Please Stand By

April 27, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a Scatterplot post called Songs About Sociology, Belle Lettre asks for “songs that make you think of sociology.”
I can
t think of any songs literally about sociology. But there are lots that provide grist for our mill. I wrote the following – about country music in general and “Stand By Your Man” in particular – nearly two years ago, before this blog got started. In the spirit of Earth Day, Im recycling my garbage.

Nearly fifty years ago, C. Wright Mills defined “the sociological imagination” as the ability to see the connection between “private troubles” and “public issues.” Mills might have added, although as far as I know he didn’t, that this feat of imagination comes easier when you yourself are not enmeshed in the system—when you are a stranger, an outsider.

Suppose, for example, we find that many Saudi women feel stifled and frustrated, inferior and unworldly, that their sex life is unrewarding, and that they frequently get into jealousy-loaded arguments with co-wives. We probably would not say, “What’s wrong with these pathetic malcontents? Lots of other Saudi women are perfectly happy and have learned to get along with their co-wives and to do without things like driving privileges.” Instead, we’d be much more likely to say, “Well, duh. What do you expect when you have a system of polygamy and purdah and no possibility of divorce or independence?” We would see those personal problems as directing us towards a critique of the system.

But when it’s our own system, we’re much more likely to think of problems at the personal level and much less likely to use those problems to conclude that the system is basically flawed.

These thoughts are prompted by an article that appeared in the National Review and then received a write-up in the Times. The author, John J. Miller, compiled a list of 50 rock songs that, in his view, espouse conservative ideas. Number one on the list is The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” because it is “skeptical about revolutionary idealism.” The Beatles’ “Tax Man” and “Revolution” of course, but also just about any song that is against government regulation (“I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar). At number 50 was “Stand By Your Man,” by Tammy Wynette, with reference to a cover version by Motorhead.

It’s that last song, Number 50, that got me thinking. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can see Ms. Wynette lip-sync to her own recording here.) My first thought was that it didn’t belong in the list at all. Even if rockers have covered it, the song is pure country, just like Tammy Wynette, and country is the domain of red state conservatism, heavily in favor of guns and bellicose patriotism, against liberal niceness and government regulation, and staunchly traditional about male and female roles. Miller could have picked hundreds of songs from the country catalogue that echoed the ideas of “Stand By Your Man.”

But are these songs conservative?   All those stock phrases, images, and ideas suggest something more subversive. On the surface, the message is that you should stand by your man and stand by the traditional ideas about men, women, and love. Just below that surface is a much different message: that these roles and ideas are seriously flawed. If you play by the rules, especially if you’re a woman, you are doomed to unhappiness. Take a look at the lyric.

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman
Giving all your love to just one man
You'll have bad times and he'll have good times
Doing things that you don't understand
But if you love him you'll forgive him
Even though he's hard to understand
And if you love him
Oh, be proud of him
Cause after all he's just a man

Stand by your man
Give him two arms to cling to
And something warm to come to
When nights are cold and lonely
Stand by your man
And tell the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can
Stand by your man
Stand by your man
And show the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can
Stand by your man

It doesn’t specify what the man is doing — those “good times doing things that you don’t understand” — but here’s a hint: they cause the woman “bad times,” and they are things it’s up to her to forgive him for. No doubt, they are the things that have long provided material for the Country-and-Western songbook. When you piece together all the lyin’, cheatin’, drinkin’, and heartbreak that women in country songs have to endure, you begin to get a picture of a system that doesn’t work, at least not for women. Love doesn’t work, and marriage doesn’t work. (See also Ms. Wynette’s other huge hit, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”)

Perhaps a Saudi who had to listen to a few hours of country radio might say, “Well, duh. What do you expect when you have a system where a woman has to stake her entire sense of self on a romantic relationship with one man, especially when she expects him to mirror that romantic attitude? Of course a lot of women are going to wind up disappointed and devastated. And then, to make matters worse, they are told to uphold the system or risk social disapproval (“show the world you love him”) and hope against hope that their devotion will transform him.”


Anonymous said...

interesting. i'd never paid that much attention to those lyrics.

kristina b said...

Nice. It's true - we don't much like to turn that lens on ourselves, now do we?