Cracked writer Daniel O'Brien once said "There hasn't been a single artist that I know of who somehow made music exclusively for a single activity (apart from Marvin Gaye and sex). But Adele did. She made an entire album of 'Stand at Your Window, Look at the Rain and Reflect on Past Relationships' music. It's like she's hypnotized me/us." Well, if Marvin has sex and Adele has standing at the window and looking at rain while thinking about the past, then Melanie Fiona has torment yourself over whether or not to stay with a cheating lover.
And torment herself she must, because she's sending some pretty mixed messages on the subject.
In the single that's flooding the airwaves right now, "4 AM," Ms. Fiona is struggling with what to tell herself as she waits up for her man. "Its 4AM and my lover won't answer," she says. Maybe he's "somewhere with a dancer" (who, in the video is a blonde white woman, yet another example of interracial interactions portrayed in pop culture only through a negative lens, but that's not the point and I'm going to try to stay on topic). Alternately, she tells herself "he must have bumped his head" because surely he wouldn't intentionally leave her this agonized at home alone. After all, she tells us, "I don't deserve this life/I'd make the perfect wife."
Which is curious. Do women who wouldn't "make the perfect wife" deserve to get cheated on? And what is the perfect wife? Well, Melanie gives us a little insight into her view on the subject of gender essentialism in her other (earlier) hit about cheating lovers, "It Kills Me."
In "It Kills Me," the singer isn't agonizing over whether or not her lover is staying faithful: "I know you're messing around" she says early on. But that knowledge doesn't make her decision to go or stay any easier. Complicating her decision is the fact that she "really loves" him, that she "can't be alone," and that she wants to "ooh ooh ooh." But the thing that really drives me crazy about this song is this line:
"Should I grab his cell, call this chick up/Start some shh, then hang up?
Or should I be a lady?/Ooh, maybe, cause I want to have his babies"
With this line, she taps into that tried and true woman on woman attack in love triangles that we've examined before, but she also does something else. She makes a statement about what it means to be a "lady," and apparently a lady doesn't confront a cheating partner because procreation with someone "a part of [her] wants to leave" is the lady-like thing to do.
And this part of the song enrages me. It's one thing to explore the complications of a personal decision like staying in a relationship or leaving it when you find out your lover is cheating. In fact, I think that it's great to share that complexity through songs because there are plenty of other women (and men) out there struggling with the same decision. However, that personal decision is just that . . . personal. The decision to go or stay is not a definitive marker of someone's worth or identity and the decision is always complicated by unique, individual components of the relationship.
That kind of exploration is what Fiona gives us in "4 AM" and it's also what she gives us (to a very different effect) in the song "Somebody Come Get Me," performed under her stage name Syren Hall. (Apparently, her reggae influenced stage persona doesn't have as hard of a time figuring out what to do with a cheating man. She tells us "Somebody come get me before I kill this man.")
But, with the line about "should I be a lady," Fiona takes "It Kills Me" out of that personal realm and starts making arguments based in gender essentialism. By saying that a "lady" wouldn't confront the cheater and wants to "have his babies," she makes a statement about what it is to be a woman that is narrow-minded and damaging.
It reminds me a lot of this video by Shanel Cooper, an advice writer who talks a lot about how to get and keep a man.
She explains that part of the "definition" of a "Domestic Goddess" is being submissive to your man. She goes on to explain that "the traditional roles of womanhood are taking care of home, cooking, taking care of your children, nurturing, teaching, loving, and uplifting and taking care of our men. That is what we do as women."
Do tell? "That is what we do as women," huh? Mighty convenient to take your particular brand of Kool-aid and pawn it off as essential to the very definition of womanhood. Who can argue against that? So now someone who isn't submitting to her man isn't being a woman. It's really the same message that Melanie Fiona gives us above. Someone who would be confrontational in a cheating relationship isn't being a "lady." Women are submissive and well behaved. Ladies don't cause a disturbance. Oh--and very important--ladies want to have babies, even if it means staying in a toxic relationship. Are your taking notes, ladies? This is important to your future.
It's related to phrases like "real women have curves," which (as Golda Poretsky examines here) sounds empowering, but actually works to demean women who don't have curves. A thin woman is no less "real" than a curvy one, just as a fat woman is no less valuable than a slender one.
Arguments in gender essentialism always work to divide us. When we start dictating what a real woman, lady, whatever is and does, we are necessarily pointing out people who don't act that way as others, as outside of the definition. This undermines our ability to collaborate, communicate, and show compassion for one another. It makes it easier to dismiss others and their problems. And that's a world away from singing a song about a personal struggle with relationships.