So why is it that the hot new thing in country music is for women to tie men up? And not in a good way. Over on pop radio, Rihanna might be singing about how whips and chains excite her, but on the country charts there’s little titillation to be found in the country brand of bondage. No, this is good old-fashioned captivity and, more often than not, it’s a bizarre take on domestic violence, played for laughs. In the last few chart cycles, images of men being somehow tied, bound, strapped, or gagged have appeared in videos by Jaron and the Long Road Home, Sugarland, Laura Bell Bundy, and Reba McEntire, and the kick-his-ass-and-trash-his-truck (or shoot him dead) theme extends much further, to chart-topping darlings like Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood.
One could argue that there is nothing particularly new about country women singing about spouse-beating, and in the modern era, songs like Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” and Shania Twain’s “Black Eyes, Blue Tears”, to name a couple, have told similar stories about women physically abused by their husbands. Those songs, however, told stories without a shred of black humor, no macabre irony in the lyrics, no zany video. No, these were songs that treated domestic violence, appropriately, as terrifying and deadly serious, about drunk and violent men and the women who must literally run for their lives. “Independence Day” was particularly harrowing, as it raised the stakes by filtering the spousal abuse through the eyes of the couple’s daughter.
Unlike Shania’s “Black Eyes, Blue Tears”, in which the woman vows to simply leave the bastard, Martina’s “Independence Day” depicts a woman who takes matters into her own hands, however tragically. At the end of the song, the daughter tells us that her mother has set fire to the house, killing herself and her husband in the process. The song caused some controversy in 1994, a lot of handwringing over the murder-suicide-revenge plot twist and the severe resolution in the video. Still, the song provided McBride with a critical and commercial smash, still her signature song today. That success, as always with pop music, started a trend. This one—the Angry Woman Song—continues to evolve…and is getting more peculiar all the time.
Martina McBride (or Gretchen Peters, who wrote “Independence Day”) didn’t invent the Angry Woman Song. In 1952, Kitty Wells recorded “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”, a song that challenged enough prevailing paternalism to get banned from both the Grand Ole Opry and from radio stations across the country. But then came Loretta Lynn, the prototypical frustrated, underappreciated, feisty “girl singer” of the ‘60s. Loretta’s divorced-woman-stigma complaint “Rated X” and the birth-control shocker “The Pill” got the attention of the Women’s Liberation movement in the ‘70s, but Loretta’s real contribution to today’s Angry Woman explosion are her earlier singles—a series of enraged housewife tunes that had Loretta railing against her adulterous husband who would come home drunk and want sex, like 1966’s “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and 1968’s “Your Squaw is on the Warpath”. These were smash hits, in part because Loretta articulated the rage and resentment of millions of the era’s ill-treated women.
Still, Loretta might have been on the warpath and that her war dance meant that she was “fightin’ mad”, but her lyrics stopped well short of actual violence—against her husband anyway. Sure, she issued a stern warning in 1968 that someone was fixin’ to go to “Fist City”, but the intended recipient of Loretta’s violent retribution wasn’t her philandering husband. It was his mistress. Loretta doesn’t mince words when it comes to any woman making eyes at her man: “I’ll grab you by the hair of the head, and I’ll lift you off of the ground.” Feeding her own man some fist city (or shooting him or burning his house down) was not part of Loretta’s story.
In fact, other songs of the same period find Loretta strangely passive when it comes to her husband’s selfish and drunken lifestyle. In “One’s on the Way”, she’s pregnant with a houseful of bawling kids when her husband calls from a bar to tell her that he’s bringing a few Army buddies home. “You’re calling from a bar? Get away from there!” she yells. But then she assures her husband, “No, not you, honey / I was talking to the baby.” Yes, Loretta could be an Angry Woman, but it would take some time before country music writers started to direct violence toward the source of the anger: the men.
