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Took the Sweet Life and Never Knew I’d Be Bitter From the Sweet: Confessional Lady Songs

November 3, 2010

Generally speaking, the word “lady” used as a prefix tends to make my skin spontaneously ignite. Still there is no greater nomenclature for the kind of introspective cut concerning itself with the loves, losses, regrets and Sophie’s Choices of female pop artists, which is then set to a Delilah-licious arrangement. Regardless of the era in which the song was released, Confessional Lady Songs always sound best if the listener is trapped on a long road trip with a broken CD player and no AUX port, folding clothes while feeling badly about one’s self or alone on a Saturday night drinking quite heavily.

“I’ve Never Been to Me” – Charlene

The best Confessional Lady Songs usually feature a story or impart an important lesson. In the case of Motown artist Charlene’s 1983 megahit “I’ve Never Been to Me”, you get both. You get the story of new hotness who discovers quite unexpectedly she’s old and busted with very little to show for her checkered table cloth past. This harsh realization requires the former new hotness to then impose herself on some unsuspecting bored suburban housewife, whom she both judges harshly for feeling bored by her life and also brags about her fabulous past under guise of offering some unsolicited advice.

Hey, you know what paradise is?
It’s a lie, a fantasy we create about people and places as we’d like them to be
But you know what truth is?
It’s that little baby you’re holding, it’s that man you fought with this morning
The same one you’re going to make love with tonight
That’s truth, that’s love…

“I’ve Never Been to Me” is basically a cautionary tale – and anti-feminist to boot – warning women not to dream to big, undress for kings, see some things “that a woman ain’t ‘posed to see” or run the risk of spending her “life exploring the be subtle whoring that costs too much to be free.” or worst – *gasp* spending evenings “crying for unborn children that might have made me complete”. While I have no peer-reviewed research to prove this, I’ve been to every single locale mentioned in the damn song – though not engaged in any of the acts described – I’m pretty sure you can both go to paradise and go to “me”. That said, nobody can argue with the infectiousness of the damn song.

“Nick of Time” – Bonnie Raitt

Conversely, when Miss Bonnie says, “Life is pretty precious when there’s less of it to waste,” there’s power and gravitas behind her words. When a bad ass lady singer with a fierce and fabulously rowdy past interrupts your checkout line perusal of In Touch to wax poetically and ruefully about the passage of time, elderly parents and friends with baby fever it’s definitely worth a listen. Unlike Charlene’s smug warnings of dire circumstances for those women who dare to, “move like Harlow in Monte Carlo,” Miss Bonnie’s pragmatic approach to aging and accepting – no – embracing one’s life choices with grace and gratitude feels a lot more accessible. Plus Miss Bonnie freaking kills that hook.

“Coat of Many Colors” – Dolly Parton

Wrestling with past wounds is another feature of Confessional Lady Songs, and there is no greater practitioner than Miss Dolly! Her tale of a tender mother’s love/DIY skills and the nasty classism that results sung sweetly as anything she’s ever sung is heartbreaking. I am still baffled as to how a coat made with so much love could illicit so much scorn and derision. I get a little weepy each time Dolly gets to the part where the kids at her school go all Carrie’s prom and laugh at her coat. But Dolly gets the best of those assclowns by dropping science on them. Telling them chuckleheads the story of the coat and how it was special and worth more than any of the crap they owned; because it was blessed by love and all that jazz.

“A New Day Has Come” – Celine Dion

Confessional Lady Songs ripped from the singer’s own real life headlines aren’t always straight up depressing. Sometimes they are celebrations of patience rewarded, expressions of gratitude and wishes granted. Inspired by the birth of her first child, Celine’s “A New Day Has Come” is my favorite of her vast body of work. I love Celine and I tend to follow news reports – as long as they’re not tawdry – so I was aware that she was having some challenges as it related to making babies. I don’t care how freaking cheesy it might be, but whenever she gets to the bridge, “Let the rain come down and wash away all my tears. Let it fill my soul and drown my fears. Let it shatter the walls for a new, new sun,” always get choked up. It’s such an unabashedly joyous song…and that’s cool. Miss Celine just welcomed a set of twins and I can’t wait to see what kind of song inspired by them she drops.

“Torn Between Two Lovers” – Mary MacGregor

“I’ve Never Been to Me” might have the market cornered on smug confession it still has fierce competition from Mary MacGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers”. Trafficking in sadistic relationship tropes, “Torn Between Two Lovers” is a woman’s confession of stepping out on her unsuspecting partner in unflinching detail. But she just had to confess because it was tearing her apart inside. Despite the appearance of sexual agency and an attempt to resist cultural instruction around a woman’s desires, “Loving you both is breaking all the rules,” the song’s protagonist isn’t concern about agency or resistance. She’s much more concerned with eliciting sympathy from the poor sap she’s been creeping on and demonstrating how upsetting all this loving has been for her. The chorus is nothing more than a fauxpology and the verses seek to blame the victim for not being able to deal with her creeping. But don’t get her wrong. Despite this other man, it doesn’t mean she loves the current one any less. If you happen upon this song on a mix from someone you’re dating they’re not being kitsch; they’re cheating on you.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Citizen Taqueau permalink
    November 3, 2010 4:50 pm

    That “Torn Between Two Lovers” song is so creepy! I used to think when people talked about that song they were talking about “Two Lovers” by Mary Wells, which is also a creepy song — lest we forget, it drops the “surprise twist” ending where both the nice guy and the mean guy are the same man. Like, she is dating Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In which case, she really ought to be running far, far away.

