I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
In the era of YouTube, TikTok, the 25-second news cycle, and brand activations that seep into every leisure activity (Colonel Sanders getting a prime-time set at Ultra, anyone?), it’s hard to make a lasting impact with a late-night-show performance. Long gone are the days of Britney’s 2001 VMA’s performance and Britney’s 2003 VMA’s performance and Britney’s 2007 VMA’s performance. But in September 2016 I was given a gift by Jimmy Kimmel — a simply flawless and memorable performance of the seminal bop “Work From Home,” by the ORIGINAL Fifth Harmony, may it rest in peace. The act is nonsensical at worst and an examination of late-stage capitalism also at worst, and it cemented their legacy in my mind.
We open on the backlot of the Kimmel lot. Camila poses sexily on a bulldozer — the central prop, inexplicably, of the performance — while Ally stands on the right, wielding a sledgehammer and looking directly at the camera. As the music starts, Camila takes off her hard hat (ill-advised on a construction site), and Ally motions for the camera to follow her around the side of the truck, where more members of Fifth Harmony wait.
Normani is perched precariously atop the inside of the vehicle. As she slowly slides down the side of the truck, she evokes the image of a similarly themed and equally iconic video staged on a bulldozer. Dinah snaps a tape measure. Finally, we come around the final side where Lauren swings around a working power drill without a care in the world.
As Camila suddenly begins her first verse (“I ain’t worried bout nothin / I ain’t worried bout nada”) the women begin their construction … on the truck itself. Normani bends down to check the sturdiness of its shovel while on the other side, Lauren begins drilling the shovel! Ally hammers away at that front wheel while Dinah uses the tape measure to … measure … the radius of its counterpart.
I am awed by the video’s absurdity. What does this job-site choreography have to do with the themes of “Work From Home,” which compels a paramour to return home from a late-night shift? Why, when in the universe of the song the women are waiting for their partners to return from work, are these women working in a parking lot on a bulldozer?
I have become convinced that the choreography of this performance asks larger questions about the nature of late-night performances and offers a critique of the times we live in. I believe that the disconnect between the lyrics in the song and this performance offers deeper commentary about the way we are all forced to perform work: We stay late at the office when we could really finish up from home, we click quickly into our email as someone walks by our desks to hide that we’ve really been online shopping. The women of Fifth Harmony drill because they MUST drill for fear of being seen as lazy or unproductive in their workplace (this stage/lot). For fear of being called out for not doing enough in the panopticon of the office. It isn’t enough to go out and competently perform an excellent song! It is through this lens that we see that Fifth Harmony offers us a simulacrum of late-stage capitalism and a scathing indictment of the current obsoleteness of an “office” or “workspace” that requires one to perform productively. They are not merely entertaining; they are offering commentary on the status of the American worker. Foucault is shaking.
As the girls pursue their own solo projects, they leave behind this video as an enduring tentpole of discourse in the culture. Did they lay the groundwork for the popularity of Elizabeth Warren and the rise of socialist youth organizing? Possibly. These leftist icons certainly did more with this performance than simply promote their then-forthcoming album 7/27. They introduced an entire generation to the outdated notion that appearing to do work is the same as actually doing the work.