Stand up to your man – feminist themes in country music

Elizabeth Stark

Stand up to your man “Stand by your man” used to be Tammy Wynette’s motto, but recently she’s begun singing a new tune. In her 1982 song Another Chance she announces her independence and tells her husband she’s not going to let him boss her around anymore. If country music themes are any indication, sex roles may be changing among good ole boys and their long-suffering women.

Sociologists Brenda Vander Mey and Ellen Bryant listened to 131 country music songs from two periods, 1970 to 1972 and 1979 to 1981, to see if women’s lib had reached the Grand Ole Opry. They selected singers from the top country music performers listed in Billboard and then narrowed their songs down to those dealing with love, sex and the male/female condition.

Traditionally, Vander Mey says, Southern white working-class women have been expected to be nurturing, submissive and, most important, forgiving of their philandering, aggressive, tough and insensitive husbands.

The researchers found that although traditional sex roles are still strong in the songs they reviewed, there are some blatant reactions against them. In songs such as Dottie West’s (I’m Gonna) Put You Back on the Rack women stand up to their men, telling them they won’t take them back or that they’re going to go out looking for a good time too.

Loretta Lynn is one of the most rebellious singers. In Happy Birthday she leaves her cheating husband, and in Hey Loretta she renounces her domestic role. Many radio stations refused to play Lynn’s controversial song The Pill, whose basic message is “no more babies.” “Loretta Lynn would not call herself a feminist,” Vander Mey says, “but I certainly would put her in that category.”

Among male performers, the researchers found more apologies to women for their behavior, more concern for emotional aspects of relationships and less glorification of womanizing and cheating, reflected in songs such as David Houston’s A Woman Always Knows and John Conlee’s Miss Emily’s Picture. “It is especially noticeable among male newcomers,” Vander Mey says. “They waver a bit more.”

Although the researchers don’t think country music has a major revolution on its hands, it at least reflects awareness among its audience that sex roles are changing. Vander Mey suspects that right now white, blue-collar Southerners are very confused about how women and men are supposed to behave. As Mickey Gilley puts it, sometimes love is just A Headache Tomorrow (or a Heartache Tonight). Elizabeth Stark

Vander Mey, at Clemson University, and Bryant, at Mississippi State University, presented their finding at the Annual Meetings of the Southern Sociological Society in Atlanta.

COPYRIGHT 1986 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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