Murdering the Murder Ballad: Misogyny in Country Music
[Content warning: general discussions of sexual assault and violence. There is a brief description of a personal experience at the beginning of the third section. I’ll put another reminder at that point in the article.]
I. Imagine me, an awkward red-headed twelve-year old, singing this at the top of my lungs:
Here I sit in prison
Guilty of a crime
Yes it's true I killed a man
But it was justified
Yes he was a friend of mine
He came into my home
Made off with my woman
And he left me here alone
There was something about John Thomas Griffith’s impassioned delivery, plus the chug-a-lugging rhythm and dynamic performance by the rest of Cowboy Mouth, that makes the song an energetic crowd-pleaser towards the tail end of an exhilarating set. There must have been a moment when “Here I Sit in Prison” stopped sitting well with me, but I can’t remember it clearly. Like Jessica Hopper and emo music, there’s a moment where I realized that there actually wasn’t any room at all for women to be the heroes in a genre where the hero of a song is celebrated for treating his partner like property. I felt weird about singing along with this song given the underlying values it celebrates.
What I didn’t know then is that the song is but one of an entire Americana subgenre called murder ballads. Since I didn’t grow up with country music, I just thought that the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye, Earl” was an amusing story, not a dig at a longstanding tradition. When Hurray For the Riff Raff released “The Body Electric” nearly a decade and a half later, the band garnered well-deserved praise from the usual critical outlets, including this very site, for their nuanced critique of toxic masculinity. The video itself invokes violence against queer people, trans* people, and people of color in addition to women, suggesting that such violence stems from the same root.
I had originally intended to write this piece as a constructive critique of Easy Ed’s Halloween list of his favorite murder ballads. First, let’s talk about what this essay is not: a personal critique of Easy Ed or No Depression. Instead, with this piece I’d like to address casual misogyny in country music. Above all, I think it’s time to put the murder ballad to rest.
II. As you can see, I’ve been sitting on this since late October. Since I began to gather wool for this piece, a number of tragedies either occurred or surfaced. Namely, the real-life murder ballad shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, perpetrated by a man known for brutalizing his ex-wife and who had intended to kill her along with her in-laws at church. There was also the shooting in Las Vegas, which pre-dates Easy Ed’s list but is worth calling attention to: since white men aren’t allowed to be terrorists, no official motive has been ascribed to Stephen Paddock. But we do know he was at the very least coercive towards his partner and probably worse. This leads us back to Alynda Lee Segarra’s question in “The Body Electric”: “Tell me what’s the man with a rifle in his hand/Gonna do for a world that’s gone mad?”
The most significant cultural thread with regards to misogyny and violence, of course, is the titanic upswell of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement with the assistance of a few prominent White Feminists. While survivors continue to step forward across many spheres of public life, the film industry seems as if it will be forced to restructure more than others. In contrast, there have been few ripples in the American music industry.
My theory is this is the case because American music has been fragmented since the inception of the recording industry. Because it’s still fairly resource-intensive to create a film or TV series (though of course that’s changing rapidly) compared to someone making music in their bedroom, when a film or television-related celebrity is outed as a predator, a larger percentage of the general public knows who they are because more of us have seen their work. When Ben Hopkins of PWR BTM was accused in the spring, subsequently destroying the band and its members’ careers, it created a huge impact in the queer punk community. Most of you reading this probably just learned the band had existed at all. Honestly, I think the only reason that R. Kelly hasn’t been brought down in spite of reams and reams of reporting is because his market share is too small for record companies to sweat much about. Sadly, public image and money supersede restitution for disrupted lives.
That being said, Nashville has responded...sort of. While I don’t think I’ll hate any song as much as Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist,” it gives me great pleasure to eviscerate Keith Urban’s “Female.” The fact that the country music industry’s response to rape culture is a guy with a huge amount of clout releasing a song co-written by another guy, and the fact that this other guy said “We’re in a room and we’re like, ‘What can we do about this?’ And that’s the one thing we can do is write songs,” and the fact that it was this song is, well...par for the course.
