Monday, May 25, 2009

Dysfunctional Top Ten, Part 2

Time to continue the countdown I began in my last post, Dysfunctional Top Ten, Part 1.

Number 5: When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman

This song was recorded in 1978 by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and became a hit one year later. It was not, however, written by any of the band members but by Evan Stevens, about whom I am unable to find out anything (Source: When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman - Wikipedia). Thematically, it's similar to Number 6 in this countdown, When a Man Loves a Woman, and so it's appropriate that they fall so close together in the list. Both songs assert that falling in love with a woman is something of a disaster for a man. The major difference is that Stevens is more specific: beautiful women are the problem. Still, did Percy Sledge experience his agony by falling in love with a plain woman? Certainly not. It is alleged that Sledge wrote the song after his girlfriend left him to pursue a modelling career (Source: Percy Sledge - Wikipedia).

It appears that some men get a little confused about the difference between love and lust. Stevens and Sledge, and perhaps also Eric Clapton (back at Number 8), would have done well to get clearer on the point. It could have saved them some pain.

Indeed, the protagonist of this song is suffering a good deal, even more than the protagonist of When a Man Loves a Woman. Neither of them can trust their women, but this guy can't even trust his friends, as he tells us: "When you're in love with a beautiful woman/You watch your friends." Why? Because:

Everybody wants her, everybody loves her
everybody wants to take your baby home (Source: When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman @ Gunther W. Anderson's Home Page.)

He can't trust his lover. He can't trust his friends--which means, really, that he has no friends. He can't seem to trust anybody--a very unhappy position to be in.

Number 4: Beth

This ballad, released in 1976, was not a typical KISS offering, yet it became their biggest hit (source: Beth (song) - Wikipedia). Beth is another loving sufferer. Her man spends his time playing rock and roll with his bandmates while she sits at home all alone. The lyrics tell the story from the musician's point of view, as one might expect:

Beth, I hear you calling
But I can't come home right now
Me and the boys are playing
And we just can't find the sound
Just a few more hours
And I'll be right home to you
I think I hear them calling
Oh Beth, what can I do?
(Source: KISS - Beth Lyrics @
The tone of the song is mournful and pitying, but I think the subtext is nevertheless detectable: Beth is a pain in the butt. The musician wants to get on with work on the sound and she won't stop phoning up and whining at him. It's quite clear where her man wants to spend the bulk of his time, and it's not with her. Indeed, by the end of the song, he breaks the promise he made in the first verse: "Beth, I know you're lonely/And I hope you'll be all right/'Cause me and the boys will be playing/All night."

One wonders about the legitimacy of Beth's complaint. We only hear his side of the story, after all. Perhaps he really is gone so often, and puts so little energy into the relationship, that it is fair for her to complain that "our house just ain't a home." On the other hand, perhaps she's too clingy and needy. Doesn't she have any friends and hobbies of her own?

What's certain is that mutual feeling is lacking. The musician simply isn't interested in spending as much time with Beth as she would like him to. Further, he's willing to lie about it. He puts her off saying he'll only be a few more hours, but ends up spending the entire night away. His promises are casually broken, her feelings not important. Surely this relationship is doomed.

Number 3: Cruel to Be Kind

This song was Nick Lowe's biggest hit, peaking at number 12 on UK, US, Canadian and Australian charts in 1979 (Source: Nick Lowe - Wikipedia). I find it frankly kinky in a way reminiscent of 10,000 Maniacs' take on Because the Night (about which more later). I might have left it off the list if I felt it simply portrayed some kind of sadomasochistic roleplaying, which may take place within a functioning relationship. However, the consensuality of the torment is in doubt.

The protagonist declares himself mystified by his love's behaviour. "You say your love is bona fide/But that don't coincide/With the things that you do." Further, "I pick myself up off the ground/To have you knock me back down/Again and again..." But the chorus is where it gets interesting. When he asks her to be nice, or to explain herself, she says:

You gotta be
Cruel to be kind
In the right measure
Cruel to be kind
It's a very good sign
Cruel to be kind
Means that I love you
Baby, you gotta be cruel to be kind
(Source: Cruel to Be Kind lyrics @
It doesn't sound like a good situation that this fellow finds himself in, and yet he almost appears to be enjoying himself. The song is a bouncy, infectious little number. Still, it can't be good for his self-esteem to be knocked down again and again, whether literally or figuratively, and he does profess to confusion and to being at his wit's end. So I'm going to assume this activity is not consensual, and award Cruel to Be Kind the Number 3 slot.

