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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Overclocked Episode 1: Country and Strong Women

Welcome to Overclocked! A new feature for Free Toy Inside, in which I (the author) think too hard about a given subject in an attempt to ruin for myself and everyone else. It’s a bit like Yahtzee’s zero punctuation review, but instead of quick-tongued lambasting and humorous scatological references, I’ll be making earnest philosophical arguments that will hopefully be self parodying enough to keep you entertained.

This week I’d like to discuss the song Before He Cheats, by “country” singer Carrie Underwood.

I hear this song frequently, because it’s played on the radio station that’s piped into the production line and engineering labs at my work. Also, I’m a country fan and this song was unavoidable for a few months back when it first came out. It’s not country, but more on that later. The song is about a supposedly wronged woman who exerts her revenge by destroying her boyfriend/husband’s truck. The description of the damage wrought is described in gleeful, almost pornographic detail. The listener is intended to revel in the destruction and to applaud the singer for being one tough cookie. All of these premises are questionable.

First off, I’d like to address the lack of empirical evidence that the singer provides the listener as justification for her vandalizing rampage. Let’s consider the first line.

Right now, he’s probably slow dancing with some bleached-blonde tramp and she’s probably getting frisky.

I added emphasis over the key words in this line: probably. Right off the bat, the singer is telling us that she doesn’t even know for sure that her husband/boyfriend is actually cheating on her. Every wrong thing that the man allegedly does in the song is prefaced by the word “probably.”

Given the extent of the vandalism that the singer believes is justified based on speculation, one can only wonder what she would have done to the man she were certain of his perfidy. But we don’t know he’s actually cheating. Indeed, we don’t even know if he’s in the bar.

Now, it would of course be ridiculous to expect any significant backstory in a song. But generally wronged-woman songs are more resolute in their assertions of wrongdoing. If the singer is unsure about the activities of her allegedly wayward man, how are we to assume anything she says about him is true? How do we know he didn’t lend his car to a friend to impress the woman she imagines so vividly in the bar? How do we even know there is a woman at all? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that her man is drinking beer and shooting pool with the guys?

The singer doesn’t tell us she saw him doing anything. She tells us what she imagines him doing because she saw his car in a parking lot that it presumably shouldn’t have been in. And even that assertion is tenuous, because we don’t know why he’s not supposed to be there.

As the listener, we honestly don’t even know that he knows they’re in a relationship. Given her unhinged state of mind (in which she destroys a car based on speculation of wrongdoing) it would not be out of bounds to assume that she’s some sort of dangerous stalker.

Next, I’d like to speak to the affront to the tradition of the strong woman/wronged woman theme that has been part of country music since the days of Patsy Cline. “Before He Cheats” does not carry on that tradition. In fact, I would argue that the singer represented in the song is a very weak specimen of womanhood indeed. And here’s why:

First off, when she envisions what kind of woman her wayward man may or may not be seducing, she immediately bypasses the high road and goes straight to cattiness. In the following two lines, we see her creating a straw-woman to be the object of her man’s desire that is an affront to her, presumably more authentic, brand of womanhood:

Right now he’s probably buying her some fruity little drink ‘cause she can’t shoot whiskey

Right now she’s probably up singing some white-trash version of Shania karaoke.

Here we see classism and elitism. The first line quoted above is the female equivalent of saying her competitor has a small penis. It’s ugly, and it doesn’t show the singer as a strong woman. It exposes her, rather, as petty and insecure.

The second line is kind of a one-two punch of sorts. Both calling her alleged opponent white-trash while implying that she’s not even woman enough to like real country music, as if that’s what Ms. Underwood were peddling here. Shania Twain has long been criticized among country fans for being too pop-ish, and her music has many of the same trappings of pseudo-strong grrl power cheerleading that Ms. Underwood’s has. So not only is the singer being classist, but also hypocritical.

This is not to say that the wronged woman (if indeed she be wronged) has no call to criticize the Other Woman. But given the context here, the insults are too petty to be considered anything that would come from a position of strength. This is pure lashing-out. She created this specter of a woman entirely for the purposes of feeling superior to it.

Likewise the singer’s actions against her allegedly cheating man show weakness, not strength. This is petty, “you-hurt-me-so-now-I’m-going-to-hurt-you” stuff, and is a break from the kind of “It’s a Little Too Late” attitude that the likes of Tanya Tucker embody.

Consider the “retribution” that is described in the refrain:

I dug my key into the side
Of his pretty little souped up four wheel drive.
Carved my name into his leather seats.
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights
Slashed a hole in all four tires
Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.

These are not the actions of a strong woman. These are the actions of a woman who doesn’t value herself enough to believe that she can hurt her man just by leaving. She lacks confidence in her own worth, and perhaps even fears there is some justification for her man’s alleged actions. When Reba McIntire sings about walking out, you know that she believes that’s the worst possible thing she can do to her man. Not only does she realize that a cheating man isn’t worth her time, but she realizes that depriving him of her very presence is the ultimate insult.

Not so with Carrie Underwood in this song. She doesn’t believe that her absence is stern punishment, so she vandalizes a thing. She believes herself to be worth less than the truck, or at the very least she believes that her man values her less than the truck.

This brings us back to the earlier point: Why does she imagine her man is cheating on her without evidence? Did she not look because she’s afraid to know the truth? Does she secretly fear that her man’s low valuation of her in comparison to the truck is somehow valid?

I would postulate that she’s not mad that he is cheating on her, but rather she’s mad because she thinks it might be her fault.

There are two reasons why she would create this fantasy of adultery based on simply seeing her man’s truck in a bar parking lot. The first is that she doesn’t trust him. The second is that she doesn’t have confidence in herself to keep him from going astray. In either case, she isn’t really mad at him, but at herself.

In the first case, she would be mad because she stayed with him even though she didn’t trust him to not do what she accuses him of. In the second case, she’s mad because she couldn’t keep him at home.

Either one explains everything. The attack on the truck, lauded by the shallow as a victory for the strong woman, is actually very self destructive. She carved her own name into the seat of the car. Did she not expect the law to get involved? Did she expect “He was probably cheating on me in that bar” to be enough justification for a jury to vindicate her? Did she expect the owner of the truck to say “Gosh, you’re right. I was really being a tool,” when faced with the vandalism?

Given her obviously unhinged state, it’s possible. But she would have been arrested, punished, and would become the fabled “psycho ex girlfriend” to the alleged cheater. The truck can be repaired or replaced, but now she has a criminal record to follow her around everywhere. Do you suppose, the next day when the anger and whatever liquor she may have been drinking have worn off and the policeman is showing her a picture of her name carved into a leather seat that she thinks it was worth it?

If she does, that doesn’t make her a strong woman. It makes her a psychopath.

The woman portrayed in “Before He Cheats” is nobody to be celebrated. It is the snarling bluster of a wounded animal, lashing out pathetically at whatever target is easiest in the hopes that other observers will mistake it for strength and leave her alone.