This is a piece I wrote a while back and finally got around to doing my final polish.
Many songs involve an unreliable or unlikable narrator whom the listener isn’t supposed to trust or like. For example Dave Matthews Band’s “Don’t Drink the Water,” which describes the horrors of colonialism through the eyes of someone who thinks the land is his to take. Some songs, however, feature narrators who believe they’re right, and the song is meant to elicit sympathy or corroboration on the part of the listener—and they shouldn’t.
The song: “Rude” concerns a young man confronting his beloved’s father, who straight up hates him. The narrator asks the man for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and he is cruelly rebuffed: “You say I’ll never get your blessings ‘till the day I die/Tough luck my friend, but the answer is no.”
I empathize: The narrator makes a good case for himself: “Why you gotta be so rude/Don’t you know I’m human, too.” On that basis, it’s easy to feel sorry for the guy. He tried to take the polite route, and was mocked for his trouble. Also, the music video implies that Dad’s distaste is based on class or race (or likely both), given that the narrator is neither wealthy nor white.
However: As a teenager I would have eaten this song up, seeing it as romantic and sweet. Yet as a mother (of a daughter, no less), I am affronted by the narrator’s opening gambit: “Can I have your daughter for the rest of my life/Say yes, say yes, ‘cause I need to know.” Not only is he asking to take and keep the man’s daughter, he’s damn bossy, too. After Dad’s “no” he threatens to “marry her anyway.” Then comes his next sally, which is decidedly more hostile: “I hate to do this/You leave me no choice […] We will run away/To another galaxy you know/You know she’s in love with me/She will go anywhere I go.” Not only is he manipulating her love for him, he’s saying if Dad doesn’t play ball, they’ll just disappear and he’ll never see her again. With a threat like that, he might even be able to get Dad to pay for the wedding.
2. “Love’s the Only House”—Martina McBride
The song: The narrator discusses the many problems in the world today and how love can fix said problems.
I empathize: I’m a Buddhist, and I heartily endorse the sentiment that “Love’s the only house big enough for all the pain in the world.”
However: There are so many places where the narrator comes across as smug, condescending, and even racist: “Senorita can’t quit crying, baby’s due now any day/Don Juan left, got sick of tryin’, no one there to show him the way.” As if this weren’t enough, the “senorita” goes to the store to beg for milk, and who should buy the milk but our humble narrator. One can only hope she goes home with the lass to teach her how to act right. Or maybe she’ll go home secure in her knowledge that her wonderful gesture helped save the world.
3. “How Do You Like Me Now?!”—Toby Keith
The song: This song describes an up-and-coming singer so excited about his success that he wants to contact a high school acquaintance he had an unrequited crush on and point out how well he’s doing.
I empathize: Everyone loves a good revenge story. And apparently she was snobby and vain: “You overlooked me somehow/Besides you had too many boyfriends to mention/And I played my guitar too loud.”
However: Again, as a teenager (and outcast) I would have loved the idea of the spoiled girl getting her comeuppance. But as an adult who has left her teenage years far behind, I don’t blame people for how they acted when they were young and stupid. Not to mention that he sounds like he was a jerk to her: “You were always the perfect one and the valedictorian so/Under your number I wrote, ‘Call for a good time.’” True, he heard a rumor that she made fun of him for pursuing his dream of being a performer, but the narrator takes his butt-hurt a little too far when he gloats about the mean guy she ended up marrying: “He took your dreams and tore them apart/He never comes home and you’re always alone/And your kids hear you cryin’ down the hall” (this last is followed by an upbeat musical break). The narrator sounds a little like he’s not all there in the mental health department; it’s probably a good thing she stayed away from him.
4. “Breakin’ Dishes”—Rihanna
The song: “Breakin’ Dishes” is a catchy little tune about a spurned woman getting revenge by making a mess.
I empathize: Being cheated on is a devastating betrayal. Who doesn’t enjoy the scene in Waiting to Exhale when Angela Bassett’s character torches her philandering husband’s car?
However: The narrator sounds pretty unhinged. “I’m breaking dishes up in here, all night/I ain’t gon’ stop until I see police lights/I’ma fight a man tonight.” She also amuses herself by burning his clothes. Infidelity is nothing to trivialize, and since he’s “been coming home lately at 3:30” he probably is cheating, but the narrator doesn’t actually have concrete evidence: “Is he cheating/Man, I don’t know.” Yet that doesn’t stop her from “looking ‘round for something else to throw.” So instead of confronting her boyfriend, she’s instigating a fight, and based on what we know about her he’s probably going to get the crap beaten out of him. And possibly set on fire.
5. “The Saga of Jesse Jane”—Alice Cooper
The song: Jesse is a man who enjoys wearing women’s clothing, in this instance a wedding dress. He is currently serving time for killing a man who accosted him in a McDonald’s.
I empathize: I’ve listened to the song many times, and I was always on Jesse’s side. Again, teenager, outcast, etc. I’m no fan of homophobia or attacking people who look different. I hate bullying.
However: Here’s Jesse’s description of the event: “His face was red, his fist was clenched/He threw his Coke and he got me drenched.” That is the entirety of the altercation. Jesse retaliates: “I killed him dead, I killed ‘em all.” Not only does Jesse murder a man for throwing a soda at him, he wastes everyone in the restaurant for looking at him funny. Hate crimes are no joke, but shooting people is not the answer.
When my writin’ friends who helped me edit this piece asked me how I found these songs, I had to admit I own all these albums (except Magic!). Despite the songs irking me, I still enjoy the majority of their body of work (except Magic!).