[25 May 2007]
Contra Costa Times (MCT)
Watch out, boys. The new women of pop, rock and country don’t bother with getting mad. They skip to getting even.
Years ago, when female vocalists across genres tapped into lost love or unfaithful men, they usually crooned over broken hearts and the inability to move on. Billie Holiday. Dolly Parton. Trisha Yearwood. Mariah Carey. Even Britney Spears confessed that the loneliness was killing her.
Sure, there were beacons of strength. Nancy Sinatra showed us the purpose of those boots. And Aretha Franklin taught us how to spell respect. But, when it came to breakups, there was no shortage of women singing about wonderful men who walked out the door, and how they’d never be the same again.
Until now. Music’s new seven-letter word is revenge.
Country star and Grammy-winner Carrie Underwood calculates hers in her recent single, “Before He Cheats.” In the video, Underwood digs a key into her unfaithful boyfriend’s truck, slashes the tires, smashes the headlights with a Louisville Slugger and carves her name into the leather seats before declaring: “Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.”
Think that’s painful? In “Smile,” Britain’s doe-eyed 21-year-old popster Lily Allen sics her friends on her cheating ex. They rough him up in an alley and trash his apartment. When he begs for her back, she spikes his coffee with a substance that - ahem - disrupts his bowels. “At worst I feel bad for a while,” Allen sings, “but then I just smile, I go ahead and smile.”
And then there’s Beyonce. In “Irreplaceable,” her biggest single, she owns the house. She owns the Jag. And she’s throwing her man out for running around with another woman.
She’s not falling apart; rather, she’s self-possessed and rejoicing: “You must not know about me,” Beyonce proclaims. “I could have another you in a minute. Matter of fact he’ll be here in a minute.”
These current chart-toppers are not the first of their kind, says Oakland native Danyel Smith, the editor of Vibe magazine.
The genre, which Smith defines as varying degrees of “revenge fantasy,” started about a decade ago, shortly after the release of Toni Braxton’s hit “Breathe Again.” In the video, a gorgeous Braxton crumbles in a hallway, warning “If you walk right out of my life, God knows I’d surely die.”
“I think there’s been somewhat of a backlash against those kinds of songs,” Smith says. “Women in the late 1990s were just getting over it.”
In 1995, the year of Braxton’s downer, Alanis Morissette unleashed her fury at a two-timer in “You Oughta Know.” The Dixie Chicks, Erykah Badu and Kelly Clarkson later followed with songs about leaving him behind.
“Now, girls are interested in saying, `Hey I love you, but if you hurt me, cheat on me, or break up with me, I’m gonna be all right,’ ” Smith says. “There’s sadness in breaking up, yes, but I don’t think women are feeling as bad about that anymore. They’re more comfortable showing their anger.”
And the mainstream music industry is more comfortable letting them. It would’ve been a huge risk for a female performer, at least in pop music, to sing songs like these 25 years ago, Smith says.
Nancy Einhart, editor of the entertainment Web site Buzzsugar.com, believes that similar female breakup songs have always existed in punk rock and underground circles. They are simply bigger pop hits now, Einhart says, and they tend to focus on relishing freedom.
“These are breakup songs that aren’t about victims or triumph in the `I Will Survive’ sense, but more that the woman is better as a result of the breakup,” Einhart says. “That it’s not a tragedy and can actually be a really good thing.”
Nearly a decade after Braxton was losing her breath, Kelly Clarkson found hers in 2004’s runaway hit: “Since u been gone, I can breathe for the first time, I’m so moving on, thanks to you, now I get what I want.”
Einhart believes the songs are a reflection of pop culture and celebrity gossip trends.
“We have a lot of examples of famous women who have ended relationships_Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Mary Louise Parker,” she says. “And the treatment of them in the media hasn’t been negative, but rather, their careers seem to be taking off and they look better than ever.”
It’s also how society - and the songwriters - are viewing women, Einhart says.
While Morissette, Allen and Badu (the anthemic “Tyrone”) write their own songs, a majority of breakup and revenge-fantasy songs in pop music are penned by men.
Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds liked making Braxton and his other muses suffer, but a new wave of young male writers, such as R&B star Ne-Yo, are tapping into the modern, independent woman’s psyche.
“A lot of their mothers were strong and they saw them get left by men, work and raise their kids on their own,” Smith points out. “If they write 20 songs, three of them might be sad.”
Of Ne-Yo, who wrote Beyonce’s No. 1 “Irreplaceable,” Smith gushes: “He’s a young, passionate guy who gets it. He grew up in a house full of women. He heard the dirt.” Even superdivas Celine Dion and Whitney Houston have tapped the 24-year-old for songs.
Still, for every breakup song written by a man, there’s one written by a woman, says Andi Zeisler, editor of Bitch magazine, a pop culture `zine with a feminist twist.
“I don’t even think the amount of songs has changed as much as the tenor has changed,” Zeisler says. “Songs like `These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ and `You’re So Vain’ were angry songs, but because the form was so pretty and melodic, it didn’t come across (that way).”
In the world of music videos, where images come across loud and clear, tenor’s no longer much of an issue. Especially when it comes to more serious issues, such as spousal abuse. Zeisler recalls the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” the ultimate revenge fantasy, in which Mary Ann helps Wanda kill her abusive husband out of self-defense.
It’s dark, yes, but it sends a better message than songs of yesteryear, Zeisler says.
“At least women today aren’t growing up listening to songs like `He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),’ and the `50s idea of standing by the bad boy because that’s who he is,” Zeisler says.
“They’re definitely growing up with a more empowered sense.”