Billy Joel: “She’ll Promise You More Than the Garden of Eden”

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.

CHORUS:
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.

[CHORUS]

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.

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8 Responses

  1. I notice you didn’t mention “Only the Good Die Young” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Only_the_Good_Die_Young

  2. Brent,

    Yes, another dimension of Joel. The lustful and irreverent side.

    I never listen to Only the Good Die Young. I think it’s an awful song. Surprisingly, most people never really listen carefully to the lyrics. Oh wait, that’s not at all surprising.

  3. Dennis, I love your take on the line about Eden.

    To me, this is a song about artificial, self-centered love from a woman. I was just looking at the lines

    “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.

    “She can’t be convicted” means she is always accusing the man of causing all the problems in the relationship– she will not take any of the weight of the relationship. She’s earned a “degree” in this, as if having been trained. These lines, in combination with the lines above them, which you identified as reflecting modern sexism, do appear to me to comment on the ways women are sometimes encouraged to behave in their relationships in American culture today. (Just think of the last line “she’s always a woman to me”– which seems to say, this is what so many accept as what a woman should be today). Certain strands of modern feminism that I personally can sense in thoughtless movies and the media encourages a lack of compassion even for really good and sincere men and encourages selfishness in relationships. The unbalanced blaming of Eve is reversed so that women are encouraged not to take any of the weight of the difficulties of relationships and to reject the need for both men and women to work together and to love each other despite their failings (a situation potentially greater than the garden of Eden).

    This song doesn’t bug me when I interpret it as describing a failed relationship with a woman who didn’t really love or want a genuine relationship. On the other hand, the song fails in some ways to break out of the pattern of accusing, etc. it describes.

  4. Do you serenade my sister with Billy Joel Dennis?

  5. hehe, Dennis can imitate Billy Joel pretty well. Dennis technically does serenade me with some of these songs (not “She’s always a Woman”!) because when we take road trips, we sometimes listen to him and he likes to sing along.

  6. .

    Careful with the serenading — “Just the Way You Are” is about his mother.

  7. Th,

    Careful with the serenading — “Just the Way You Are” is about his mother.

    I’m not sure where you’re getting this from, but I’m almost positive this is not correct. From the Wikipedia article for this song:

    “Just the Way You Are” is a love song from Billy Joel’s 1977 pop rock album, The Stranger. It was written as a birthday gift to Joel’s first wife Elizabeth Weber. After they divorced, Joel said that when performing the song, he would imagine what he would eat for dinner or what he would do after the show, or even accidentally sing alternate lyrics written by Liberty DeVitto (“She took the dog, the house, the car”).

  8. […] Billy Joel: “She’ll Promise You More Than the Garden … – May 27, 2008 · 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 …… […]

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