Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I Wanna Be a Boss

Perhaps because Americans are so preoccupied with material acquisition, the workplace (or office space) is essential to their lives, a location where they spend huge amounts of their time. And if the workplace is so profoundly important, then so, too, as a consequence, is the boss. According to the OED, the word “boss” is an American word derived from the Dutch word baas, meaning “master,” although an older meaning of the word was “uncle.” Baas is supposedly related to the Old High German word basa, “aunt.” Primarily, although not exclusively, used by Americans, the word “boss” means “the equivalent of master in the sense of employer of labour,” but can be generally applied to “any one who has a right to give orders.” Since the word boss carries the meaning of “master,” to this day it carries a particular resonance in the American South, where, because of that region's history of slavery, the word must be used judiciously. I wonder, how many times is the word “boss” uttered in Cool Hand Luke (1967), a film set in the South in the context of a prison chain gang?

Americans also use the word to refer to “a manager or dictator of a party organization,” as in “party boss” (pastiched by the figure of “Boss Hogg” in The Dukes of Hazzard) or “mafia boss” (pastiched by Fred Williamson in Black Caesar). In the discourse of popular music, Bruce Springsteen is referred to as “The Boss,” although the designation carries no pejorative meaning, but is used to connote his power and prestige within the rock culture. But boss can also be used derisively, in the same way “big shot” carries two meanings, referring to someone who has power and influence, but also to someone who mistakenly believes he has power and influence. By 1960, the word boss had become a term of approbation, referring to anything the speaker perceived as new, original, exciting, or hip: a new clothing style, a new model of automobile, most anything, could be “boss.” In the spring of 1965, two California radio pioneers, Bill Drake and Gene Chenault, transformed the Top 40 format of Los Angeles radio station KHJ into something they named Boss Radio.

As far as I can tell (that is to say, so far as I know), the first use of “boss” in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll was by Eddie Cochran, in “Summertime Blues” (1958). Soon after, blues singer Jimmy Reed recorded “Big Boss Man” (1961), a song later covered by Elvis. But the word is no doubt is used far, far more often than I can possibly enumerate here.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Songs About The Boss (not Bruce Springsteen):

Gene Ammons – Boss Tenor (bebop jazz LP, 1960)
James Brown – The Boss (from the soundtrack to Black Caesar)
Albert Hammond Jr. – The Boss Americana
Mick Jagger – She’s the Boss
Jimmy Reed – Big Boss Man
Stan Ridgway – I Wanna Be A Boss
Diana Ross – The Boss
Rick Ross – The Boss
The Brian Setzer Orchestra – You’re the Boss
Shareefa – Need A Boss
Slim Thug – Like A Boss
The Sonics – Boss Hoss
They Might Be Giants – Boss of Me (from the soundtrack to Malcolm in the Middle)

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