Defending Marriage Chapter 3: On Women Singing About Men

First, apologies for the long, unannounced break. The end of the semester has been busy for me, and I’ve had to put this writing to the side for a couple of weeks. As always, thanks for your patience!

Moving on in Esolen’s Defending Marriage.

Actually, I’m going to skip (for now) Esolen’s second argument, in which Esolen says that marriage ought to connect a couple to the community (agreed) and that this only happens because of procreation (disagreed).

Argument 3 is slightly fresher: “We Should Not Drive a Deeper Wedge Between Men and Women.” The idea is that gay marriage/ feminism/ The. Sexual. Revolution (remember, Esolen has told us they’re all the same thing) undermine a key role of marriage: uniting the two sexes, “two groups of human beings who seldom understand one another.” Marriage is like a bridge across a chasm between the two sexes, Esolen says, and gay marriage/feminism/The.Sexual.Revolution blows up that bridge. And, unless the two sexes unite, Esolen warns, “the culture cannot survive.”

I’m not going to hammer Esolen here on the silliness of asserting that gay marriage somehow prevents the sexes from uniting. Or about his inane insistence that “the very assumption behind the campaign for same-sex pseudogamy”* is that “our sexual powers are for ourselves alone.” A blind man can see how ridiculous those words are.

But there’s an underlying idea there, one that’s pretty pervasive on the right, that is worth taking on: the notion that feminism/gay marriage/The Sexual Revolution equates to a division between the sexes, most often expressed as a hatred of men. It’s a centerpiece of several of Esolen’s arguments, especially his last one, in which he draws a contrast between his ideal “Land of Marriage” and the postmodern hell of contemporary society that he calls “Divisia.” In that chapter, he’ll write that in the Land of Marriage, “Men do more than love women: they like women, and women like men. What in Divisia is scorned as ‘stereotype’ in the Land of Marriage is a source of delight.”

As always, Esolen illustrates his argument with examples from art, literature, and—for a fun change—music. “Nine hundred years ago in southern France,” he writes, “a tradition of lyric love poetry began, sometimes bawdy and merry, often almost religious in tenor, to sing the praises of the poet’s lady love.” Esolen then traces that tradition through the advent of popular music, mentioning Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and then comparing that tradition to the contemporary, post-Sexual Revolution scene: “So now popular musicians do not sing lyrically about a woman’s beauty or a man’s courage. Instead they whine or grunt like animals in a sweltering pen.”

Modern man, Esolen says, “[H]as not heard men singing the praises of women, or women singing the praises of men. He hears insults and bursts of frustration and recrimination; and these we have always had with us. But the praise, never; the gratitude for the other sex, never.” Instead, he’s stuck with music that objectifies, that demeans, and that insults.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

First of all, there’s that word, bawdy, that Esolen seems to think covers any deviation from the innocence he sees in everything from the past. Look, Esolen: if the lyric tradition you’re celebrating includes Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” (ca. 1900) and Harry Roy’s “My Girl’s Pussy” (1932), then I think it’s fair to write off whatever complaints you have about modern music as mere bawdiness. Deal?

Or, hell, we could go all the way back to the sonnets of Sir John Davies (1569-1626), who told his lady love that, though he couldn’t court her with pretty music, or rhymes or dances, he would “tell thee roundly, / Hark in thine ear: Zounds, I can **** thee soundly.”)

Esolen is a guy who claims to love (and know about) the past, and the great traditions that have made American culture what it is—or at least what it was before the Sexual Revolution wrecked it all. If you’re going to claim that, you can’t constantly misrepresent that past or those traditions. It’s inexcusable. You don’t love them if you won’t speak honestly about them.

Jazz and the blues, the two most important American musical traditions, literally developed in whorehouses. One hundred years ago, they were the soundtracks to an ugly sexual libertinism well beyond anything Esolen is contemplating in Defending Marriage. The Anglo-Celtic ballad tradition, which shaped American country and folk music, is no more virtuous. It’s full of songs of praise for bandits and murderers and adulterers, with a real fascination with the sordid and seedy sides of rural life. For just one example, read up on the song “Hang Your Head, Tom Dooley,” which kicked off the Greenwich Village folk craze when the clean-cut Kingston Trio recorded it, nearly one hundred years after it was written.

Again, Esolen’s misrepresentation of the music of the past—just like his misrepresentation of the literature of the past—is inexcusable. I do feel more sympathy when he goes off the rails talking about the music of the present. The dude just doesn’t have the chops. He clearly spends as little time as he can with contemporary culture, and as a result doesn’t really have any idea what he’s talking about.

So consider what follows a favor to Esolen, and anyone reading who, like him, stays as far as he or she can from today’s pop music.

Esolen wants to know where he can find songs of appreciation for the opposite sex. This is going to blow his mind: he needs to check out who the feminists are listening to, and the singers who consider themselves feminists, and pay attention to their lyrics.

Crazy, right?

It turns out that when you get down to it feminists don’t hate men—they just, rightly, hate seeing masculinity privileged over other ways of being. They, rightly, critique the notion that masculinity is an ideal all men should aspire to. But that’s not the same thing as hating it. Just like rejecting compulsory heterosexuality isn’t the same thing as attacking heterosexual love.

So there’s no contradiction in feminist singers and songwriters singing about how much they love men.

Let’s look at a case study.

Actually, we could look at lots of case studies. I could take this in an one direction, tracing the tradition of feminism in soul/hip-hop/R&B singers from  Roberta Flack and Gladys Knight to Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé. But I’ve been on country roll lately, so I’ll keep that going in this post.

