I remember being a kid, sitting in the back seat of the car, with my mom whimsically singing “Jolene,” by Dolly Parton up front. Off-key, accented, her “Jolene, Jolene, don’t take my man!” was pretty much my only association with the song for years. I didn’t hear the real version until I was an adult. And I’ve grown to love it, thanks to Parton’s gorgeous voice and the folk-y, almost Scots-Irish ballad, nature of the song. But you know what gets me every time I hear it? Why the speaker doesn’t tell her man to get the Hell over Jolene!
When you think about it, it really speaks to a specific mindset, a specific vision of gender roles and relationships: painting one woman as the helpless, clinging person who could “never love again” while the other woman is this siren, this vixen, this powerful creature who can “take my man.” Well, what about the dude? Does he have no responsibility? It’s like the whole concept of the “homewrecker” — I don’t think an outsider, even one as mythically beautiful as Jolene, can “wreck” a home singlehandedly. The foundation has to already be cracked. I mean, if I knew someone I was involved with was tempted to stray, I damn well wouldn’t talk to the object of their affection! If “he talks about you in his sleep,” I’m kicking his ass out of bed and reveling in the thump he makes when he hits the hardwood! But the mournful, desperate speaker doesn’t have the same inclination. She “can’t keep from crying” when her guy calls Jolene’s name. But how exactly is begging Jolene to keep her distance going to stop him from doing that?
What it boils down to is that Jolene can’t “take” a man that doesn’t want to be taken. I think that’s the tragedy of the song, what makes it so haunting. That this sad, pathetic woman can’t acknowledge how she deserves better and must implore Jolene to keep letting her live in a relationship that’s a lie. Why is she content to settle for being second best? “My happiness depends on you,” she insists…but that’s not true. Her happiness depends on her. All any of us have, at the end of the day, is our self worth… and nobody needs to compete with Jolene.