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