version, you just need to hear the first 4 counts of that song and you’re like, “That’s ‘9 to 5’!” It has that familiar baseline riff. So we didn’t give her a ton of direction beyond making the intro so different you’d never guess it was ‘9 to 5’ until the lyrics. And we told her to be tough and unapologetic, like the women in the story. As if that’s something we’d need to tell Merrill Garbus! She made us a scratch track of the song first. She told us she’d made it at night in her hotel room. You know, just a little thing she threw together. Um, it was awesome. She had the idea to end the song in a non-traditional way, on the line, “It’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it.”
I know you are getting tons of feedback on your piece. How are people responding to the song?
CJW: Dude, people love the song. The song kills. It just occurred to me that what the song does is create the experience I had walking up Sixth Avenue listening to Dolly with these interviews on my mind. It’s a totally new, unique-to-now song, that points to the past. In the same way Kristen’s experience is completely of this moment, unique to her, and also part of a forever story. You knew that. I think I just got it.