Motown signer Mary Wells released “Two Lovers” in 1962. It was one of her first big hits, paving the way for her biggest, “My Guy,” which is in some ways the diametric opposite of the earlier song. “My Guy” salvages some schmaltzy lyrics with a poised, restrained performance that hints at wayward thoughts being repressed—when Wells the ending refrain “There’s not a man today that could take me away from my guy,” it sounds a little as though she is trying to convince herself.
“Two Lovers,” however, can be seen as one of the better songs about cheating, because it is such a cheat itself. It opens up with the baldfaced declaration—“Well, I’ve got two lovers and I ain’t ashamed, Two lovers, and I love them both the same”—as if no one in the world could have a problem with that, as if the news were going to make us all celebrate too. It’s as startling in its own way as The Crystals “He hit me, and it felt like a kiss,” another semi-deviant ‘60s pop hit. When you think of all the effort we’ve put into stifling female sexuality and enforcing patriarchal notions of property, this becomes an extremely radical way to start a pop song, and you almost have to expect the way in which this subversion is going to be ultimately snuffed out by the time the song ends. But for the time being, for those first few measures, it as though an alternate universe has been created where women don’t need to fear becoming a slut by affording themselves romantic options. But then it starts to turn on itself. The other “lover” treats her badly, and it turns out, is simply the same guy as the first lover, who is apparently a capricious jerk: “You know, he treats me bad, makes me sad, Makes be cry, but still I can’t deny that I love him.” So far from being polyamorous and proud, the singer is now yet another masochistic woman tolerating rough treatment, no different from the woman in “He Hit Me” (”...and I knew he really loved me”)—indeed, she goes on to apologize for giving the appearance of having been untrue, taking the blame for his bad behavior. So the song is not progressive at all—by the end it’s depressingly conventional.
But this retraction of the radical way the song began doesn’t negate it; instead it enhances its power. We are expected to jump to the wrong conclusion and relish in how wrong we were when we are reminded that what we first thought is really impossible, really can’t be validated publicly and openly in popular song. The song reminds us how we an let ourselves think the unthinkable, reminds us how close to the surface it is, how quickly we can shift our whole way of evaluating what behavior is permissible. That illicit thrill appears to mirror the actual feeling of cheating, and the letdown mimics how reality inevitably encroaches. But the thrill is not in getting away with something—not in the betrayal of cheating at all—but in the very fact that it seems for a moment that there is nothing to get away with. What’s thrilling in “I’ve got two lovers and I ain’t ashamed” is the way that multiple, complicated, ambivalent desires are acknowledged and thereby simplified, naturalized. It extends the promise that simply being honest about the feelings could resolve them into the complacency that Wells so adeptly conveys. For the moment you forget that in reality this sort of honesty is not especially welcomed and it certainly doesn’t simplify anything, no matter how natural it may feel.