Today we tackle Dolly Parton’s classic breakup ballad, originally written to commemorate her feelings about leaving long-term collaborator Porter Wagoner to focus on her solo career. Dolly’s been a personal hero of mine since early childhood, and Tiny Me knew what she was about. Dolly writes songs that exemplify what we want in a love song. Let’s take a closer look.
People have asked me before how to break up with someone, and Dolly’s template here isn’t a bad place to start. She’s looked over the situation, and describes it in terms of the other person, which is helpful to get them to listen! Sure, that opening line is a little bit patronizing, but it’s also realistic: sometimes a relationship that was previously a place of mutual growth stagnates and prevents us from reaching our potential. Rather than insisting that love requires us to always stay together, in spite of the odds, Dolly acknowledges that sometimes the most loving action is to split, painful though it may be.
I do have to fault Dolly for asking her partner not to cry just because the split is the right choice. It’s perfectly mature to mourn that which is lost, even though the loss is necessary and ultimately for the better. She may be setting a boundary here around emotional support, though, insisting that her former partner find someone new to process the lost with. A great choice!
I am most impressed with the final verse, in which Dolly wishes all the best for her former partner. This is one of the best definitions of love; wanting someone to flourish no matter what. Often, this is one of the hardest lessons to learn: we love people because of what they can do for us, and have trouble coping when their needs conflict with our own. Learning to send someone else on their way and get our needs met elsewhere is an essential and difficult skill.
All in all, we have about the perfect break-up song here. Dolly beautifully encapsulates what it is for a person to let go of someone else without objectifying them. She reminds us that there are forms of love that don’t involve dying in each other’s arms, all while avoiding most platitudes. If I had to complain about anything, it’s the face that the song is rather sappy and doesn’t quite promise us that Dolly herself will go on and find other loves. At the same time, being directed at the one who is lost, it would be cruel of Dolly to remind the other person that she, too, has bigger and better things to do.
In short, I’m very glad that every big-voiced female artist wants to cover this song, because it remains such a solid example of how we should treat one another, and we need to keep those examples on our radio.
There are so many Christmas love songs, but this is probably the most difficult one out there. It sounds so cheery, so flirtatious, so fun, and yet we’re all pretty sure that it’s a model of about the worst consent there is. I’ve gone back and forth a lot on this song; last year, I could barely listen to it, and this year I’m hoping to salvage it for karaoke delightfulness. So let’s dig in and see if this is the original Blurred Lines, yea?
Alright, let’s start from that worst line “say what’s in this drink?” I’m going to have to side with this great blog post and remind the world that this used to be a pretty common idiom, and not a literal description of drugging someone. This, of course, reminds us that we’re working with a song written in 1944, and are going to need to meet the song in its cultural context.
Unfortunately, it’s an awful context. The real theme of the song is that two people want to have sex and spend the night together, and their social context would frown on this behavior. In the original score, the two are identified as “mouse” and “wolf” (which predatory image is definitely uncomfortable), and not by gender. However, most recordings give the mouse part to a woman and the wolf to a man, and the rigid control of women’s sexuality is definitely a key to understanding the song. (I’ve chosen to embed a version that swaps those gender roles, because it’s great.)
Rather than a woman who is struggling to escape a man, we have here a tale of a woman struggling to escape the judgment of those around her. From the beginning, she describes the evening as “so very nice,” and later speaks of being under a spell–“enchanting” is a compliment, so it also seems reasonable to assume she’s enjoying herself. Meanwhile, the objections she raises are about what others around her will think. Her family disapproves of her spending the night with her lover, but she is working up the courage to do so anyway.
The lines that most save the song for me come in the middle, and depend on listening to the man as well as the woman. She starts with “I ought to say no, no, no” (that “ought” is key), and he responds “mind if I move in closer?” Instead of pushing him off or firming up her resistance, she instead drops to “at least I’m gonna say that I tried.” We’ve got a verbal request for consent right there, and the physical closeness of her lover reminds the woman that she does, in fact, want this, in spite of the societal pressures that tell her she should not.
What really sets this song apart from other anthems about rape is that it is a true duet. Each vocal part gets equal time, and the back-and-forth of the two is much of what makes it so much fun. Rather than most songs, where one person reports on the other’s feelings, each person has a chance to say their part. They end in harmony, singing happily of their agreement to stay together. Don’t get me wrong, this song does not model ideal consent. But I think we can salvage it and continue to sing it with our friends and crushes without guilt.
Is there a song more fun to belt with your friends than this one? I’m not sure it gets more 80s than this, but what on earth is this song actually about?
It’s not about fencing, I don’t think. I do think it is about a current relationship, but possibly the worst relationship. I don’t know why Bonnie Tyler is so stuck here, but I really hope she figures out how to escape.