Number 2: Lovefool

At this point, you may be wondering if dysfunctional relationships are a thing of the past. After all, the most recent song I've mentioned so far was recorded in 1982 (Sexual Healing). Don't I wish! If there are more neurotic songs in ancient than in recent history, it's because ancient history is a lot longer than recent history. So fear not; these next two songs are more recent--and they top the list! Maybe we're getting more dysfunctional rather than less, or at least more willing to sing openly about it.

Another interesting thing about these two most recent songs is that they are both sung and written (or co-written) by women. All the previous selections were written by men. Female dysfunction is at last coming to the fore. You go, girl! To a shrink, as quickly as possible.

In this strange, very unfeminist piece of work recorded in 1996 by Swedish band The Cardigans (source: Lovefool - Wikipedia), the protagonist cries, prays and begs her increasingly disinterested boyfriend to: "Love me love me/Say that you love me/Fool me fool me/Go on and fool me/Love me love me/Pretend that you love me/Leave me leave me/Just say that you need me."

Her mother is, quite rightly, concerned: "Mother tells me I shouldn't bother/That I ought to stick to another/Man, a man that surely deserves me, but/I think you do." She appears to be saying that her boyfriend is better and more worthy of respect than she is. After all, he deserves to have her despite the fact that... he doesn't really want her that much. She, on the other hand, does not deserve the opportunity to find someone better (an opportunity she is unlikely to have if she can't let go of this guy).

It's all a bit convoluted, and to find a clearer truth, we need to look beyond what the lyrics are, on the surface, saying. She is afraid to leave him. Most probably, she is terrified to be alone, afraid that she will cease to exist without someone to see her reflection in. So she clings to him no matter what, even to the point of losing her grip on reality. She begs for the opportunity to live in a dream world, where she can pretend she is loved when she really isn't. Even that is better than the alternative.

When you lose your grip on reality, you begin the dangerous slide into insanity, and that appears to be happening here. Although she declares in the chorus "Leave me, leave me/Just say that you need me," she concludes in the second verse, "I don't care if you really care/As long as you don't go." So, leave... but don't leave. No wonder she also declares in the second verse, "Reason will not lead to solution/I will end up lost in confusion" (Source: The Cardigans - Lovefool lyrics - Lyrics on Demand). You already are, honey.

It is interesting to note that her mother, although wanting to help, does not appear to have a better conception of a healthy relationship than her daughter does. Consider that mother says she should, "stick to another man." What does this mean? Usually, "stick to" is a colloquialism meaning to stay with what you currently have. But this woman doesn't have another man. If she did, she'd be comfortable letting go of the one who no longer loves her, knowing that she wouldn't have to experience the terror of being alone, even temporarily. The fact that she clings so desperately to the current disinterested man indicates that there is no one else.

So what does her mother mean? The only possibility left, as far as I can see, is the more literal meaning of the word: find another man and stick to him, cling to him, glue herself to him. Mother does not see the clinging and terrible neediness as a problem, only the choice of target. But then, if mother had been capable of modelling a healthy relationship for her daughter, she wouldn't be in this position. We get our conception of relationships from the earliest relationship we witness: that between our parents. If our parents had a dysfunctional relationship, we are liable to waste years of our lives duplicating the sort of relationship we witnessed. In short, we are screwed, as is this unfortunate creature.

Number 1: Strong Enough

This Sheryl Crow single hit number 5 in the US in 1995. It has since been covered by Cher, among others (maybe because she couldn't resist covering a song by an artist with a name so similar to hers?) and the Dixie Chicks have performed it live. Travis Tritt, whoever that is, recorded an answering song, Strong Enough to Be Your Man. God help him. (Source: Strong Enough (Sheryl Crow song) - Wikipedia.)

This song takes a little time to get into its dysfunctional stride. The first couple of verses seem not so unreasonable: "God, I feel like hell tonight/Tears of rage I cannot fight" and "Nothing's true and nothing's right/so let me be alone tonight." Fair enough--she's having a really bad day. Everybody has those from time to time.

But things deteriorate from there. "I have a face I cannot show/I make the rules up as I go." And worse: "When I've shown you that I just don't care..." Don't care about what? Presumably the man himself. What else could this refer to? And then the chorus: in spite of all this, "Are you strong enough to be my man?"

