This is an essay about how the relationship between men and women has changed in modern American love songs. In just a few generations, we’ve gone from a time when women were treated as men’s possessions to a time, three generations later, when women can look men in the eye on even terms. Many men and many women now want the same thing in a relationship: romance, friendship, equality, sex, respect and love. As a man who has lived through most of the changes, I find how it has unfolded quite startling.
I start with this, about boyfriends. Total dependence.
“My Boyfriend’s Back” by The Angels (1963)
He went away, and you hung around and bothered me every night…Boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble… If you see him comin’ better cut out on the double….Hey, he knows how you been tryin’…Hey, he knows that you been lyin’…Now he’s back and things are gonna be fine.
He’s gonna make you sorry you were ever born…Cause he’s awful big and awful strong…He knows I wasn’t cheatin’…Hey, you’re gonna get a beatin’.
Here’s a salute to a kept women, sung by a woman.
“Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt (1953)—and famously covered in 1989 by Madonna
Santa Baby…slip a sable under the tree, for me. Been an awful good girl, Santa Baby…So hurry down the chimney tonight….Santa Baby, a 54 convertible too, light blue…I’ll wait up for you dear, Santa Baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight. Think of all the fun I’ve missed, think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed…next year I could be just as good, if you’ll check off my Christmas list…Santa Baby, I wanna yacht…and really that’s not a lot…been an angel all year…Santa Baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight…
Bob Dylan writes about female emotional collapse.
“Just Like a Woman” by Bob Dylan (1966)
Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside the rain
That Baby’s got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls.
She takes just like a woman, yes she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl
And this fit of male jealousy, from The Beatles.
“Run for Your Life” by The Beatles (1965)
Well, I’d rather see you dead little girl, Than to be with another man…You better run for your life if you can, little girl, Hide your head in the sand little girl, Catch you with another man, That’s the end, ah little girl
Here’s another Beatles song from that era. They’ve calmed down a bit.
“You Can’t Do That” by The Beatles (1964)
I got something to say that might cause you pain, if I catch you talking to that boy again I’m gonna let you down and leave you flat…Well, it’s the second time I’ve caught you talking to him, do I have tell you one more time, I think it’s a sin, I think I’ll let you down, leave you flat, because I’ve told you before, oh, you can’t do that.
Here’s how the Rolling Stones viewed things:
“She’s So Cold” by the Rolling Stones (1980)
I’m so hot for her, I’m so hot for her, I’m so hot for her and she’s so cold. I’m so hot for her, I’m on fire for her, I’m so hot for her and she’s so cold. I’m the burning bush, I’m the burning fire, I’m the bleeding volcano… Put your hand on the heat, put your hand on the heat…Aw c’mon baby, let’s go…
In the ’80s and ’90s, changes began to come.
“Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer (1979)
Sittin’ here eating my heart out waitin’, waitin’ for some lover to call, dialed about a thousand numbers lately, almost rang the phone off the wall, Lookin’ for some hot stuff baby this evening, I need some hot stuff, baby tonight, I want some hot stuff…gotta have some love tonight.
I think the majority of women at that time looked at this song as a kind of peek into the future. Indeed there was an animal hunger out there for both sexes. It hadn’t gotten past the disco ball, perhaps, but it was getting there. Meanwhile, women were becoming more aggressive in other ways about what they wanted. And from here on I’ll let the women tell it like it is.
“I’m Gonna Getcha Good” by Shania Twain (2002)
Let’s go. Don’t wantcha for a weekend, don’t wantcha for a night, I’m only interested if I can have you for life, yeah. Uh, I know I sound serious, well baby I am, I’m gonna find a piece of real estate and I’m gonna get me some land.
Now finally, we get to the time when the yearning and the emotions are out front and center for women in the same way as with men.
“You Belong with Me” by Taylor Swift (2008)
You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset, she’s going of about something you said, ’Cause she doesn’t get your humor like I do…But she wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts, she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers, Dreaming about the day when you wake up and find, that what you’re looking for has been here the whole time, If you could see that I’m the one who understands you, been here all along so why can’t you see—you belong with me.
A song recently out this year appeared on the charts called “Girl Crush.” Sung by a woman about another woman, it seems to have gone right over the edge into same-sex relationships. But then, at the last minute, it pulls back.
“Girl Crush” by Little Big Town (2014)
I’ve got a girl crush. Hate to admit it, but I got a heart rush, ain’t slowin’ down. I got it real bad, want everything she has… I wanna taste her lips, yeah, ’cause they taste like you, I wanna drown myself in a bottle of her perfume, I want her long blond hair, I want her magic touch…yeah, ’cause maybe then you’d want me just as much, I got a girl crush.
And then there is “Hello.” This song took America by storm a few months ago. Complicated, it sounds like a desperate cry by a woman to a man she once had an affair with long ago, wondering if they could please try again because she’s become sort of a mess. But she can’t reach him, so she leaves him this message on his cell phone. On the other hand, I have been told that this is an incorrect interpretation. Adele explains what she wrote entirely differently. She says it’s about her re-connecting with everyone, but mostly herself. And everybody else understands it that way, too. In any case, the literary implications of this song are just so special. It belongs here.
“Hello” by Adele (2015)
Hello. It’s me. I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet, to go over everything, they say time’s supposed to heal ya, but I ain’t done much healing, Hello, can you hear me? I’m in California dreaming about who we used to be, when we were younger and free, I’ve forgotten how it felt before the world fell at our feet.
And that brings this survey up to date.