Pat Benatar got it right: Love is a battlefield. And in pop music in 2007, the ladies are wielding the most powerful weaponry.
In “Before He Cheats,” “American Idol” winner Carrie Underwood hits a duplicitous dude where it hurts: She keys his truck, smashes his headlights with a Louisville Slugger, and carves her name into his leather seats.
In “Not Big,” cheeky British MySpace queen Lily Allen belittles a former beau by spreading the word that “you’re rubbish in bed now, and you’re small in the game,” then stings him with “let’s see how you feel in a couple of weeks when I work my way through your mates.”
And in “Gunpowder & Lead,” from her album “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” country firebrand Miranda Lambert makes all that seem downright wussy. She lights a cigarette and lies in wait for an abusive boyfriend with a loaded shotgun at the ready: “His fist is big but my gun’s bigger/He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.”
Revenge is a dish that’s being served cold—all over the pop, country and R&B charts. It started last winter with Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” a lilting, acoustic-guitar kiss-off in which a cheated-on diva kicks her man to the curb. Written with R&B singer Ne-Yo and four Norwegian guys, the song spent seven consecutive weeks on top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
The genre-spanning appeal of that song—which was released in a Spanish version called “Irreemplazable” and was sung in a country version last month by Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles to a stadium full of Kenny Chesney fans at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field—set the table for a terrific year for pop-music women who aren’t taking no mess from no one.
In some cases, that’s meant songs that have taken their time picking up this summer’s fired-up female megaphone. Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” a country song off her November 2005 debut album “Some Hearts,” was released as a single late last year, but crossed over to the pop Top 20 in recent weeks.
And then there’s “U + Ur Hand,” Pink’s rocked-out, girl-power fist-shaker. Doylestown, Pa.‘s feistiest pop star sounds utterly convincing when she tells a would-be suitor, “I’m not here for your entertainment/You really don’t want to mess with me tonight,” and then suggests that he go home with just his phalanges for company.
The song was released as a single in October, and overt references to masturbation are not exactly catnip to mainstream radio programmers. But after a slow burn and Pink’s tour with Justin Timberlake, the song cracked the Top 10 last month.
There are plenty more examples, like country newcomer Sarah Johns’ “The One in the Middle,” which refers to the finger she’s flipping an ex who’s unworthy of the one that holds a wedding band, and Barbadian babe Rihanna’s R&B thumper “Breakin’ Dishes.”
Do all of them add up to some sort of neofeminist cultural shift that’s redressing decades of sexism in pop music?
Let’s not get carried away. Casual misogyny still rules the day, both in profane gangsta rap and in hip-hop-flavored R&B hits like Akon’s “Smack That.” And none of these revenge-seekers are inventing the wheel. Female pop stars have been making men squirm—and cross their legs uncomfortably—as recently as the Dixie Chicks’ “Thelma & Louise”-style payback song “Goodbye Earl” in 1999, and as far back as Lesley Gore’s protofeminist “You Don’t Own Me” in 1963.
And that’s not to mention Alanis Morissette’s 1995 screed “You Oughta Know,” which rode the crest of the early-‘90s women-in-rock vogue that produced such tough-talking femmes as Liz Phair, Courtney Love and L7. Or pre-rock predecessors like blues singer Bessie Smith, who declared “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle” in 1925.
There’s no doubt that copycatism has something to do with the current revenge vogue: Once a Queen B like Beyonce scores a smash like “Irreplaceable,” a hit-hungry music industry can be counted on to green-light girl-power anthems galore, in hopes of a ringtone-and-download windfall. Once “Irreplaceable” hit it big, it was a safe bet that “Good Girl Gone Bad” by Rihanna, the rival for Beyonce’s “diva of the moment” title—and, according to rumor, for Jay-Z’s affections—would include a similarly irate cut like “Breakin’ Dishes.”
On the country side, the 2004 success of Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” opened the door for rough-and-tumble honky-tonk angels ready to arm-wrestle. Wilson reasserts her machisma on the title track of her new CD “One of the Boys,” in which she rhymes “I can hold my liquor with the best of you” with “Yeah, I’d kick your butt if I wanted to.”
Wilson can be credited with inspiring lots of country ladies to get in touch with their inner Loretta Lynn (the author of, among other feminist classics, the succinct “Fist City”).
Such as 17-year-old Taylor Swift, whose single “Picture to Burn” finds her “sitting here planning my revenge.” She gets it this way: “Go ahead and tell your friends I’m obsessive and crazy/I’ll tell mine you’re gay.”
