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Beyonce’s Boldest Gambit on Cowboy Carter

Beyonce’s Boldest Gambit on Cowboy Carter

No one in my lifetime has successfully produced an album with the ambition of Beyonce’s Cowboy Carter. From redefining “country” to updating feminism to reappropriating a whole musical genre built on cultural appropriation, Beyonce set out to accomplish almost unimaginable goals and stuck the landing, song by song. However, one track stands out as a political, social and musical highwire act of such audacity it was hard to even listen to it the first time. No other track on Carter is drawing nearly as much heat.

Putting a little rock guitar or a funk bassline to a country song is a fine bit of genre-bending entertainment. It’s been done. A certain Kansas City Chiefs fan earns a respectable living from it. But rewriting the lyrics to “Jolene” isn’t just an amusing play on styles. To borrow words from the immortal Jules Winnfield, “it ain’ the same fuckin’ ballpark, it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same fuckin’ sport.” 

Picture a sculptor showing up at the Louvre to put arms on Venus de Milo. Or an author rewriting one of the Gospels. Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” written in 1973, has been the archetype of a woman’s role, a woman’s dilemma, and a woman’s use of power in the country music universe for generations. Come for “Jolene,” best not miss. 

Before going any further, it should be mentioned that listening to Cowboy Carter as a man has been an unsettling experience. Discussing the songs with the women in your life, you learn there’s a whole other album being played that you didn’t hear. It’s like discovering the existence of colors you didn’t know existed. Sharing reactions to the album as a man is a hazardous venture, undertaken with the humility and audacity of a blind man climbing a mountain. Let’s begin, carefully, step by step, hold by hold.

“Jolene,” in the hands of either Parton or Beyonce, is a song about power. Parton’s nameless singer in “Jolene” is country music’s Madonna of the Feed Store, Our Lady of Meekness and Sacrifice. In the original “Jolene,” the singer neatly lays out the rules of female power in tragic, almost pathetic terms. The singer is appealing to a pretty, presumably younger rival who’s taken aim at her man, urging her, “please don’t take him just because you can.” 

With few lyrics, the song evokes a world. My whole life I thought the singer in Jolene was an older mother, an impression so strong I was shocked to look back at the lyrics and find that wasn’t there. And yet again, it’s there. “Jolene” conjures from your own mind a picture of female vulnerability in terms we all interpret from experience.

In the universe of Parton’s “Jolene,” a woman’s fate depends on a man. Her value is her beauty. Her power is her suffering, her vulnerability. The singer’s entire appeal is premised on pity, because when her sexual lure is eclipsed, her only remaining power is the pathos she inspires in others. 

The “man” in Parton’s “Jolene” is a witless object, as vulnerable to being “stolen” as a set of keys or a watch. Never in the tune does the singer appeal to him because, what’s the point. He’ll follow a rabbit down a hole with no mind to the consequences for himself or anyone else. The singer’s man is less a person than a weather condition, a circumstance, bereft of pity, insight or conscience. “Jolene” is a negotiation between women in a universe where a woman’s power is defined by her relationship to a man. Unspoken in this negotiation with Parton’s Jolene, is the implicit threat – take him if you must, but he’ll do it to you in time.

For the country music world, Parton’s “Jolene” has become an archetype of the ‘good woman,’ defining the ethics of their power and the nature of their relationship to the men who control their fates. The singer in Beyonce’s “Jolene” is not country music’s suffering Madonna. She’s a whole other mother. 

The singer in Parton’s original is literally begging. She acknowledges the inherent superiority of her rival, “I cannot compete with you, Jolene” and “I could easily understand how you could take my man.” By contrast, one can imagine the singer in Beyonce’s “Jolene” as the granddaughter of the original, writing new rules for a new generation. “Your peace depends on how you move, Jolene.” The rules have changed. There’s a new archetype in town. 

Beyonce’s singer isn’t pathetic or meek. No more suffering Madonna of fragile womanhood, she’s a “queen,” and also “a Creole banjee bitch from Lousianne.” She sleeps “good, happy, cause you can’t dig up them planted seeds.” The singer of a new generation is a battle-hardened monarch, confident of her power, even dangerous, yet interestingly, still aware of a need to assert herself to push off a nuisance. Jolene in Beyonce’s version is an affront to the dignity of a queen, with all the danger that carries for the guilty party.

Shifting the power posture in “Jolene” would be enough to turn heads, but Beyonce’s update adds something larger. In the original, the man was an absent, unappealable force. In Beyonce’s redux, a choir with male voices sings “I’ma stand by her, she will stand by me, Jolene.” The singer’s bold talk in 21st century “Jolene” can sound like a dis’ track until it’s backed up by unity, loyalty, love and community. 

That final bridge, with a choir that includes the male voice of Little Nas, carries a power worthy of being quoted in full:

Dolly Parton wrote “Jolene” just over 50 years ago, while Congress was debating whether to let women get a credit card and the Supreme Court was issuing the Roe decision. Change was in the air, but her nameless singer still lived in a world with few options and limited power. Parton’s song crystallized that sad vulnerability.

Beyonce gives us this rewrite at a remarkable moment, when an angry, violent movement is clawing relentlessly at civil rights gains for women and people of color, and at democracy itself. In this context, Beyonce’s reference to valley’s crossed and good deeds planted feels bigger than the concerns of a romantic couple. Adding a choir, especially with a male voice, builds the song into a rally. Beyonce’s “Jolene” is a fight song, an anthem. Good deeds planted, rights won, beauty, art and culture that rose from blood and tears will be protected from envious vandals. Decency has a powerful ally, a powerful fighting woman. Powerful, fighting women.

There’s always a Jolene. Wherever something good is being built there are scavengers at the margins, looking to tear away a piece for themselves. In a moment when it feels like everything good is breaking apart beneath our feet, Beyonce has repurposed an age-old archetype of weakness, breathing into it a redemptive power. In her song, a queen, armed by love, supported by her realm, stands against a cheap, greedy chaos unleashed in the world. Standing together, evil will be confronted with untiring resistance. We won’t go meekly.

In this moment of looming darkness, say it with me, “God save the Queen. God save us all.” Also fuck off, Jolene.

5 Comments

  1. I am an older male. I am glad Beyonce was able to update this song for the 21st century. My sons will marry women who should have easier and more productive lives than their mothers. This is due in part to the power women have achieved in the past 50 years. Country music is still a cesspool of misogyny and racism so it will be interesting to see if Cowboy Carter succeeds.

  2. When people started criticizing Beyoncé’s cover as too violent/aggressive, it was amusing to see the pushback: have you not listened to the actual lyrics of some Loretta Lynn or Carrie Underwood songs? Dolly’s “Jolene” is against the usual “you ain’t woman enough to take my man” grain in country music, which helped it to stand out. It’s been covered a lot, and each artist has the prerogative to remake it as they see fit.

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