Recently, I accidentally listened to Carrie Underwood’s new single, Church Bells.
I generally feel like I have a bias against Underwood. Ever since Jesus Take The Wheel, I have felt like her style just always seems a little too dramatic and heart-wrenched for me. So when I hear a new song from her, I try to give her the benefit of the doubt— that if I don’t like her song, it’s because of my unique preferences, not because it’s mediocre music. Perhaps this is why I left the radio on when Church Bells came on.
However, once again, I was left extremely unimpressed and peevish. “Why the heck does Underwood keep singing about these violent revenge fantasies?” I wondered.
You see, the plot of Church Bells revolves around Jenny, a beautiful poor girl who marries rich, and discovers the marriage isn’t working and that she’s married to an abusive alcoholic. After praying for help and listening to the church bells, Jenny poisons her husband— and then goes on to listen to the church bells once again at hubby’s funeral (unfortunately a verse where her ghost listens to church bells at her own funeral after she gets her lethal injection is missing). This song has much in common with another Underwood hit, Blown Away. While arguably a better song, Blown Away again tells the story of a young woman getting deadly revenge on a man (drunken father) who has abused her (death by tornado this time).
These songs tap into a tedious trope of romanticizing the abuse of women for dramatic affect. This trope is overly and woefully familiar throughout the country genre, and art in general, and now also in the work of Carrie Underwood apparently! As Underwood is a bright, cheery personality with a relatively happy public biography, these murderous tales always seemed like a strange subject for her to keep harping on about to me.
While I understand the cheap appeal of these stories, and the easy emotion one can tap into to create a compelling song, these just leave me with an overwhelming sense of not just their unoriginality but their inertia. Do we really need more songs telling the sad tales of birds in gilded cages who have to resort to violence and death (whether murder or suicide, or both) to end their suffering? Do we need to continue to romanticize the tragic downfall women commodified and beaten by men? Can we stop waxing lyrical about drunk, violent men as if they are an inevitable fact of life, and who can only be stopped by poetic justice? The sad consequences of drunkenness are a hugely popular subject in country music (just behind broken hearts, teenage pregnancy and well, drinking)— perhaps we can find a new way of broaching the subject. Haven’t we been singing about these things for literally centuries? Maybe we can find a different way for the stories to end— murder and suicide are not the only two options here!
Do you know what song I would love to hear? A song where Jenny gets the resources together to get a divorce and get out of a relationship she got into for all the wrong reasons. A song where Jenny finds a local support network— a sister, a friend, a doctor, a helpline volunteer— who help her find a place in a shelter or file charges against her abusive husband. A song where Jenny gets her GED and finds a rewarding job, realizing that she can be valued for more than her body and can contribute meaningfully to her community. A song that tells women that there are other ways out of abuse and unhappiness other than violence or self-harm. A song where Jenny’s abuser goes to therapy and comes back to her years later and apologizes for his behavior. A song that tells men that they too can get help, can break cycles of violence and sexism, and can be a part of the healing process.
There you go, Carrie Underwood, there is your next song! There is a lot more to sing about than those sad church bells!