Everybody knows Jolene, with her ‘flaming locks of auburn hair, with ivory skin and eyes of emerald green’. This timeless ballad, the story of a woman begging another woman ‘Please don’t take my man’, has, like the songs of Johnny Cash, transcended its humble country origins to strike a jaunty steel guitar chord within the hearts of despairing lovers everywhere. Its message is one of desperation- Jolene has a quality the singer lacks, and could ‘take’ him with ease. The singer is appealing to some kind of sisterhood in her rival, some compassion or solidarity which will lead Jolene to break her magical, sexy, siren hold.
Country music has rarely been equated with feminism. (I’ve been struggling for months with the draft of a longer essay which will challenge this). The queens of country music are known for their Barbie-big hair and spangles, and their best-known lyrics are of passivity, heartbreak and victimhood. D-I-V-O-R-C-E takes the role of a helpless victim, Stand By Your Man implies constancy through deception and loneliness, Crazy is a poem of desire so helpless it renders the singer insane. Yet Patsy, Tammy, Kitty, Dolly and the others are strong women, survivors and successes through personal tragedy and lyrical pain. We see female solidarity, loyalty, hard work and above all the dogged determination to speak life as it is: to portray fact, not fantasy, even when fact is ugly and demeaning.
Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colours or Loretta Lynn’s song Coal-Miner’s Daughter (also the name of her autobiography, and the film about her life) emblemises this realism: ‘Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a washboard every day/ Well I’ve seen her fingers bleed/ to complain there was no need/ She’d smile in Mommy’s understanding way’. Hardly a feminist statement, yet as a historical record of families living in poverty in 1940s Kentucky it’s both informative and politically motivating.
Kitty Wells shocked the country world with one of the first famous answer songs, It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels. It replies to a romanticised ballad on the allures of saloon sex-workers (Hank Thompson’s The Wild Side of Life) with a social analysis which stands its ground within contemporary sociology and feminist studies: it is gendered portrayals of woman as good or bad, domestic or wild, virginal or sexually promiscuous, which creates the glamorous idea of wild women ‘and has caused many a good girl to go wrong’. And, as the song insists, these dichotomous representations are created by men (not God).
Jolene is important to us because it describes the world as it is, not as we want it to be, and I contend that it’s as relevant in 2013 as in 1974. One of the questions it raises is why the singer is speaking to the other woman, rather than to ‘her Man’. Is he aware of what he’s doing? Does Jolene have either the power or the inclination to renounce him? And should she do so, will he behave himself in the future? Or will there be other Jolenes, equally tempting and less inclined to show solidarity with the sisterhood? Is it a one-off ‘passion’ or is he the ‘cheating type’? If it’s ‘true love’, maybe the singer should cede graciously, yet the word love does not appear in the song, nor does it explain why either woman would want him. He’s a mystery, cut out of the negotiations. The decision lies with the other woman, not with the partner engaged in the act of betrayal.
Politically, we all want to live as though the world were already the way we are going to make it be. Sexually, we are open and accepting. Romantically, we want to have our cake and eat it like we’ll be able to when marriage is defunct, sex is always wholly consensual, negotiable and amazing and men and women are truly equal. But is that possible yet? I know so many women who’ve been either in Jolene’s position or that of the singer. The inclination is to make declarations of liberty and equality, to assume the free agency of everyone involved and to use openness and honesty to negotiate what we want. But applying reconstructed morality to unreconstructed men and women risks ignoring the extant power structures which, like it or not, guide and rule our lives, and these power structures are still deeply gendered, even misogynist.
How should Jolene react these days? She should remember the sisterhood, the vague notion of solidarity with oppressed women over love of men. But that’s too simplistic, and works along the same ‘battle of the sexes’ binary as sexism does. It’s a loyalty which is useful in this old world, this gendered site of struggle, this dichotomous reality caricatured in women’s magazines and solidified by ‘family values’. Jolene’s a progressive ‘gal’. She can do more than this.
|I love Dolly so much.|
Jolene, and the singer, should think about the invisible power structures within this triangle. It’s the Man who is holding all the cards. He has two women, neither willing to share him, yet both invested emotionally in either ‘taking’ or ‘keeping’ him. If Jolene wants him, she has to accept that he’s had other relationships in the past, and comes with a history of cheating. She needs to find out more about his position and his motivation. If she doesn’t want him, or if she’s not sure, she needs to move away from this situation. He’s causing the pain, but the voice of the song implies it’s her decision to make, and the appeal of the song is that this situation- male power exhibited through feigned passivity- is not unfamiliar to us. She has a power over the singer, yet both women must choose or renounce the power of the Man.
The singer should confront ‘her Man’, yet the fact that she hasn’t implies that this won’t be an easy task. While we like to think of relationships in terms of love, she may have many other things invested in the Man: her financial security, her good name, her home, maybe even children. This exclusively female dialogue tends to make us forget his power: a power backed up by a world which still encourages women to seek male protection and values those in a relationship over those who remain single. The singer is a pragmatist, not a romantic. She has confronted Jolene because there she stands a chance of winning her appeal: who knows what would happen if she risked directly challenging him? The danger is that he would seem less valuable a prize if she faced him, and the truth behind his unfaithfulness.
Jolene is the story of a dialogue between two women, and as so often within story and song, the rupture between them comes from the intervention of male power in the relationship. If I were either of them, I’d probably let him go. There’s always another man, but good female friendship, untainted by male power games, is hard to find.