The relationship of our society to discrimination and oppression is, indeed, one of our nation’s most shameful characteristics; the rich white straight male archetype has kept a firm boot on the chest of every race, sex, and creed known to man ever since our inception. Clearly, this doesn’t work – not just because it’s morally reprehensible, but because it can, in some particularly severe instances, lead to awful songs.
Let’s backpedal. No one’s disputing that men constantly demeaning women in song has lead to an uptick in strong-women music – the “girl power” movement, the proliferation of feminist songwriters, the Lilith Fair, etc. – and that’s terrific. Unfortunately, this umbrella also shelters a subgenre known to many as the “man-hating” song; I say “unfortunately” not to detract from excellent examples of the craft like “You Oughta Know” and Kelis’ immortal “Caught Out There”, but to denigrate dubious entries like Beyonce’s vile “If I Were A Boy” and, particularly, Carrie Underwood’s ghastly “Before He Cheats”.
Underwood’s anti-infidelity salvo bears a striking resemblance to a film I once saw called The Life of David Gale, which is, not coincidentally, the worst film I’ve ever seen. In David Gale, Kevin Spacey plays an anti-capital punishment activist ironically sentenced to Death Row for a hideous rape and murder. The film takes the stance that capital punishment is inhumane, ineffective, hypocritical, and faulty; while this is all true, an unfortunate byproduct of its crusading is that it makes those who oppose the death penalty – ostensibly the choir that the film is preaching to – look like grade-a nutjobs in the process. Similarly, “Before He Cheats” seeks to position the spurned narrator as a non-victim, a strong woman who won’t stand for her man’s roving hangs, no sir not on her watch. But, in the song’s most delicious irony, it goes about it by characterizing Carrie as a she-witch hellspawn who embodies the very traits that misogynists cite as woman’s most irritating peccadiloes: namely, she’s a shrieking, nagging, reactionary harpy.
Presumably this is the story Underwood and company set out to tell: while Underwood is at home being a good little homemaker, her significant other is out carousing, shooting pool at a karaoke bar with a ditzy bar skank, presumably plying said skank with alcohol in hopes that dirty bar-skank coitus will soon follow. So Carrie, not one to rest on her laurels while such malfeasance exists in her relationship, sets about vandalizing his prized vehicle, slashing tires, bashing in headlights, and even signing her name with a penknife as a final flourish, just in case the cops need a primary suspect. The moral of the story? “Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.” Miss Underwood’s defiant vocals and the rousing minor-key instrumental signify that this is, without qualification, a cautionary tale of woman-done-wrong, a flagrant message to the boys that you don’t mess with a strong redneck hellion of a woman.
Which is all fine and good, but how do you explain the lyrics?
Let me elaborate. While little miss Carrie has been busy “[taking] a Louisville Slugger to both headlights” of “his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive,” her angry bluster has covered up the fact that, when you actually pay attention to the lyrics, Carrie has absolutely no justification for her anger. Literally every illustration in the verses is preceded by “right now, he’s probably,” followed by the offense. “Right now, he’s probably slow-dancing with a bleach-blonde tramp, and she’s probably gettin’ frisky,” she sings, and nowhere during the duration of the song does she acknowledge that the narrative of the verses is anything other than conjecture, a vivid, paranoid fever dream. She sets the scene so well and with such fiery indignation that we forget that key word, “probably”, which means that she thinks but, when you get right down to it, she has no clue.
Carrie’s paramour could be doing anything during his unaccounted-for time – he could be watching the game with friends, he could be caught in traffic, he could be staying late at work. More interestingly, he could be doing something nice for Carrie – he could be constructing a nice Build-a-Bear just because, bringing home dinner so she doesn’t have to cook, or even buying her an engagement ring. What Carrie is sure about, though, is that she definitely busted his car up something awful, because she keeps it real like that. So, at the end of the day, Carrie’s man may have been unfaithful – but his activities also may have been purely innocuous, even sweet. There’s no way of knowing, because Carrie doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to ask. There are no “probably”s in that chorus, though, so we’re forced to accept the uncomfortable reality that Carrie definitely vandalized a vehicle beyond repair in the name of sheer paranoia, insecurity, and, really, psychosis. What I wouldn’t give to see this scenario revisited through the “Chappelle’s Show” filter – it’s clearly “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong” material, through and through. (“Take that, you clap-havin’ Jezebel!”)
Carrie Underwood cut her teeth on “American Idol”, winning the hearts of middle America with modern church staples like “Jesus Take the Wheel”; but on “Before He Cheats”, she not only completely fabricates a scenario, she actually follows through on enacting revenge for it. I’m not saying her paramour is necessarily a stand-up dude – I’m just saying, some facts need to be confirmed before you can vandalize dude’s property. The “Before He Cheats” defense would never hold up in court, and for the level of shrill insanity that the song perpetrates on both its would-be antagonist and the listening public at large (not to mention anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a karaoke bar – that “white-trash Shania karaoke” line is eerily prescient in retrospect), “Before He Cheats” is a verifiable staple on the Jukebox From Hell.
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