Big Time (Peter Gabriel). 40 Songs for 40 Years, 1986

Contemporary pop music is distended folk art, amplified (acoustically and culturally) to grotesque proportions. Big Time uses this to full ironic effect, as a fabulously wealthy international superstar sneers at the ambition that made his success possible.

Which made it the perfect soundtrack for my first year of high school, filled as it was with the shiny, attractive children of shiny, attractive professional parents. While my friends and I would have been quick to protest that we were different, the truth is that we breathed the same air as everybody else; even the self-identified rebels got a good night’s sleep before their SATs.

The archetype of success in my high school was an anodyne omnicompetence that proved an excellent preparation for my years as a consultant. You do what powerful people want you to do, and they reward you. Eventually, you become powerful, and people do what you tell them to do. And just like Peter Gabriel (and me), you can play this game with an insulating layer of ironic detachment that separates you from the pathetic striving ambition of everybody else. Neat trick, yes?

Nine years after this song came out, I had started my first real job. I sat at my Steelcase desk, with my many-buttoned office phone majestic and beige before me. In one of my first acts as a professional management consultant, it was time to record my outgoing voicemail message.

There was only one way to begin:

“Hi there!”