And some would blame Wilson for coarsening country radio—which is where Johns, in her song “The One in the Middle,” calls her old man’s new woman “just a skank rode hard and put up.”
In Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” the name-calling is handled with more elan. She surmises that her rival prefers “some fruity little drink, `cause she can’t shoot whiskey” and is likely to be “singing some white-trash Shania karaoke.”
Still, it’s not as though angry women have commandeered the country music industry. Wilson and Lambert, among others, have had their share of success. But despite the fact that Nashville has long ID’d women as the principal country music buyers, nine of the top 10 spots on the Billboard country songs chart are currently taken up by men. (No. 8 is Swift, with “Teardrops on My Guitar.”)
And the secret is that many of the female revenge songs—like Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” by Lee Hazlewood and the Josh Kear-Chris Tompkins “Before He Cheats”—are written by guys.
That’s not terribly surprising, considering that great revenge songs like Underwood’s deliver pleasures for both sides of the gender divide. The boys get to witness a woman on the warpath—in Underwood’s video, dressed in black leather and waving a baseball bat—with the titillating outside chance of a catfight breaking out.
And the girls get their revenge, turning the tables on a good-for-nothing cheater who gets his deserved comeuppance and then some.
In these songs, as in a satisfyingly plotted chick flick, the heroine settles the score and teaches her tormentor a three-minute hard truth: Payback is a bitch. By the time the final chorus fades, she’s self-sufficient and ready to rub it in—“I could have another you in a minute,” Beyonce sings.
Revenge songs are often staples of songwriters’ coming-of-age albums, and they serve as declarations of emotional and musical independence. Kelly Clarkson’s “My December” is full of them, though the album’s embittered first single, “Never Again,” is not nearly so satisfying a good-riddance song as her 2005 hit “Since U Been Gone.”
And of course, the revenge song is not always an artistic triumph—witness Lucinda Williams’ shrill, one-note “Come On” from this year’s “West.” The grating rant pales in comparison to such grand predecessors as Williams’ “Changed the Locks” and “Joy.”
A far better, and creepier, example is Memphis songwriter Amy LaVere’s moody “Killing Him.” It’s a deliciously gothic homicidal tune about a woman who does in her no-good man, only to have second thoughts now that he’s six feet under. “Killing him didn’t make the love go away,” LaVere sings. She’s lost in an unwelcome realization that you may get your revenge, only to find it’s not so sweet after all.
DAN DELUCA’S REVENGE CD MIX
Here’s a CD compilation of revenge songs and had-it-up-to-here tirades, historical and current:
- “Smile,” Lily Allen. Bouncy reggae-splashed celebration of schadenfreude: He cries, she smiles.
- “The One in the Middle,” Sarah Johns. Country newcomer flips bird to unworthy jerk.
- “Before He Cheats,” Carrie Underwood. “Idol” winner gives philanderer food for thought, crosses over to pop chart.
- “S-list,” L7. Grunge grrls of early `90s kick butt, take names.
- “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” Joan Jett. Prototypical rock chick gets mad, points finger at self.
- “Gutless,” Hole. Courtney Love calls out a coward, reminds us she once had cred.
- “U + Ur Hand,” Pink. Alecia Moore lets loser know what she thinks of his pickup line.
- “Irreplaceable,” Beyonce. R&B ruler leaves beau’s belongings outside, takes back keys to the Jag.
- “Tyrone,” Erykah Badu. Neo-soul singer is sick of paying for her man’s homeboys.
- “Breakin’ Dishes,” Rihanna. Barbadian chart-topper gets her back up, destroys plates.
- “Gunpowder & Lead,” Miranda Lambert. Twangy hell-raiser locks and loads, promises to show him “what a little girl’s made of.”
- “Joy,” Lucinda Williams. Country-soul songwriter travels the Southland demanding the return of what’s rightfully hers.
- “Fist City,” Loretta Lynn. Fool around on the coal miner’s daughter, get a knuckle sandwich in return.
- “Picture to Burn,” Taylor Swift. Teenage romance goes up in flames.
- “Goodbye Earl,” Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines dispatches abusive cheater, years before picking fight with the prez.
- “You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore. Girl group-era Sarah Lawrence grad asserts her property rights.
- “Not Big,” Lily Allen. Brit wit disses twit.
- “Never Again,” Kelly Clarkson. Original “Idol” winner scoffs at predictable behavior: “A trophy wife, how cute.”
- “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” Nancy Sinatra. Ole Blue Eyes’ daughter leaves go-go heel marks on bad guy’s back.
- “Killing Him,” Amy LaVere. Murderess does in bad guy, lives not-so-happily ever after.