After All, He’s Just a Man

Dorothy Marcic

Was Mitch McConnell channeling Tammy Wynette last week? “Stand by Your Man” seemed to be the theme song of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. He’ll do things you don’t understand, but if you love him, you will be proud of him, because “after all, he’s just a man.” Quite a few senators seemed to be humming “I Will Follow Him” no matter where he goes, or Carole King’s “Where you Lead I will Follow.” We also learned White House Counsel Don McGahn advised Kavanaugh to talk and “Walk Like a Man.”

I’ve spent 20 years studying the lyrics of popular music, doing content analysis research of over 20,000 Top-40 songs to see how women are depicted and to understand relationship dynamics. Basically the trajectory for songs women sung is from co-dependent to independent, from “Someone to Watch Over Me” to “I Will Survive.” But it is a lot more complicated.

While the Crystals were singing “You Hit Me and it Felt like a Kiss,” the Rolling Stones led the charts with how she’s “Under My Thumb.”  When men were telling women to accept them for “The Wanderer” types they were, they said, “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” and “Did You Ever Have to Make up Your Mind?” and I ought to “Shop Around.” Women agreed.  Consider the hit from the 60’s and the 80’s, Carole King’s “One Fine Day,” about a guy who likes to play around, and she’s waiting for him to settle down with her. Leslie Gore calmed everyone down with, well, “That’s the Way Boys Are,” saying: don’t take it personally when he is mean to you.  Of course, Gordon Lightfoot warned us, that’s what you get “For Lovin’ Me.”

What kinds of songs might have been at the party Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh were allegedly at, or when Deborah Ramirez claimed Kavanaugh assaulted her? Perhaps “Johnny Get Angry,” about a girl who wants her boyfriend to show her who is the boss, to be tough.  Or perhaps “Born a Woman,” who is meant to be lied to, stepped on, and made to feel like dirt. Maybe “You’re No Good,” the Linda Ronstadt lament—along with “When Will I be Loved? (she’s been cheated, mistreated, and put down)—or Carly Simon’s “You’re so Vain.” And don’t forget “Sweet Talkin’ Guy,” who knows how to get us to do things we might not do otherwise. If we believe in him, he’ll make us cry.  Maybe Elvis was demanding her to “Surrender,” or Frank Sinatra was crooning how he needed to do things “My Way.” If you look at the history of women through the eyes of music, one might see how we’ve been socialized to accept men as non-monogamous brutes and to just go along. “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” Far better to keep our feelings and hurts inside, we were told.

In my research, I found songs to be what economists call a “lagging indicator,” coming somewhat behind social changes.  For example, “You Don’t Own Me,” the first real push-back song, was a hit in 1964, one year after Betty Friedan’s classic, the Feminine Mystique. Of course, there were other less-popular songs where women showed strength, but I was concerned with which songs sold the most, as an indicator of social values, which is why I used the quantitative measure of Top-40 songs.  Of the thousands of songs recorded each year, why did certain ones make it to the charts? I found changes over time. Up until the 1960’s, codependent songs made up 40-50 percent of women’s hits, but by the 90’s, it was less than 15 percent. Yes, there still are codependent songs, but they make up less than half what they did previously of the most popular tunes. Several decades ago, we didn’t have much like Destiny’s Child with “Independent Women,” Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” about saying what you want to say, or Alicia Keyes’ “Girl on Fire,” which speaks to female power.

And yet, as Dolly Parton sang, here we are again. Her 1977 song, “Here You Come Again,” was about a woman who was just getting herself together after the pain of the breakup.  She thought her life was going so well, and she could finally move on. Then he appears, lying those pretty lies, and it starts all over.  Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.  Didn’t we think we had learned so much and would never go through this again? Then who shows up but Brett Kavanaugh? Why do you think “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” was such a hit and remains a classic tune all ages relate to?


Dr. Dorothy Marcic is a playwright, whose productions have played in 78 cities, including seven years of her Off-Broadway musical, SISTAS.  She teaches at Columbia University, was a Fulbright Scholar in Prague at the University of Economics, and is the author of 15 books, including RESPECT: Women and Popular Music. In 2003, Dorothy left full-time academia for playwriting. She turned her RESPECT book into a musical (now playing as This One’s for the Girls Off-Broadway), tracing women’s development through Top-40 music with content-analysis research of how women are depicted in popular music lyrics. Dorothy started her career in the arts as a production assistant on the TV program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood while in graduate school. She has appeared on C-SPAN, CMT, and Bravo Network and is on IMDB.