Song Lyrics and the Evolution of Thought: “Sharleena” and “Hey Joe”

There has been a lot of conversation recently regarding coming to terms with content that you once loved, but with greater experience and vision, you may now look upon with less fondness. As someone who teaches a college class on race and gender, I invite my students to explore their favorite content more closely. One student once said, “You’re gonna make me hate all the things I love.”

This experience has become common in the era of the #metoo movement; suddenly (or not so suddenly), artists that have been mainstays of audience’s beloved content are now being held accountable for their terrible behavior off stage, thus tainting their creative work (I was particularly affected by Uma Thurman’s experiences with Quentin Tarantino described in The New York Times). At the same time, voices that were once literally marginalized are being amplified, thus drawing attention to problematic content (e.g., Molly Ringwald revisiting the films of John Hughes in The New Yorker, The Problem with Apu by Hari Kondubolu).

In writing about the master of renditions, Frank Zappa, I have been looking for a reference that appears only to exist in my head. I have a memory trace of Zappa dismissing a record executive who informed him of something to the effect of, “No one wants to hear another version of Sharleena.”

As I’ve been looking for this quote, “Sharleena” has been stuck in my head. But the more and more I ruminate on the lyrics, the more and more they disturb me. According to allmusic.com: “The song is a simple love story: “Sharleena” has left her boyfriend, leaving no address. He’s crying his heart out and badgers her friends with attempts to locate her and bring her home.”

But nobody ’round here seems to know
Where my Sharleena’s been…

But singing along now, I ask myself: Do her friends really not know where she is? Or are they simply trying to protect her from a man who confesses…

Ten long years I have been lovin’ her
Ten long years
And I thought deep down in my heart
She was mine…
I would be so delighted

If they would just
Send her on home to me

It would seem that there is a reason Sharleena has left him. Perhaps because she has moved on, but the lack of information from her and her friends leads me to believe that she (and her friends) are doing their best to keep Sharleena way from this man. However, singing from the perspective of a scorned and despondent lover, the listener is encouraged to empathize with his plight. I think I need to hear Sharleena’s response, because the listener is left to think that Sharleena is an ungrateful b*tch, who is willing to discard a good man. Given the ongoing discussions of Frank’s misogyny (Los Angeles Times, 1995), this reflection seems even more troubling.

Romantic Comedies: When Stalking Has a Happy Ending (Julie Beck, The Atlantic, 2016): Overly persistent pursuit is a staple of movie love stories, but a new study shows that it could normalize some troubling behaviors.

Last week, I also was rocking out to Jimi Hendrix’s version of “Hey Joe”, a classic American song that has been remade multiple times over the past half century, but for which Hendrix’s version stands as the definitive standard. Again, a song that I have known and loved and sang along unquestioningly for decades, but this time, I paused…

Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun of yours?
Hey Joe, I said where you goin’ with that gun in your hand, oh
I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady
You know I caught her messin’ ’round with another man…

Are we, the listeners, encouraged to empathize with the scorned lover who appears to be righteously defending his honor and feelings by killing his old lady? It is worth mentioning that in the structure of the song itself, Jimi is not Joe, but rather the narrator of this story. However, the narrator does not question Joe or acknowledge that his behavior might be extreme and unnecessary.

In fact, we as listeners are privy to his plans on the other side of the crime, that Joe will get away with this domestic violence. When the narrator asks, “Where you gonna run to now, where you gonna go?” Joe responds…

I’m goin’ way down south
Way down to Mexico way…
Way down where I can be free
Ain’t no one gonna find me
Ain’t no hang-man gonna
He ain’t gonna put a rope around me…

So the song is telling the story of a man who, angry that his old lady has been messin around, is going to kill her and get away with it. Given the statistics that HALF of all female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners (NPR, 2017) or the frequency with which domestic abuse cases are dismissed (New Jersey, Iowa), is this really a narrative that I want to embrace, sing along to, and continue to revere as a great rock song?

Although these two songs are objectively different (in “Sharleena”, the interpretation of Frank Zappa as an abusive boyfriend is only potentially implied; in “Hey Joe,” Jimi Hendrix is telling the seemingly impartial story of a murderer), they are still two of my favorites, and the conflict that I’m experiencing around them feels the same.

In continuing to embrace them, am I enabling these kind of arguments?

Security guard avoids jail by blaming Bollywood for stalking habit (Ben Child, The Guardian, 2015): Australian lawyer defending Indian man says obsessively pursuing uninterested women is ‘quite normal behaviour’ for those who take their cues from Bollywood movies.

Finally, in response to the inevitable comments of, “It’s just a song, don’t think too hard,” my job is to think too hard. As a human, my unique animal skill is to think too hard. My goal is not to “ruin” these songs (Quentin Tarantino, or John Hughes, or The Simpsons), my goal is to better understand what we love, why we love it, and what might be problematic. As I told another student this year who felt let down by one of his favorite comedians being terrible…

Your idols are human, they will let you down. The important thing is to know what about them inspired you, and what about them you do not want for yourself. 

UPDATE: The purpose of this post is to explore the experience of reading beloved content through a nuanced lens. The purpose is not to accuse Frank Zappa of being a stalker, or Jimi Hendrix of enabling a murderer. I have received multiple comments (interestingly, from men) claiming that my argumentations are “unfair” or “slanderous,” and claim that I am putting these artistic interpretations on par with that of accused or convicted sex offenders. For the record, I am simply considering alternative interpretations of artwork as I learn more about the world. However, in the interest of clarity, I have eliminated any references to people accused of actual crimes and instead focused on examples wherein content is reinterpreted given a more aware perspective.

As for the “harmless” entertainment excuse, commonly referred to as, “It just fun music” argument, please check out Drama vs. Comedy: Stereotype Activation Across Genres, or “Can Harmless Entertainment Activate Stereotypes.”

About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
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