Friday, May 6, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Feel Like a Number

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Feel Like a Number” by Bob Seger. Yes, back to the classic rock well (I’m open to suggestions for songs from different genres!).

This is a pretty straight forward song about alienation and the depersonalizing effects of industrial society. The singer feels like a number and flags various sources of his alienation (schools, government, employers, phone companies). The singer’s solution is interesting:
Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey it's me
That really doesn’t resolve the issue: in the typology of exit, voice, neglect and patience, the singer is mostly exercising patience (combined with temporary neglect). Basically, he’s accepting his place in society (however grudgingly) and expressing his dissatisfaction via harmless behaviour (a short vacation).

We should probably give Seger props for writing a song that likely taps into his fans’ work-a-day experience, including their constrained set of options to respond to a dehumanizing society. Yet it is interesting to contrast the remedy outlined in song with that in, say, “Take this Job and Shove It”. Seger knuckles under while Johnny Paycheque tells the boss where to step off.

Finding a video for this song was a chore. It was originally released on the late 1970s (so no video) and Seger’s live performances have terrible audio (plus he’s not exactly vocalist of the year). So I give you (a rather shouty) Cher…

I take my card and I stand in line
To make a buck I work overtime
Dear Sir letters keep coming in the mail
I work my back till it's racked with pain
The boss can't even recall my name

I show up late and I'm docked
It never fails
I feel like just another
Spoke in a great big wheel
Like a tiny blade of grass
In a great big field

To workers I'm just another drone
To Ma Bell I'm just another phone
I'm just another statistic on a sheet
To teachers I'm just another child
To IRS I'm just another file

I'm just another consensus on the street
Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey it's me

And I feel like a number
Feel like a number
Feel like a stranger
A stranger in this land
I feel like a number

I'm not a number
I'm not a number
Dammit I'm a man
I said I'm a man

-- Bob Barnetson

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