First of all, the title is unsettling for a number of reasons. For one thing, referring to a woman as a “female” is generally considered to be dehumanizing, an attempt to place women into a separate category as men. Maybe the songwriters were trying to encompass the experience of growing up with sexism from childhood through adulthood, though, as we’ll see, that’s already captured pretty well in the chorus. Secondly, while I wouldn’t expect Urban to have this kind of critical consciousness, the title would seem to exclude trans*women and non-binary people, groups which experience epidemic levels of sexual violence and murder. Lastly, it’s a weird word to sing and is just bad writing.
I’ll give the first verse a pass -- it seems to invoke a common childhood experience (being told you “hit like a girl”) and illustrates the roots of toxic masculinity -- suggesting that violence and not wanting to be seen as feminine are manly qualities. But then we get to the chorus:
Sister, shoulder, daughter, lover
Healer, broken halo, mother
Nature, fire, suit of armor
Soul survivor, holy water
Secret keeper, fortune teller
Virgin Mary, scarlet letter
Technicolor, river wild
Baby girl, woman child
I think that maybe the chorus is trying to address the frustrating dichotimies women face (“Virgin Mary, scarlet letter”) but ultimately the qualities that Urban celebrates are traditionally feminine: they relate to maintaining a family and supporting men. There’s nothing in this celebration of “female” that really celebrates individuality on its own terms. What’s worse, it casts women as mystical (“holy water,” “fortune teller”), something inherently different from and more pure than men: it’s kinder, to be sure, but ascribing specific characteristics to men and women is, nonetheless, misogyny.
These themes are borne out in the rest of the song. Again, Urban tries to point out examples of misogyny in daily life. This is ultimately self-defeating because the writers can’t move past their own biases:
When somebody laughs and implies that she asked for it
Just 'cause she was wearin' a skirt
Oh, is that how that works?
When somebody talks about how it was Adam first
Does that make Eve second best
Or did He save the best for last?
Later on, Urban refers to women as the “Queen of kings.” Within this song, Urban can only conceptualize women in relationship to men. The portrayal of women as innocent, pure creatures who need to be protected from men -- or, more importantly, by sympathetic men like Urban -- robs women of their agency to protect themselves, enforces the idea that men are more powerful than women and need to use that power for good, and does absolutely jack shit to critique people who do commit violence.
What I find most troubling about #MeToo and its response is that there has been very little in the mainstream conversation to puncture the essentialism that only men are perpetrators of sexual violence and only women are survivors of sexual violence. Given the serious limitations of “Female,” there’s no reason to expect that it would respond to such a complicated stereotype. However, it perpetrates it.
I think we also have to ask, Why, of all people, Keith Urban? Considering people in the Swedish, Australian, and British music industry have signed open letters speaking out against sexual violence in their places of work, the lack of a similar letter or open commitment in the US, almost a month after these letters were released, is deafening. Misogyny in the country music industry is, of course, well-documented so the fact that even such a poor offering like “Female” exists is surprising to me. The fact that a woman of similar wattage to Mr. Urban has yet to release a similar song is telling: in commercial country music, it is too risky for a woman to address an injustice that she has literally faced.
So at this point you might be thinking, “Rachel -- give the dude a break. He’s trying to be an ally!” (Also, thanks for reading up to this point.) Yeah okay -- let’s dive into that. First of all, this song was released only days after the Weinstein story broke; while Urban’s impulse to action is indeed admirable, could he have given a female artist the opportunity to go first? Any country song about this will now be a follow-up to his. Also, could he have co-written a song about the negative impacts of misogyny with...uh...someone who’s actually experienced it? Or literally center the voice of a woman rather than that weird, quasi-sexualized humming in the background? Could he have used his influence to ensure that a woman could write and release a song about misogyny with little consequence? There’s nothing that suggests to me that Urban was trying to cash in on something here -- I’m not accusing him of that! But the overall execution was depressingly tone-deaf.
While “Female,” in my mind, clearly commits a number of sins, its biggest sin is this: it never commits to actually changing the status quo. Instead, it centers Urban’s feelings about how tragic and frustrating this state of affairs in. He pities the female he’s addressing rather than committing to action. By contrast, Jason Isbell’s “White Man’s World” protests against misogyny (in Nashville and elsewhere) by speaking directly to his wife’s experience -- not his -- and sincerely addresses his own ignorance and desire to correct that imbalance.
