OK, so I seem to have done something a bit controversial.
Not Robin Thicke or Azealia Banks controversial, you understand, but a few people have suggested that I’ve made a mistake by recording Wives and Lovers.An article in the great arbiter of political correctness that is the Huffington Post tends to confirm this when it describes it as ‘one of the most offensive songs, ever’.
But I think things are a little more complicated than that…
Wives and Lovers was composed ‘to order’ in 1963 when Burt Bacharach and Hal David were asked to write a song about marital infidelity to promote a long-forgotten film. The Bacharach bible ‘Song By Song’ (Omnibus Press – recommended to pop obsessives everywhere) rather brilliantly describes it as a ‘pledge drive song for male chauvinist pigs’ but I really struggle with the idea that the lyricist of Alfie, Anyone Who Had A Heart, Don’t Make Me Over, You’ll Never Get To Heaven and Walk On By could knowingly write something as heartless – whatever the sexual mores of the time. The song has never struck me as a sexist rallying cry but rather as a warning wrapped up in a very beautiful package – not a warning to women to fall into line but a warning about how some men think and behave. Be careful what you wish for it says – and decades before the world discovered that being married to Don Draper might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
The late 50s and early 60s were a particularly fertile time for overtly male chauvinist lyrics – Girl Talk and Music To Watch Girls By are classics of the genre (albeit if the former has been ‘reclaimed’ by a number of female singers and the latter more than implies that the girls are doing their own share of ‘keeping track of the pack’). Even the usually empathetic Oscar Hammerstein appeared to get in on the act with I Enjoy Being A Girl. But there’s the rub – while the first two are, arguably, as politically suspect as they are musically divine, the last – at least in its original context in Flower Drum Song – is performed by a highly resourceful woman who is clearly capable of much more than talking ‘on the telephone for hours with a pound and a half of cream upon my face’. In the show, it’s about a Chinese woman embracing western values which, even in the relatively unenlightened political climate of 1958, is clearly recognised by Hammerstein as not being without complications. In fact the characters seem to pick and choose their values to suit their own ends.
Taken literally, the lyrics of Wives and Lovers are both dismissive and extraordinarily cruel.
Hey! Little Girl
Comb your hair, fix your makeup – soon he will open the door
Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger, you needn’t try anymore…
But that’s exactly where I think we’re missing the point – or, at least, taking a conveniently revisionist view which assumes that everyone in 1963 was so sexist that they actually believed that women deserved to be cast aside if they didn’t appear doll-like and submissive at all times. The song has been recorded by a slew of female vocalists and aren’t we being more than a little patronising in assuming that they are so mired in internalised sexism that they subscribe to a literal interpretation of the lyric? Both Dionne and Ella, for example, sound wryly amused at the naivety and presumption of those ‘men who will always be men’ – and Ella’s substitution of word ‘prurty’ for ‘pretty’ seems to emphasise the point that she doesn’t really buy into any of this nonsense. Importantly, these a contemporary recordings – no cool, post-modern reinterpretation going on there.
The song is full of lines – ‘soon he will open the door … I’m warning you’ which make a new husband’s arrival sound as much like a threat as anything else. And surely the aforementioned ‘and men will always be men’ is not meant to cast them in anything other than an unflattering light? Certainly compared with the directly insulting ‘but that’s a dame, they’re all the same’ from Girl Talk (at least when sung unironically by a man – you see how complicated this stuff is!), we’re in much more complex territory. The suggestion that wives who have the temerity to ‘send him off with their hair still in curlers’ can only expect their husbands to leave them is too callous to be taken seriously – surely we are meant to question the acceptability of this behaviour?
Even if he isn’t explicitly condemning it, I really can’t accept that David is somehow applauding the attitude described in the song. Add to that the fact that the (apparent) cynicism of the lyric is set against a gorgeous, seductive waltz of a melody – and yet one which is all about tension and a failure to resolve – and things look more complicated still. This combination seems pretty crucial to the song’s intention to question rather than simply endorse (if you accept my interpretation of it at any rate). The music implies a love song but the lyric belies that impression. So you could argue that recasting it into a more edgy 5/4 risks damaging those intentions. In fact I think that the new time signature, and Geoff’s brilliant harmonies, really heighten the darkness that I’ve always found in the song without making it in any way less beautiful.
In the end of course, that’s the great thing about this repertoire. These songs are so sophisticated that they are infinitely reinterpretable. There are other songs on the album that have very personal meanings for me – and that differ a lot from others’ interpretations of them – but, judging by some people’s responses, this is one where I appear to have gone out on a limb slightly. I’m not making claims for Wives and Lovers as a subtly veiled feminist tract but I do think there is more there than it’s usually given credit for. It’s very easy to feel superior to the songwriters of the 50s and 60s and assume that they are merely reflecting commonly held beliefs of the time rather than questioning them – and yet how much has really changed? Where do we get off on being so self-righteous about the lyric of a pop song when women still own one percent of the World’s assets? Maybe we should spend less time feeling smug about how far we’ve come and more thinking about how much further we still have to go. In that context, and even if we still buy the idea that Hal David is the biggest chauvinist of them all, then his brilliant lyric – and Bacharach’s sublime melody – should serve to spur us out of any complacency.