  2. November 3, 2010 4:56 pm

    I used to think when people talked about that song they were talking about “Two Lovers” by Mary Wells, which is also a creepy song — lest we forget, it drops the “surprise twist” ending where both the nice guy and the mean guy are the same man. Like, she is dating Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In which case, she really ought to be running far, far away.

    HAHAH. Seriously! It’s like the Pina Colada song gone horribly wrong. Yeah, I think people get confused by Mary MacGregor’s sweet vocals on “Torn Between Two Lovers” and don’t realize the song’s protag is kind of a douche.

  3. Citizen Taqueau permalink
    November 3, 2010 5:04 pm

    [i]It’s like the Pina Colada song gone horribly wrong.[/i]

    SO TRUE.

  4. IrishUp permalink
    November 3, 2010 5:08 pm

    * tosses puff into recepticle *
    Man, Dolly just kills me in that one. I love this post so very much. You are making me a Celine fan, Snarky (just not much exposure before).

    In the past wounds collection, I have always loved Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”:

    But between that and the kids being mean to Dolly in her loving-hands-at-home coat, I needed t0 cheer up. I think the Sassy Confessional might be in order, where we get to say we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more! Ms. Lennox has got the chops for this:

  5. November 3, 2010 6:06 pm

    I think the Sassy Confessional might be in order, where we get to say we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more! Ms. Lennox has got the chops for this

    I love “Would I Lie to You” Annie is so fierce in that video.

    Here’s another great Confessional Lady Song:

  6. November 3, 2010 6:09 pm

    @IrishUp, pretty much all of Janis Ian’s songs fit this description, from “Society’s Child” to “Boots Like EmmyLou’s.”

    A lot of Reba McEntire’s catalog fits this category, too. Not quite as creepy as “Torn Between Two Lovers” is the story of a woman who’s just kinda tired of her “happy” home:

  7. November 4, 2010 7:34 am

    the karaoke bar I frequent has a video for Never Been to Me that is in the style of Todd Haynes’s Superstar — it’s barbie dolls in a house, acting out the story of suburban malaise. My friend Stacy performs the song just to see the video, but she moved to Portland, so it might be my turn to learn it so I can sing it!

    also, I love your breakdown of “Torn Between Two Lovers”. oh poor you, you went out and cheated and fell in love a second time. well, frankly, emotional turmoil is what you deserve and it’s what you get, jerk.

    i have a couple shoutouts to the new generation of confessional lady songs!

    Kelly Clarkson sings a better version of the Mary McGregor dilemma (sans cheating) — hey I love you and this sucks, but let’s be real, it’s over and you should move on, because frankly, I’ve already started to myself.

    I don’t care that this song has been used in Glee and DWTS and probably 15 others movies and tv shows. I still love this confessional song for striking the right note of enlightenment (yeah, breaking your windows wasn’t exactly mature or legal) and honesty (….but damn it felt good).

  8. November 4, 2010 7:36 am

    Dusty Springfield has this category locked down, though. This one kills me everytime.

  9. November 4, 2010 12:36 pm

    A lot of Reba McEntire’s catalog fits this category, too. Not quite as creepy as “Torn Between Two Lovers” is the story of a woman who’s just kinda tired of her “happy” home:

    I just don’t understand how anyone could be tired of being married to Huey Lewis. It just does not compute!

    @Raymond – I love that Kelly Clarkson cut. She has definitely got the chops and life experience to do the Confessional Lady Song genre proud. Also, don’t tell anyone, but that Bust Your Windows song gets way too much airplay around these parts.

    Is it just me or does everyone else think Celine’s default mode of transportation is a cloud?

  10. November 4, 2010 1:54 pm

    Is it just me or does everyone else think Celine’s default mode of transportation is a cloud?

    HAHAHAHAHA.

  11. evmaroon permalink
    November 4, 2010 8:12 pm

    Oh no you didn’t! You didn’t pull out the DOLLY PARTON! You just made my day. Why did I wait until 6pm to read this? Here are two songs I’d like to throw in the ring:

    1982, represent!

    Oh yeah, Anne Murray. I went there. I totally went there.

  12. evmaroon permalink
    November 4, 2010 8:13 pm

    Okay, maybe Anne’s not confessing, but she’s about to, damn it.

  13. November 5, 2010 8:56 am

    Joan Armatrading is my go-to gal for confessional songwriting:

  14. November 5, 2010 12:29 pm

    You all killed it on this thread! When people make lists of “The Great American Songwriters” Bruce, Woody Guthrie, Willie, Lou Reed, and all those old foggies get thrown around, but I’m gonna go ahead and just say that it’s Dolly. Hands down. You can all go home now, thanks. Discussion over.

    Rad post!

  15. Colin Doyle permalink
    April 27, 2012 6:38 am

    @ raymondj “the karaoke bar I frequent has a video for Never Been to Me that is in the style of Todd Haynes’s Superstar”
    The last time I saw that video was c.1993 in Osaka, Japan. We did the same thing- requested the song just to see that video. I haven’t been able to find it anywhere online. You’d make my day if you could tell me a link!

  16. December 7, 2012 11:24 pm

    According to Ron Miller (writer of the song of I’ve Never Been To Me) LORETTA HOLLOWAY sang the “DEFINITIVE VERSION” of “I’ve Never Been To Me.” Go to http://www.Lorettaholloway.com and order “An Evening With Loretta Holloway” to hear and see the interpretation.

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