[22 April 2011]
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.
Then again, if you ask Miranda Lambert, only destroying the guy’s car is akin to turning the other cheek. Lambert would probably blow the car to smithereens and then head after him into the bar with guns blazing. If any gal has embraced country music’s gun fetish, it’s Lambert, who performs with a mic-stand built from a shotgun and has forged her persona as one trigger-happy redneck girl you don’t want to mess with. In “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, the title cut from her 2007 album, she targets the other woman (“I wanna pitch, little bitch”) for a 21st-century update of Loretta’s “Fist City”, except she’s promising a pistol rather than a punch. (Lambert’s duet with Loretta on last year’s Loretta tribute album makes even more sense in this light.)
“Gunpowder and Lead”, from the same album, is another ferocious Angry Woman Song, but this time Miranda goes after the man: “I’m going home, gonna load my shotgun” and “show him what little girls are made of: gunpowder and lead.” The humor—the twist on the nursery rhyme in the chorus—mingles with straight-up terror in a song that, unlike “Before He Cheats”, was written by the singer herself, providing the feeling that Miranda is perfectly willing to put her metal where her mouth is. Fun clip: a YouTube video of Miranda joining Kid Rock on stage for a duet of “Picture”. At one point, he tries to throw her off by changing the lyrics. Miranda’s response: “Stop messing with me, boy. I’ll shoot ya.” Kid Rock cracks up, but admits: “For some reason, I believe her”.
Other recent country singles with standard-issue non-violent cheating lyrics have been made into videos that nonetheless depict generous doses of man-beating/shooting/binding. Laura Bell Bundy’s “Giddy On Up” clip, a campy Wild West parody, features Bundy as a purty saloon-girl, pissed off about some cowboy’s amorous infractions. As the fella visits Bundy’s boudoir, the singer, frilly of teddy and feathery of boa, puts him to angry interrogations (despite the 1800s setting, she references Bath & Body Works and accuses him of smiling when he looks at his phone). Bundy is another who is handy with the firearms. In a gunfight, 20 paces in the dusty main street, she fires her six-shooter with enough precision to disrobe the guy as he lies in the dust. Last shot: Bundy drags the hog-tied cowboy through the streets from her horse. Cut to a close-up of Bundy laughing deliriously.
Reba McEntire’s #1 hit “Turn on the Radio” is another song with boilerplate cheating lyrics. Yet, for the video, Reba plays a mysterious figure in black coat and shawl and oversized sunglasses who walks into an abandoned warehouse at night just on the wrong side of the tracks. She strips down to a black tank and crucifix, arranges a bunch of vintage boomboxes on a shelf, and then starts yelling at…some no-good, two-timin’, mistreatin’ sumbitch whom—wouldn’t you know it—is tied to a chair. (Ryan is his name, Reba’s iPhone tells us.) Eventually, she binds him even tighter with her microphone cord, although Ryan’s real punishment is having to sit and look consternated for four minutes while Reba struts around him and then leaves him there, presumably to starve to death while listening to Reba on the radio. Hell hath no fury like Reba.
Reba’s video points toward a bizarre new direction in the Angry Woman subgenre. Formerly, songs and/or videos, Carrie’s and Miranda’s, for instance, depicted women as infuriated victims of abuse who finally have enough and lash out with retaliatory violence. In a string of new country videos, however, women are portrayed as criminally insane psychopaths with a flair for secure knot-tying who torture innocent men.
For instance, there’s Jaron and the Long Road Home’s “Pray for You”, with its video featuring Jaimie Pressley as a wife who at first appears to play the role of the dreamwife in a silk nightie. We see her lovingly bring Jaron a cup of coffee, and then, for no apparent reason at all, sling the scalding beverage into his face. Elsewhere, she puts Jaron through a deadly game of dodge-the-dishes, kicks him in the nuts, and trips him down a flight of stairs. Then there’s a scene of inexplicable sadism in which Jaron is belt-strapped in a bathtub full of water into which Pressley continually threatens to toss a running hairdryer. Just to cover all of the Angry Woman basics in country music, at the end of the video Jaron stands helpless, in bandages and slings, as Pressley drives a monster truck over his car.
Or how about the video for Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue”, a love song that hands nothing whatsoever to do with abuse or violence, in which singer Jennifer Nettles plays a character who carries out an obsession-fantasy relationship with a male model. She gazes dementedly at his photos, stalks him outside his home, and waits in the car to kidnap him. Nettles, in a variety of Mrs. Robinson-style tiger prints—she’s a predator—knocks on the hapless guy’s door, and, with the help of guitarist Kristian Bush, throws a bag over his head, stuffs him in the car, takes him to some sort of twisted basement shrine, ties him to a chair (natch), pours cough syrup (or Schnapps) down his throat, and forces him to watch Jennifer perform an ‘80s aerobic-dance routine in a let’s-get-physical unitard. (Where did those backup dancers come from?) Finally, while speed-feeding him bites of cake, his cellphone rings, which indicates that another girl is trying to call him. Jennifer boils over and punches the guy in the face, knocking him out cold as the screen cuts to black.
What the Jaron and Sugarland videos have in common is that the male victims have no culpability for the violence being afflicted on them, which is at odds with the Angry Woman country that came before. By painting men as blameless victims and women as sociopathic lunatics, these artists have attempted to cash in on the commercial benefits of the imagery of a woman kicking a man’s ass, but they appear to have utterly misinterpreting the reason those images resonated in the first place. In these new versions of Angry Woman country, every woman is a black widow, beautiful but deadly, acting not out of vengeance but of sheer unhinged malice.
This motif is one that Toby “Who’s Your Daddy?” Keith is happy to get behind. The video for his recent single “Bullets in the Gun” tells a Bonnie-doublecrosses-Clyde story, in which the biker-mama femme fatale, as her man is injured and begging for help, leaves him for dead and rides off on his motorcycle with all the loot. Never trust a woman. Keith is the guy, remember, who in his 2006 video for “A Little Too Late” tied his girlfriend to a chair in the basement and threatened her with a shovel. If Keith, then, finds the latest state of Angry Woman country music fitting into his wheelhouse, things have been twisted into a tricky knot, indeed.