I try to keep my subject matter broad to avoid soap-boxing on the same topic too often, but sometimes the universe puts something in front of me for a while, and right now, that issue is domestic violence. It started when I got my wisdom teeth out–going out into public made me very uncomfortable for about a week and a half, not because of the pain, but because of the conspicuous bruises on my face. No one said anything to me, but I kept catching people looking at me with a look of morbid curiosity and pity. I imagined what they were thinking based on what I think every time I see some frowning, bruised woman: “Does she need help getting out of a bad situation? Should I ask? Would she be offended if I stuck my nose in?”
To make matters worse, I spent most of the time more or less frowning because smiling both hurt and made my entire face convulse for exhaustion after a few minutes. In spite of the fact that my reasons for looking so battered were medical and completely legitimate, I found myself wondering how I would handle myself if I were in an abusive situation. Then John and I got talking about Joss Whedon, which dragged the topic further to the front of my brain, so when I was driving to work without an audiobook, I started noticing something of a narrative tying some of my driving music together. As the final straw that poked the camel back onto the soapbox, I was watching Glee (Season 3, Episode 18, “Choke”), and guess what the major theme was? Yup. Domestic violence.
Okay, universe, you win. I will use clips of my music collection to consider the complexity of love, hate, violence, and power. You may disagree with some of my choices here, but I’ve included explanations for each below, for what it’s worth.
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan – “Stone Cold Dead in De Market”
The tale is simple: drunk husband beats wife, wife kills husband with frying pan. It’s about one of the creepiest songs in my collection because of the upbeat tempo accompanying a song of abuse and murder. The underlying message? That’s life. If you defend yourself, you’ll probably hang for it, but that’s better than being knocked around. This is hard-core Old Testament stuff with a chipper Latin beat, and while I’d like to say that we’ve put such attitudes behind us as a society…
Chicago – “Cell Block Tango”
Men get hit (and murdered) by their wives too. It’s not a laughing matter. As I say to my kids, “I don’t care who started it. It’s your responsibility to finish it by walking away and getting an authority figure to mediate if need be.” Ladies: killing a man for chewing gum and then pole-dancing on the bars of your prison cell is not woman power. We are stronger than that by a long shot.
Betty Grable – “Once Too Often”
I actually have the Ella Fitzgerald version of this and hadn’t seen Betty Grable’s routine from Pin Up Girl. Let’s read subtext here, ladies: the singer seems to have power, because she tells her guy that “Anything that you do, I can do too.” Please note, however, that her threats are for a hypothetical future and in the end, the guy keeps the gal in spite of his philandering. Infidelity isn’t exactly the same situation as physical abuse, but the power dynamic is still telling and relevant. Again, as anyone who works with kids will tell you, threats are powerless when you fail (esp. repeatedly) to back them up with action.
Nancy Sinatra – “These Boots are Made for Walkin'”
See above, but add scathing commentary on the way the costumes reflect on the woman’s lack of power. I will concede, however, that this was recorded at a different point in social history, and I really can’t say that the costumes are conveying the same message about a woman’s power that they were what, almost fifty years ago? All the same: don’t just threaten to leave if someone is hurting you. Get the hell out of there.
JJ Grey & Mofro – “That Boy”
This number is a bit of a departure, being the only version told from a man’s perspective, but I think that in itself brings up a good point: the anti-domestic violence point I’m making isn’t that all men are evil. Far from it. What I love about this song is the chorus, “That boy don’t love you, no, he’s afraid, ‘fraid of you.” There’s often truth to that. Abusers abuse to maintain power they are afraid of losing. If you are being hit (physically or verbally), you are not powerless. You may not be physically stronger, but you have the ability to walk away. If you can’t do it alone, there are people who will help you.
Macy Gray – “I Try”
Although I don’t think this song is meant to be about abuse, I get the impression that it reflects the emotional mindset of many abuse victims: recognizing that they should get away, not having the strength to stand alone. I know it’s sure as hell how I’d be feeling if John and I ever split up, and I don’t even want to imagine what it would take to move past that place, and that’s all I have the right to say on that subject.
KT Tunstall – “Ashes”
I have nothing brilliant to add about this piece. Every time I listen I hear a different story, but every single one could be a piece of this complex puzzle I’ve labeled “Love & Hate.”
Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
Don’t mock me for liking Adele. Her voice is a powerhouse. She is the Charlotte Church to my Roma Downey. You can’t mock me for that reference either, because you either didn’t get it, or you’re as guilty as I am for remembering some truly terrible television. This song belongs in the collection because grief is a natural process of parting, even if you’re the one who makes the choice to walk away. Just because you mourn what could have been doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. Mourning for the future you thought you would have is different than mourning the person who ruined that future by abusing you.
Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive”
And this, boys and girls, is what power looks like at the end of everything else. The ability to send an abuser packing when they come crawling back. Change your locks. Make him leave his key. You have got all your life to live, and dammit, you will survive to give your love to someone worthy of it. Don’t stay in an abusive situation.
Alright, alright, I’m getting off my soapbox. Take what I had to say for what it’s worth to you and leave the rest. I’m not a marriage counselor, a social worker, or a psychologist–just someone who gets really riled up about people being hurt by the ones who should be protecting them. I get that relationships are more complex than anything I could ever hope to unpack in the course of a lifetime, let alone the hour I spent hunting down songs and jotting notes about them. Love is what it is, but abuse shouldn’t be.