This is so wrong on so many levels. First and foremost is the implication that a strong man will stay with a woman who treats him like crap. (Maybe "do you have low enough self-esteem to be my man" didn't scan well enough?) Then there's this plea: "Lie to me/I promise I'll believe/Lie to me/But please don't leave." That makes two songs that frame lying as a positive thing, something that allows the relationship to keep limping on instead of getting a decent burial. This is actually a first-rate portrayal of how people behave in dysfunctional relationships: there is little openness or honesty. Instead, anything that allows the status quo to continue is embraced, being it lying to your partner or to yourself.

And as if that isn't enough, she attacks his manhood! Later in the song, the refrain changes to, "Are you man enough to be my man?" She is saying that if he leaves her, despite the fact that she's inconsistent and crazy-making ("I make the rules up as I go") and has shown him that she doesn't care, not only is he weak, he's not a real man. Whoa, talk about manipulative! And certainly, immature people in dysfunctional relationships are manipulative. They basically have to be, because once they've given up on honest, open communication, they have no other way to get their needs met.

On a side note, the site where I looked up the lyrics allows comments, and the first comment claims that this song refers to Sheryl Crow's trials with breast cancer. According to commenter kooki, "she's asking her boyfriend if he is strong enough to understand what she's going trhough" [sic]. I say, bullshit. It's plausible if you look only at the first two verses, but beyond that the theory falls apart. What about "Lie to me/I promise I'll believe"? What about "I've shown you that I just don't care"? How does that fit in with cancer?

It doesn't. Furthermore, while Sheryl Crow was diagnosed with breast cancer fairly recently--in 2006 (see Wildflower section of Sheryl Crow - Wikipedia)--Strong Enough came out in 1994. So, nice theory, and self-serving for any Sheryl Crow fan, but... totally wrong. Sorry.

If this and other comments are any indication, fans do sense that there is something about these lyrics that is not entirely kosher. There are several attempts to explain away or gloss over the troubling aspects of the song. Some of them are quite amusing, and not just for the bad grammar and spelling, so if you've got a little extra time, you might want to read a few. See Sheryl Crow - Strong Enough lyrics @

While the other songs in my list are dysfunctional in just one way, Sheryl Crow serves up a smorgasbord of immaturity and messedupedness in this wonderfully multilayered paean to relationship dysfunctionality. For this, Strong Enough is the hands-down winner.

So that's it for the dysfunctional countdown. Readers, if you see yourself in any of these songs, I hope you will take action. Remember that, whatever Sheryl Crow might say, sometimes the strongest thing you can do... is leave.

Coming Up: Later, I hope to have an Honorable Mention section, and perhaps a list of all those wife-beating songs I ended up leaving out of this list. I would also like to present a list of healthy songs, as contrast. Unfortunately, it will be much shorter. I don't expect to even have ten. So stay tuned for more song discussion.


Raine Lawliet said...

You know, Strong Enough reminds me a lot of a song by Emilie Autumn called Gentlemen Aren't Nice, except that that song is written as a parody. With obviously ironic lines like "Just because I won't agree to take his arm / and I occasionally forget his name / he likes to call inclemency what I call charm," the fact that I can compare it to any halfway serious song is not a good thing.

The Happy Painter said...

Oh .. I love this entry too! I haven't thought about some of these songs in a long time. I wonder if there are any love songs about healthy relationships ... or are relationships imperfect at best and we'd best just get over it!

I CANNOT wait to hear the honourable ... or unhonourable mentions.

The Happy Painter said...

.. or would that be dishonourable mentions? LOL.

The Happy Painter said...

.... and NOW I have Cruel to Be Kind playing on a continuous reel in my head. Thanks a bunch. :-)

Vivian said...

Raine, I have wondered if The Cardigans meant to be tongue-in-cheek in their song as well. I hope so... but I still feel entitled to put it in my Dysfunctional Top Ten. It still sticks in my head as one of the most dysfunctional things I've ever heard.

I believe Sheryl Crow, on the other hand, was completely serious in her song, which is worrying.

Thanks, HP! I do have a few songs in mind that describe healthy relationships, though like I said it's a much shorter list.

Ha ha, such is the peril of this type of article. I had every one of these songs running through my head at one point or another while working on these posts.

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