It might have been men themselves who gave the murderous-retribution-against-abusive-husbands theme a big push. Garth Brooks, of course, ushered commercial country in plenty of directions in the early-‘90s, but perhaps he hasn’t been given sufficient credit for the direction the Angry Woman Song has gone. His hit “The Thunder Rolls” came out three years before “Independence Day” and tells a similar story. The song and its video depict a cheating man who comes home reeking of another woman’s perfume, a typical narrative of infidelity, but it’s the song’s infamous “third verse,” which Brooks added to his live performances, that has the wife retrieving a pistol from the bedroom, vowing that “tonight will be the last time she’ll wonder where he’s been”. The thunder rolls, the crowd cheers.
Tellingly, we don’t see the wife pull the trigger in “The Thunder Rolls” (and the third verse was too controversial for radio), just as in “Independence Day”, the arson is treated with glancing blows—“she lit up the sky”—and it isn’t terribly clear who, or if anyone, dies in the fire. It wouldn’t be until the year 2000 that such narrative restraint was done away with and a song would permanently change the Angry Woman Song. Enter the Dixie Chicks.
“Goodbye Earl”, from the Dixie Chicks’ 1999 blockbuster Fly, was released as a single in February 2000 to a shitstorm of controversy, as the song’s lyrics (written by a man, Nashville pro Dennis Linde) pull no punches at all, stating simply, “Earl had to die”. Earl, of course, is the wife-beating husband of Mary Anne, who has to wear dark glasses, long sleeves, and make-up to cover her bruises, and when she finally gets a restraining order against Earl, he violates it and “puts her in intensive care”. Hilarious, right? Indeed, the Chicks, taking the kind of irreverent approach that would become a sort of call of arms, turn the story into black comedy with the song’s playful arrangement of na-na-nas and, especially, the video’s Coen Brothers-esque video of fish-eye-lens trailer-trash hijinks and a group dance that has Earl’s corpse (played by Dennis Franz) performing Thriller-style dance moves as a gaggle of women gleefully bounce around him.
The Dixie Chicks took plenty of heat for “Goodbye Earl”, with critics complaining that the song might influence women around the country to also poison their husbands’ black-eyed peas and then stuff his body in the trunk and bury it in the woods. It was a controversy that, as usual, did good business—the song was a hit on the charts, became a staple of the Chicks’ concerts, and shot the band to another level of fame. The CD single of “Goodbye Earl” came with some pure, droll irony: the B-side was a cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”. The point was clear. Welcome to a new era of feminist revolt in country music. No longer would there be any need for lyrical delicacy in the Angry Woman Song.
A decade after “Goodbye Earl”, the Angry Woman Song (or at least the Angry Woman Video) is inescapable, with the emphasis less on anger than on violence and, more often than not, with an attempt at “Goodbye Earl”-style comedy. Take Carrie Underwood, whose American Idol beginnings and all-American-girl image did nothing to keep her from jumping on the fad. Jesus, take the wheel, but give Carrie the Louisville Slugger. On 2006’s “Before He Cheats” (another Angry Woman Song written by dudes), a betrayed woman takes out her rage on the asshole’s car, keying his paint job, bashing out his windows with a bat, and carving her name into his leather upholstery.
The video is a seductive slice of car-demolition porn, featuring Underwood in a black catsuit and shades, slinking through the undercover of night and slicing “Carrie” into the dude’s seats, thereby satisfying Poe’s requirement for revenge: he’ll know who is responsible. The guy’s crime? Hanging out in a bar with a girl who is performing a “white-trash version of Shania karaoke.” Ouch. Underwood is really just performing a public service: “I might have saved a little trouble for the next girl”, she thinks, so consider this vandalism a preemptive strike for the next time the jerk thinks about straying. At the end of the video, Carrie embodies the New Angry Woman, exuding mutant X-(wo)man powers, shattering windows, and causing hurricane winds through the force of her salacious strut and righteous indignation.
// Notes from the Road
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