But is any of this surprising when songs about honor killings are considered a beloved subgenre of the music? Let’s look at our own glass house here. A mere two months after No Depression published an entire print issue about women in Americana and the sexism they endure (including a critique of murder ballads), we publish a list of celebrated murder ballads. Surely, for a Halloween list, there’s a whole slew of songs out there about ghosts, haints, and other creepy-crawlies. In fact, the song that springs immediately to my mind, “Long Black Veil,” features a protagonist who sacrifices his life to ensure that his lover didn’t become the subject of yet another murder ballad.
I’m not suggesting that murder ballads cause violence. Nor am I suggesting that retiring them would end misogyny forever. However, I think telling these stories uncritically (like in “Here I Sit in Prison”) suggests a certain complicity with their underlying values: that someone who cheats on their partner deserves summary execution, that a woman “belongs” to a man, that your partner cheating on you is a comment on your character or honor, that anyone impugning your character also deserves to be executed. A few weeks ago, singer-songwriter Austin Lucas called for songwriters to retire murder ballads, suggesting that they’re overused and normalize violence against women, and received a decent amount of backlash for it.
I’m sure that, at some point during the Civil Rights movement, there were people calling for the preservation of minstrel shows and minstrel music. Certainly, the reasons why white people no longer perform those songs is obvious. While they are an important chapter of American musical history, it is no longer viable to present that chapter without a critical discussion of racism in the United States and why these songs are no longer popularized today. I simply ask that murder ballads -- particularly those about killing cheating spouses -- be discussed in the same way. It’s worth asking why these songs are cherished by so many people.
And while we’re burying murder ballads, I propose that we throw another Americana subgenre into the pauper’s grave they deserve to share.
III. [Content note: the following is a brief description of unwanted contact at a concert. You may want to skip to the paragraph that begins with “At this point…”]
It was the opening verse of a country song. I had been dumped by my girlfriend two weeks prior. My favorite band was playing my favorite bar and I was emotionally buoyant enough, at least, to leave the house. Maybe not enough to have a good time -- but definitely enough to have a drunk time. A pretty woman who seemed to be there by herself kept glancing at me. Finally realizing I have exactly zero game, she leans over to say something to me.
“You’re very pretty,” she slurs, before pawing at my chest and lunging in for a kiss.
At this point, the protagonist -- almost always a man sings this type of song -- trumpets about how he should know better, but he and that crazy chick go home together anyway. (On the other hand, by the time I got back to her with a glass of water a nice staff member had bundled her off into a cab.) Earlier this year I wrote that the trope of the Hot Mess is in fact the very essence of rape culture.
It is truly beyond my ken why anyone would be excited about going home with someone who is that impaired. If someone can’t keep themselves upright, they almost certainly can’t give consent or, more importantly, withdraw it if they choose to. But I know there are people who do because there’s plenty of songs celebrating this very scenario -- and some of my very favorite songwriters are guilty as charged. (To be fair, these three particular songwriters see this behavior as self-destructive, but only with regards to themselves.) There aren’t too many songs on today’s country radio about killing people, but there are plenty about parties and the things that happen there.
To put it simply, these songs suck. The fact that these stories pass without comment once again demonstrates how normalized such ambiguous situations are in our culture: consent is less important than someone getting laid. Getting fucked up and getting fucked is considered normal youthful behavior. However, as the #MeToo hashtag suggests, the price of that behavior is hideous.
Nobody likes to think they were complicit in date rape -- accidental or otherwise. Just look at the fallout from the Aziz Ansari story. But just because something’s normal doesn’t mean it’s right. What consent does and doesn’t look like needs to be at the center of everyone’s consciousness. We can’t allow ourselves to perpetuate toxic cultural scripts -- whether that’s in our own actions or in the culture we consume. It’s time to murder the murder ballad and its younger cousin.
I don’t want Keith Urban’s stupid song pitying women. I want him to write a song about meeting a drunk person at a party and getting them home safely because bodily autonomy and safety are human rights.
Rachel Cholst is the editor and writer of Adobe & Teardrops and co-host of the forthcoming Adobe & Teardrops podcast.