The first few verses tell us how miserable Bonnie is. She gets lonely and her partner never comes around, she’s literally cried so much that she is boring herself, and she’s worried that it will never get better than this. None of these are signs of a good relationship, Bonnie. We’re not even in “something good was here but you’re in a rough patch.” There is no evidence that there is anything worth saving.
But there’s that look in her lover’s eyes! It maybe makes her less terrified, but it’s not clear what the relationship of that look to Bonnie falling apart is. Also “a little bit terrified?” Terror is not a mild emotion, Bonnie.
Now, it’s possible that Bonnie is the crazy one and her partner is very patient and helps calm all of her wild fears. That repeated chorus “once upon a time I was falling in love but now I’m only falling apart” worries me, though. Why would these be connected if Bonnie were experiencing an unrelated craziness? Nope, her love has been replaced by fear and darkness.
“Your love is like a shadow on me all the time” she sings, as if that’s a healthy and exciting thing. Even if her relationship is what’s keeping her grounded, it’s not okay to make your mental health dependent on another person. The long version includes a verse that says Bonnie’s lover will “never be the boy you always wanted to be,” and yet he’s “the only boy who wanted me the way that I am.” Frankly, it sounds like Bonnie’s caught up in an abusive situation, convinced that she is so worthless no one else would have her. That’s never true, and beyond that, she could have a fulfilling and happy life without a partner.
Bonnie seems to know how precarious her situation is- “living in a powder keg and giving off sparks,” but she has no motivation to improve it. She remembers the light, and the happy days, but she is hopeless that they could ever return, and can no longer remember what her identity was before this relationship.
There’s nothing here to really stop us from belting this song with our friends, but any time I actually start to think “wow, Bonnie Tyler really understands what I’m going through,” I’m going to consider that a huge red flag and change that situation as fast as I can.
It’s 2003, I’m in the auditorium of an old women’s college-turned-retreat center, surrounded by 200 or so other teens, and a guy on stage with a guitar and too many necklaces is telling us about how we have to fall crazy in love with Jesus, and I’ve never had a boyfriend before, but I’m pretty sure I know what he means. And then we all sing this Vanessa Carlton song together, except it’s Jesus that we all want to fall into the sky with.
Later, after small group Bible study, a boy named Chad, who doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, will pull me into the corner of a stairwell and I’ll have my first very underwhelming kiss. We’ll go on to talk on the phone a few times and he’ll mail me his guitar strap and I’ll never quite be sure if I should tell my friends I’m dating someone. It’s hard for 15-year-old boys to compete with the heady combination of pop melodies and carefully packaged religious experiences.
I’m pretty sure Vanessa Carlton didn’t actually write this song about Jesus, but it’s hard for me to untangle it from all those experiences. An important part of this project, though, is to look at exactly those songs that defined my (and your) young experience and see what weird, terrible ideas about relationships got transmitted through them. So how bad is this one, Jesus or no?
I mean, on actually looking at it, this song is more unclear than anything else. The best I can guess, this song is about a breakup, which makes its use by mid-naughties Christians even weirder. Vanessa’s floating through life because her sweetie is just a “precious memory,” and she sure wishes she could touch and hold this person again. Tonight.
None of those are the worst feelings, I suppose, but they definitely seem one-sided. Vanessa has no idea if Precious ever thinks of her, and her person has probably moved on. I worry for Vanessa, who seems to have lost all sense of independent self. She needs some hobbies, other than whatever drugs are making her forget how gravity works.
The bridge is the worst part here: “I don’t want to let you go, I drown in your memory, I don’t want to let this go.” The pronoun switch shows a literal objectification: “you” turn to “this” over time, as Vanessa’s obsession is not even with a person but with the feeling that person produces for her. It also sounds like a protest, as if someone else in her life is telling her to let go, to move on. No, Vanessa insists, she will choke and die on this unrequited affection.
In the end, this song is kind of sad and pitiful, but not actually all that harmful. It’s a nice outlet for a freshly broken heart, before you decide that, yes, you do want to let this go. Or at least spend some time with someone you can both see and touch.
It’s still a fucking weird choice for a worship band, though.
I’m so excited to debt this new project, and I hope you’re gonna be into it too!
Here’s the deal: we all know that almost all the songs in the world are about love going well or love gone wrong. We listen to them all the time, from childhood. For years, I’ve wanted to look at the actual ideas about relationships that love songs teach. We all know that some songs are super-rapey (and ignore how creepy other songs are), but we don’t always spotlight the songs that are full of good consent and good boundaries. I’m gonna do both of those things here.
Come back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for a brand-new #LoveSongs, and I hope you enjoy the first one! If you’ve got a favorite song you want to see here, leave a request in the comments or shoot me an email.