Lucas Weismann

Jolene – Why the original is still better than the remake

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqKAsVMmEWk]

This is a fun exercise, but I think the original shows awareness of the more obvious advantages (things you can tell by looking at someone- e.g. looks) as opposed to things you’d need to know someone to know about (e.g. – intelligence, wit, skill) that Jolene had over the singer or it show Dolly’s insecurities.

Rather than being a showcase of the literal things that a person “should” be looking for in a mate it shows what Dolly was insecure about and in doing so touches us wherever our own insecurities lie.

That’s part of what makes it real and not just a writing exercise.

***

The other thing the writing got wrong is the version of strength and weakness in the original version.  Part of the strength Dolly shows is in admitting she feels defeated by someone who has NO reason to show her mercy.  She is an insecure David facing a Goliath who has no relationship with her- or at least no positive relationship with her to fall back on.

In the new video, it’s Jolene’s feelings and thoughts on Shakespeare and Proust that make Jolene a threat to the singer.  It’s her intellect that she can’t compete with and that the man is attracted to.  For some reason it didn’t resonate.  I felt terrible saying this until I realized it wasn’t what this said about Jolene that made it ring hollow.  It’s what it said about the singer.

If she’s so mediocre from an intellectual standpoint that Jolene is a threat to her with her ideas, she’s a bland and insipid creature indeed.  In short, someone the boyfriend *should* leave for Jolene.

In the original version Jolene is a mystery.  Someone of hypnotic beauty whose mere existence makes others feel insecure in her presence.  A man who would be swayed by mere looks is not sympathetic and while misguided, Dolly remains sympathetic.  In the feminist version, the singer wants us to see him as not deserving of Jolene, but deserving of herself instead, which means that the only person in this unhappy threesome we *should* root for is Jolene.  She’s gone and made the villain of the song into the hero.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1plvBR02wDs]

By being a *strong* woman who is justifiably intimidated by the “right” things to look for in a partner, the singer in the remake shows that she is not in Jolene’s league, by talking her partner down she shows that she is not a good partner to have and by denying her weakness and humanity in order to be a “Strong Female Character” she is showing that she is strong, but not strongly-written.  In short, she’s not human enough to be compelling

***

This is the problem.  It goes back to the problem in writing where men are allowed to be jealous, petty, insecure, vicious (it’s a thing, see: God, Old Testament), even murderous, as well as having strengths In short: compelling and three dimensional.  In the original version of Jolene, Dolly is SO. UTTERLY. HUMAN.  She’s petty, insecure, fragile and fighting for the attentions of a man.  Somehow though through the brokenhearted tears we see her strength in facing the danger of further heartbreak that she fears.  She is invested in that relationship.  Even if her man is a tool.

In the remake, the singer is disdainful (not that she shouldn’t be).  We see the singer looking longingly at Jolene, almost lusting after her rival from the sidelines.  Wishing to be like the “better” woman.

***

The best way to write music is not wryly breaking the fourth wall, but honestly sharing what you feel about the situation.  Show me the tragedy of Viola Liuzzo murdered by the KKK while fighting for civil rights to show the terror of segregation, the longing and wistfulness of lost opportunity in the Beatles “Yesterdays” or the regret of Jonny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues“.  Find some real heartbreak that fits your political view.  Your writing will be compelling if you show yourself naked in all your glorious imperfection and share how you FEEL.

It is the fact that Coolio sings as a gangster in “Gangsta’s Paradise” that shows the tragedy from a personal point of view.  It’s also what made the song controversial when it came out.  Ironically it took Stevie Wonder’s song about wasted life “Pastime Paradise” and made it about a life wasted in that lifestyle and made it more compelling than any song written from an outsider point of view would ever sound.  He took the tragedy and made it personal.

It may be that Jolene wasn’t a good candidate for this rewrite because the theme itself doesn’t play out as very feminist.  Two women fighting over a man and literally only one of them is named and literally the ONLY thing that is mentioned is how much better looking she is.

I think it’s great that these guys put the effort into “fixing” a classic song that they clearly love.  It’s just that the direction they went ended up taking the singer away from the humanity that makes Dolly’s original so compelling.  I would love to hear a compelling song about heartbreak and loss and relationships from a feminist point of view.  All they forgot here was the heart.

Thank you,

Luke

PS.  I would love to start a collection of feminist love songs that have heart.  Please feel free to link any you find in the comments section below!

*the italicized versions of the name Jolene refer to the song, while the non-italicized uses of Jolene refer to the character IN the song.

  • Luke, I’m with you here – I don’t think this song has made Jolene any more feminist… in fact, I’m not sure it was particularly non-feminist in the first place.
    Firstly: Dolly isn’t asking her boyfriend to ignore looks (which admittedly, would be a helluva feminist song), but she is asking Jolene to appreciate her personal qualities and her investment in her relationship. She’s assuming humanity in both the female participants.
    Secondly: this song is clearly written by 1:1 word substitution, but a list of high-culture authors doesn’t make you witty, and reading dead white guys to get a man doesn’t make you feminist either – class is a feminist issue.
    Thirdly: Context. They don’t look they’re talking books – they’re flirting at a party, with beer. Jolene is stereotypically pretty, and the first thing she does is be the most intimately physical of anyone in the video at any time.

    So yes, as a long-time lover of the original, this one rings hollow for me.

    • I think you’re probably right on all three counts. Hell, the more overt friendliness would be enough by itself to make Jolene more interesting than anyone else there…

    • As a result I was also trying to make sure and listen to it with my eyes closed to see if it was a bad film interpretation or the lyrics, but I got a similar vibe without watching.

  • One of my favorite songs, Out of curiosity, what do you think of, say the White Stripes’ rendition of the song, which, in my opinion, seems to reek of heartbreak and regret more than insecurity, while still maintaining the same air of desparation

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThtOpd8tHSk

    On the flip side, Miley Cyrus actually has a decent poppy rendition of the song that, I feel reflects a more upbeat request without the echoes of ache, i.e. riding the rhythm more than the meaning. Would this fit along side the original posted video within your article’s narrative?

    • I love the White Stripes. There is a desperate heartbreak and I see what you might mean there.

      I get what you’re saying and yeah, I feel the Miley Cyrus version doesn’t hit it for the same reasons, but in the direction of sincerely feeling the meaning of the situation rather than trying to make something what it isn’t to make a poll

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