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Opinion: The problem with Beyoncé’s ‘Jolene’

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

Love songs aren’t meant to be aspirational. They’re meant to be honest. We learn this the hard way. As kids, we imagine how thrilling it would be to have a rival for our beloved’s affection. How scintillating to love someone so much that we’d kill for them. How bewitching we’d look after a night spent tossing and turning over a broken heart, our hollow eyes the windows to our tortured but worldly souls. Just me? Never mind.

Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas
Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas

My point is that as soon as we experience love — and its twin sister, heartbreak — the lyrics we once replayed over and over because they were catchy take on a painful depth. Adult romances, so alluring when viewed from the safety of childhood, are peppered with occasional magic, but more often than not turn out to be exhausting and fraught with compromise. Like so many grown-up experiences, they involve far more work than we bargained for.

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This was the spirit in which, after a dozen or so listens, I embraced Beyoncé’s reimagining of Dolly Parton’s 1970s classic “Jolene.” It’s the 10th song on her expansive, 27-track country-flavored album “Cowboy Carter,” and it upends Parton’s plaintive classic, recasting the narrator as a powerhouse who’s not only not intimidated by Jolene — she’s mocking her. Where Parton pleaded, “I’m begging of you please don’t take my man,” Beyoncé purrs, “I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man.” Where Parton yielded, “I cannot compete with you, Jolene,” Beyoncé menaces, “You don’t want no hеat with me, Jolene.”

Listeners are divided over what to make of the rewrite. The rapper Azealia Banks described the new lyrics as “forced” on her Instagram stories, and ridiculed the notion that an “imaginary adversary” could find Beyoncé’s man Jay-Z “even remotely attractive.” Others have flagged the slightly yikes couplet, “I raised that man/I raised his kids,” with one commenter observing: “Jolene is not the problem sweety, your boy is!”

I mean, yeah. Aren’t adult men responsible for their own choices? Another listener floated the idea that Beyoncé is singing on behalf of her mother, pointing out the line, “I’m still a Creole banjee b***h from Louisianne” (Beyoncé was born and raised in Houston, but her mom Tina is from Louisiana). I’m inclined to run with that one, mostly because it’s comforting.

It’s hardly my place to conclude how much of Beyoncé’s riff on “Jolene” is autobiographical, but I think we can safely assume she wants us to guess. Parton introduces the cover on “Cowboy Carter” in a separate track delightfully titled, “Dolly P.” She trills: “You know that hussy with the good hair you sing about? Reminds me of someone I knew back when.” That is, of course, a callback to “Becky with the good hair,” the character Beyoncé introduced in her 2016 single, “Sorry.” The song prompted frenzied speculation that Jay-Z had cheated on her (Jay-Z later admitted he had been unfaithful on his 2017 album, “4:44”). “Sorry” also included the iconic line, “Today I regret the night I put that ring on,” widely read as a nod to Beyoncé’s 2008 hit, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” And so on, and so on.

Though her art consistently supercharges fans’ suspicions, Beyoncé has always kept her cards close to her chest in real life. She’s never confirmed whether “Becky” represents a specific person, or whether “Sorry” is even linked to her husband’s infidelity. She doesn’t relay her personal histories explicitly — she writes stories. One has to assume that given her superstardom has spanned several decades, she does so knowing full well they’ll be dissected and spun in a thousand directions. That approach applies perfectly to country music (though she insists “Cowboy Carter” is “a ‘Beyoncé’ album,” not a country album). The flourishes are theatrical and tantalizing — but evocative of something earthy and real.

In “Daughter,” the track that follows “Jolene” on “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé continues on the theme of adultery. She coos, “Your body laid out on these filthy floors/Your bloodstains on my custom coutures/Bathroom attendant let me right in/She was a big fan.” It’s juicy, but the refrain’s more interesting. It goes: “If you cross me, I’m just like my father/I am colder than Titanic water.” There’s an undertone of generational pain, also hinted at throughout “Jolene,” that suggests a deeper, more formative narrative than that of a cheating husband. Like I said, I prefer the mom theory.

Whether or not Beyoncé’s “Jolene” has anything to do with her real life — or anyone’s — I think it’s a mistake to see it as a departure from Parton’s version. Yes, it’s a tonal U-turn, and yes, it’s frustrating in this day and age to hear a woman stand off with a potential rival, rather than her treacherous lover. But isn’t that what the love of classic songs is? Unwieldy and unreasonable? For someone cycling through the stages of post-cheating grief, Beyoncé’s “Jolene” reads like the “anger” prequel to Dolly’s “bargaining” “Jolene.” As listeners, the point isn’t to imitate either of them, or to know the roots of every phrase. It’s to feel what they feel. Love songs aren’t meant to be aspirational. They’re meant to be honest.

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