Honky-tonk: Women’s reality

Until its recent rebirth as a propaganda machine for the American right wing, country music styled itself as music for the downtrodden. Music for the hard-hit in life. Music for the common people.

As such, it reflected a lot of truths that were just not getting air time on middle class radio. Many of these truths were women’s truths — tales of cheating lovers, abusive spouses, betrayal at the hands of loved ones (including parents: Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” describes a young woman whose own mother foists prostitution upon her). All painful truths of the female existence, wherein we are routinely used, abused, and thrown under the bus.

In that vein, Dawn Landes’s album “Sweetheart Rodeo” is chock full of songs about these same truths, updated only slightly for 2009 and not surprisingly still relevant eighteen months later.

“Romeo” is about the futility of hetero courtship and getting fed up with the whole deal (“waited all day by the telephone, waited all day just to be let down … sixteen times and what do you get? another day older and  deeper regret … honey, don’t call me ’cause I won’t go, you don’t own my soul, no, Romeo”).
“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is about a young woman whose father abandoned her at a young age, taking all of her financial resources with him (“little girl just four years old, dad ain’t no damn good — ran away with her piggy bank, took everything he could”).
“Clown” dryly mocks a lothario, metaphorically presented as a rodeo clown (“you’ll chase anything”).
“Wandering Eye” is about a cheating lover/spouse (who the narrator, apparently, takes back*).

Most notably to me, “Little Miss Holiday” tells the story of two young women who become friends through working together in prostitution, possibly also porn, and stick together while the rest of society remains oblivious to their suffering (“sugar and spice don’t stick together like girls, working girls, two working girls”/”you can show your face, but no one knew your name”).
Rather than toeing the funfem “empowerment! choosy choice!” line, the narrator goes on to express a wish that she could have saved these women, or at least helped them somehow (“if I’d ‘a known her better, I’d ‘a wrote her name in a little letter, tied some hundred-dollar bills together”).

And “Young Girl” reminds young women that male attention “has nothing to do with you” — that men as a class are not interested in women as people, but merely in the chase, the conquest, the domination.

The narrator goes on to point out that, once a woman has been chased and conquered, men quickly lose interest (“don’t you know — time’s a rodeo”) and warns against women defining themselves in male terms (“young man qualifies you, puts an expiration right on you”). She says that love is illusory and fleeting (“young love gonna try you, gonna push and pull and lie too, tell you ‘baby baby I need you’, then cast you out in time”) and it’s ultimately not worth conforming to femininity (“didn’t you say, ‘I’m trying to behave, I’m trying so hard to stay”) in the pursuit of such a dubious prize.

“Young man terrifies you, gonna step right up behind you, swing a punch that blinds you, knocks you further into time” is a very cautionary statement indeed, representing not only the literal (domestic violence, meaning male-on-female relationship violence) but the figurative — the sobering reality of women finding themselves single, often due to their spouses “upgrading” to younger women, at midlife proves that pursuit of het coupledom is disorienting and alienates women from themselves.

I felt like I’d found a gold mine hidden in plain sight when I found this song. When she sings “young girl, I don’t like you,” instead of hearing female resentment, I hear the voice of a wise, been-there-done-that woman saying to the funfeminist (or sparkly cowgirl), “I wish you had not been blindsided by the patriarchy and that you could find your way out of this labyrinthine horror movie of modern life, because while I don’t blame you for it, I can’t respect your choice to pursue faux empowerment instead of seeking true liberation.” But that might just be me.

And the narrator’s use of the word “terrify” does underscore the fact of het grooming while echoing yesterday’s post: women understand that they are sheep and men are wolves, and were it not for perpetual cultural reinforcement from cradle to grave, more of us would forego the whole thing entirely. Much as society might want to spin it as “fun!” and “exciting!” and “romantic!”, there is really nothing appealing about the sensation that you are staring your own death and denouement, with a side helping of humiliation and degradation, in the face.

So, does Dawn Landes blame the patriarchy? I don’t know. I was lucky enough to meet her, and I found her to be very pleasant and kind; I’ve also been all over her entire discography multiple times, and have unearthed zero in terms of overt misogyny. Though I don’t know the story behind it, *she recently did not take back her real-life husband,  fellow singer and songwriter Josh Ritter. (Just in time for Valentine’s Day, too!) So I don’t know if she has become a fellow rabid feminist. It doesn’t really matter, although it would naturally kick ass pretty hard if she had: regardless of her actual politics, I really like the song.

However, I admittedly have no idea what’s going on in the video. It appears to be a send-up of country-western videos, featuring (among other things) Landes twirling in a very sparkly dress. And the aforementioned group of sparkly cowgirls. Landes may also make a dual or triple appearance as one of the sparkly cowgirls, and/or the line-dancing woman. I am sure it is all a statement about something.
Enjoy the song, anyway.

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About @trees

Thrillseeking female. Indie music shaman. Will almost certainly Like your cat pix.
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9 Responses to Honky-tonk: Women’s reality

  1. FAB Libber says:

    Perhaps it is stealthy feminism via storytelling in song?

  2. ball buster says:

    Hey… you’re starting a blog! Awesome! If you want to link to mine, I link back.

  3. veganprimate says:

    It’s a shame I’ve never gotten into country music, b/c as you say, the lyrics are very powerful stories about women’s lives. I just can’t deal with the twang and that fuckin’ steel guitar sound. I haven’t watched the video above. I shall do so now.

  4. veganprimate says:

    Hey, that was good! No twang and no steel guitar.

    • joy says:

      Dawn Landes is my hero. I’m glad you like!

      Pretty much 80-90% of what I listen to is modern traditional/independent country music (also known as “folk”; genre is meaningless these days). I have come to find that steel guitar, done correctly, is actually quite nice.
      The instrument I most covet is a resonator bass playable with a glass or metal slide. My dream machine is an acoustic-electric steel resonator banjolele — I don’t even know if such a thing exists or if it would have to be custom-made, as first of its kind.

      What were we talking about? Heh. Oh, lyrics. It’s such a slippery slope. A lot of country music, even on the ‘independent’ side, is woman-blaming and -hating (while neither are ‘independent’ songs, “The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia” features a woman killing her “promiscuous” sister-in-law, and “Fancy” ends with Fancy, now a high-class courtesan, remarking that she forgives her mother, knows why she essentially trafficked her own daughter, and is actually grateful!)

      … but then some of it is Dawn Landes … and some of it is “Goodbye, Earl.”

      (Which is not music I listen to, and the video for which features hella patriarchal compliance especially in the form of makeup, body types, and clothing [also warnings for dangerous levels of twang] — yet still. It’s the Fried Green Tomatoes of 2000, and it achieved a shitload of visibility even in the mainstream. Whereas Sweetheart Rodeo mostly languishes in the record racks of music snobs.)

  5. Pingback: Tired of this oppression? | paleotrees

  6. joy says:

    More Landes love! It turns out I can appropriate any number of her songs for the feminist cause.

    http://paleotrees.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/tired-of-oppression/

    (And then after this, more flamin’ blamin’.)

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