The feminist impulse in country music is well documented. That impulse, though, goes alongside a long tradition of women singing about manhood.  Thus Loretta Lynn sang the praises of the pill, but she also said she’d swim that mile-wide river for her Mississippi man. The Dixie Chicks decried spousal abuse in “Goodbye, Earl”; and they also sang “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Miranda Lambert says girls are made of “Gunpowder and Lead,” and yet her side band the Pistol Annies (who also sing the Betty Friedan-esque “Housewife’s Prayer”) wrote a whole paean to “Boys from the South.” I could go on and on.

Lucinda Williams’ 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is basically a fifty-minute exploration of heterosexual love. Well, it’s a lot more than that. In fact, it’s an album to confound a lot of Esolen’s assumptions. Esolen tells, for example, that modern culture rejects the past, but the second and third songs on the album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” and “2 Kool 2 Be Forgotten” are songs that explicitly treat the continuity of the past in the present.

But, mostly, it’s an album about a man. There’s a male love, a composite figure, who echoes through all of the songs: he’s a bit of a ne’er-do-well (“Drunken Angel,” “Concrete and Barbed Wire”) who has hurt the singer enough for her to tell him to leave (“Greenville,” “Joy”), but he also holds an undeniable, and unfading attraction for her (“Still I Long for Your Kiss,” “Jackson”). Williams, who calls herself a feminist, doesn’t claim that the man (or men) that she’s writing about are perfect, but that’s not what Esolen is looking for: even in his ideal world, he says that “there are as many sinners… as there are human beings,” and the women and men, he tells us, “bear with one another’s weaknesses.” What Esolen is looking for, instead, is a sense that “when the women look upon men digging ore out of the heart of a mountain, or laying roads, or bending their strong arms and large hands to shave the marble one grain of dust at a time, and give it the smoothness of a baby’s cheek, they are grateful, not envious.”* What he’s looking for is appreciation across the genders: he wants to hear from women who like men.

Williams provides that. Throughout the album, she praises her male love for his strong hands, for his talent as a singer and musician (“Out all night, playing in a band / looking for a fight with a guitar in your hand / a guitar in your hand…” she sighs in Greenville). The album starts with a breathtakingly frank and sexual song, “Right in Time,” which is sexual in a way Esolen would probably appreciate: that is, it’s a pure song of praise for the other:

I take off my watch and my earrings

My bracelets and everything

Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling

Oh, my baby…

Think about you, and that long ride

I bite my nails, I get weak inside

Reach over and turn off the light

Oh, my baby…

The way you move

Is right in time

The way you move

Is right in time

It’s right in time with me…

Now, your average pearl-clutcher from the Christian right would slam his computer shut at “moan at the ceiling.” But Esolen, to his credit, isn’t afraid of human (hetero)sexuality. He just wants it to reflect what he sees as a universal truth: that man is made for woman. Which is what Williams makes particular in “Right in Time.”

She goes on. My favorite song on the album is “Lake Charles,” in which Williams writes about a man with whom she used to drive to Lafayette and Baton Rouge, “in a yellow El Camino, / listening to Howlin’ Wolf.” The man in that song is clearly flawed—though he was born in Nacogdoches, (“That’s in east Texas,” Williams helpfully informs us) “he liked to tell everybody / he was from Lake Charles.” But the song is full of affection for him, and it’s really quite sweet: “Did an angel whisper in your ear? Hold you close, and take away your fears?” she asks.

A variation appears in “Drunken Angel,” reputedly based on Austin songwriter Blaze Foley. In that song, too, the singer is well aware of her man’s faults, but that’s not the point of the song. While Williams laments the man’s irresponsibility and failure, she sings with the same sigh of (sexual) appreciation that animated “Right in Time.” The disappointment is all the more poignant because she can see what Esolen swears she can’t: his potential as a good man.

The question is: how can this be? If we buy Esolen’s insistence that, in the postmodern world, women don’t appreciate men, why is this album so full of, well, appreciation? And why does it fit so easily into a whole tradition of feminist singers voicing their appreciation for men?

Of course, I don’t buy Esolen’s insistences, so none of this is hard for me. There’s no mystery; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that something like feminism is necessary if you want to hear the sentiments Esolen says he wants to hear.

There’s an awkward moment in Chapter 3 of Defending Marriage that comes while Esolen is telling us that, in the past, culture told us how much men liked women and how much women liked men. He has to acknowledge that he doesn’t have any examples of women singing the praises of men. Not one. “Before the sexual revolution,” Esolen insists, “women really did understand and value the manhood that moves Eve to lean the closer to Adam.” But he goes nine hundred years back into tradition and can’t find a single example of a woman saying that. Esolen waves this off, saying “the nobility of a good man hasn’t been the inspiration for female writers and artists as has been, for men, the beauty and grace of a good woman.”

Instead, he gives us Milton’s rendering of Eve’s thoughts towards Adam. A woman’s words as imagined by a man.

Nowadays, if you want to know how women feel about men, you have hundreds of examples. Again: no mystery here. Feminism is about making space for women’s voices; let women speak and they’ll tell you what they like.

Now, this doesn’t actually always make us guys happy. In part that’s because it means they’ll also tell you what they don’t like, and they may tell you that you’re not what they like; some women may even tell you that they like other women. That’s the way it works. But the praise that Esolen says we never hear? It’s there. The gratitude? It’s there? The bridges across the sexual divide? They’re there. You’ve just got to listen.

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4 thoughts on “Defending Marriage Chapter 3: On Women Singing About Men

  1. In a more pop-oriented genre, I always liked this song.

    Here we have Alanis Morissette, best known for her angry denunciation of Uncle Joey, talking about really liking someone despite herself. She likes him so much that she allows him to crack her armor (caused, no doubt in part, by Uncle Joey). Plus, it is a beautiful, haunting song.

    Or, let’s go a little more old-school, and hear it from Chrissie Hynde.

    Yeah, she really hates that dude in the song.

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