This post is adapted from a presentation I gave for the Psychology of Gender course I taught last year at BYU. Though it might not be clear at first, I conclude with some uniquely LDS themes.
Billy Joel is the master lyricist of the love song.
His love songs reflect a wide spectrum of feelings and attitudes about romantic relationships. We’re all familiar with “The Longest Time,” the prototypical song from the I’m-so-excited-to-be-back-in-love-again-and-I-don’t-care-what-happens genre. For his second wife, supermodel Christie Brinkley, there’s the upbeat 80s icon, “Uptown Girl.” And, of course, there are the touching tributes, “She’s Got a Way” and “Just the Way You Are,” that have been sung by men on many occasions to swoon their wives and girlfriends.
There is also a darker and deeper side to Billy Joel love songs. There’s “Honesty,” reflecting Joel’s desire for “someone to believe,” in which he declares, “I don’t need a pretty face to tell me pretty lies.” There’s the duet with Ray Charles, “Baby Grand,” in which the duo at least have their pianos—“As for women, they don’t last with just one man / But my baby grand’s been good to me.” And there is the deeply sad “And So It Goes” (recently performed by American Idol‘s David Archuleta): “But you can make decisions too / And you can have this heart to break.”
Without a doubt, Joel has been around the block when it comes to the ups and downs of romance. Collectively, his songs paint an image of disappointment, hope, excitement, commitment, deep sorrow, and loneliness. He’s currently on his third wife—a Food Network host less than half his age. I wonder how they’re doing.
I make no professions to be able to read Billy Joel’s mind. But I can’t help but wonder, what does he think about women? Perhaps no song is better to explore than his classic, “She’s Always a Woman.” Here are the lyrics:
She can kill with a smile
She can wound with her eyes
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies
And she only reveals what she wants you to see.
She hides like a child
But she’s always a woman to me.
She can lead you to love
She can take you or leave you
She can ask for the truth but she’ll never believe
And she’ll take what you give her as long as it’s free.
Yeah, she steals like a thief
But she’s always a woman to me.
Oh, she takes care of herself
She can wait if she wants
She’s ahead of her time.
Oh, and she never gives out
And she never gives in
She just changes her mind.
And she’ll promise you more than the Garden of Eden,
Then she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleedin’.
But she’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be.
Blame it all on yourself
‘Cause she’s always a woman to me.
She is frequently kind and she’s suddenly cruel.
She can do as she pleases, she’s nobody’s fool.
And she can’t be convicted,
She’s earned her degree.
And the most she will do is throw shadows at you
But she’s always a woman to me.
What is Joel saying here? It’s difficult to interpret. The beautiful music, coupled with the title, has led some men and women (who don’t listen very well) to think the song is supposed to be a touching tribute. Others have criticized the song as being misogynist. Indeed, we can see good evidence there. The lyrics portray hostile sexism (women will “ruin your faith with your casual lies”), benevolent sexism (women cannot be blamed—“blame it all on yourself”), and perhaps a subtle touch of modern sexism (perhaps resentment of women’s increasing social freedom—“she can do as she pleases, she’s nobody’s fool”).
For me, the meatiest part of the song is in the couplet, “She’ll promise you more than the Garden of Eden / Then she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleedin’.” Here we are taken back to the paradisiacal bliss of Eden. For Joel, a new relationship contains the hope of something even better than that state. The woman, clearly idealized by Joel, gives him that promise, whether it be imagined or real.
But, like Joel, we don’t have to think about Eden for long before we think of the transgression of Adam and Eve. Traditionally, Eve has received the bulk of the criticism for this fall from paradise. A careless and ignorant move that brought mortality—blood—into the world: “She’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding.”
Leaving Eve aside, however, this act has been seen as exemplifying the frailty of woman. The logic is as follows:
- Eve brought on this mess.
- Eve was a woman.
- Eve’s sin — of course — had something to do with being a woman. (Would we think the same thing about Adam and men?)
- Thus, the domination of men over women is only just.
Sadly, this logic has been used to justify much oppression towards women in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic societies. Eve’s punishment for the Fall left men and women with a clear reason for why men are the ones who wear the pants. This view has also perpetuated stereotypes about the sly, dishonest, mysterious, and conniving nature of women. This is the way Eve was, this is the way women have been in the past, this is the way women always will be. She’s always a woman to me.
But perhaps I’m being a little harsh on the Piano Man. After all, several of his songs exemplify a rare sort of respect towards women, and hint towards the desire of having a genuine relationship. In “Just the Way You Are,” Joel touches us with the lyrics, “I said I love you. That’s forever. / This I promise from the start. / I couldn’t love you any better / I love you just the way you are.” If Joel does have somewhat domineering views toward women, he certainly would have nothing less than a willing captive. Women, after all, can make decisions, and if one is to break his heart, then that’s the way it has to be.
But the dominant undercurrent for Joel, I think, is an idealized view of women, one in which Joel desperately reaches out for a soul mate—someone to depend on, to believe in. Not simply a pretty face, not only a sympathizer. As he sings in “Honesty,” “When I want sincerity, tell me where else can I turn / When you’re the one that I depend upon?” And for Joel, an atheist, that statement is perhaps literally true, especially considering that he hasn’t taken much self-satisfaction for his illustrious career (or so I hear). He grasps out for a paradisiacal Eden, yearning for the woman who will stay at his side. And then he laments that women always seem to be sneaking off, carelessly eating of the forbidden fruit.
But Joel never gives up, though he is admittedly tired. In “River of Dreams,” he sings of his vision in the middle of the night:
I’ve been searching for something
Taken out of my soul
Something I’d never lose
Something somebody stole.
I don’t know why I go walking at night,
But now I’m tired and I don’t want to walk anymore.
I hope it doesn’t take the rest of my life
Until I’ve finally found what I’ve been looking for.
Perhaps deep in his heart, Joel has been searching for a genuine relationship with a woman, one that is not characterized by traditional views about Eve and her daughters. Perhaps this is Joel’s dream, epitomizing something “so undefined that it can only be seen by the eyes of the blind”—perhaps those who are blind, in part, to the problematic stereotypes that are perpetuated in “She’s Always a Woman.”
Later in “River of Dreams,” Joel sings, “I’m not sure about life after this / God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man / Baptized by fire I wade / Into the river that is running through the promised land.”
I hope that Billy Joel does wade into the river that runs through the promised land. If so, I believe, Joel will also realize that Eve’s partaking of the forbidden fruit epitomized the desire, however unconscious, of both women and men to be as the gods, knowing good and evil. That the promise of “more than the Garden of Eden” is a real one, made not by a mortal woman but by a loving God. And that women (and men) are not defined by rigid stereotypes, but that we are, in a sense, only men and women in embryo, destined to fulfill something that, for now, may seem “so undefined”—the true measures of our creation as gendered individuals.
Filed under: Music Tagged: | Adam and Eve, And So It Goes, Baby Grand, Beneficent Fall, benevolent sexism, Billy Joel, Christie Brinkley, David Archuleta, eternal marriage, Eve, Family, feminism, Garden of Eden, Gender, gods in embryo, Honesty, hostile sexism, Just the Way You Are, men and women, modern sexism, Mormon Culture, mysogny, Ray Charles, relationships, River of Dreams, romance, sex, sexism, She's Always a Woman, She's Got a Way, stereotypes, The Fall, The Longest Time, Uptown Girl, women