Monday, June 11, 2007

Deconstructing Country: Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats"

The following is the first of what I hope is many irregularly posted pieces looking deeper at the lyrics of country songs. While there are a multitude of country songs and artists I enjoy, the entire genre gives me the chills in a way I'm working on articulating for a post here. The first song we'll look at is one of the two signature hits for American Idol winner Carrie Underwood.

Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” tells the story of a girl, the narrator (who we’ll call Carrie for the remainder of this post because typing “the narrator” seems cold) who destroys her boyfriend’s truck as revenge for his infidelities against her. On the surface this premise seems to be completely reasonable, as whether it be against your boss[i], an abusive husband[ii], terrorists[iii] or your father[iv], revenge is a theme for not just country music, but for nearly every medium of art. Couple that with the angry attempt at being Pat Benetar in the chorus and the rousing "but he don't know" that just begs to be sung at the top of your lungs, and you have the reasoning behind the success of the song. Sadly, when you actually look at what the lyrics are saying, it becomes very clear that the singer is suffering from at least one mental disease.

To begin, we’ll establish that Carrie doesn’t have any idea what’s actually going on in the bar. Considering nowhere in the song does it say that she saw or someone told her that these events are happening, we can conclude that she’s putting these events together in her mind. When you note the addition of the word “probably” to all six lines of the two verses, it leads one to believe that Carrie is not positive of what exactly is going on between her boyfriend and anyone in the bar.

If she was unsure of the actions taking place, why would she take the time to vandalize her boyfriend’s pick-up truck to a superfluous degree, destroying both headlights, all four tires, the paint job on one side and his leather seat? Considering she’s imagining the events taking place inside the bar, she certainly is taking a very glum and pessimistic view on their relationship.

Perhaps instead of “he’s probably buying her some fruity little drink because she can’t shoot whiskey”, it is “he’s probably buying himself a fruity little drink because every once in a while a guy enjoys the sugary sweetness over a beer, or perhaps because it reminds him of me”. Maybe he’s not just “dabbing on three dollars worth of that bathroom Polo”, but he’s doing it “because I always complain he smells like smoke when he comes home from the bar so he’s simply trying to freshen up a little bit before he sees me”.

If Carrie’s boyfriend had cheated on her before, then her actions seem somewhat excessive and still odd due to the fact she’s unsure of what actually is going on inside the bar and refuses to see it for herself. I also find it very unlikely that a person of Carrie’s very negative outlook, to the point she envisions the most specific details of her boyfriend’s imaginary infidelity, would be of the “Everyone makes mistakes” camp and instead would believe the “Once a cheater, always a cheater” mantra. If her boyfriend had in fact cheated on her before, and she remains so paranoid of his commitment to her that she waits outside a bar sans any evidence of new infidelity with a Louisville Slugger and knife, why did she stay with him in the first place? The best case for Carrie in this song is that she’s suffering from a variation of the Battered Wife Syndrome, but instead of being abused, she is being cheated on. While she wants to leave her man after the first indecent tryst, she cannot, trapped by the relationship version of the Stockholm Syndrome.

If Carrie’s boyfriend had not cheated on her before, then we can conclude the action of vandalism on his four-wheel drive pickup as even more deranged. Perhaps there were many previous warnings signs that he had been cheating on her so she decided to follow up on the night the song takes place, but it doesn’t take a great leap of faith to assume that Carrie would like to see for herself, or at least have a firsthand account from a friend, of her previously loyal boyfriend’s actions with another woman. Perhaps this information was made clear to her before the song, but it’s not stated and we still have the problem of the half dozen uses of the world “probably” that paints Carrie as a potentially unreliable narrator.

A previously faithful boyfriend who might not even be committing any acts of infidelity might find the “message” left by his girlfriend on his truck as very confusing. His first assumption might be that this is the work of some previously jilted suitor who had vied for Carrie’s affections and failed when the current boyfriend won her hand, and is therefore so bitterly jealous that he’d destroy his truck and carve the reason for his anger into the boyfriend’s seat. He might also think that something has happened to Carrie and this is perhaps the first clue in a series to be left by her abductors. Considering neither the listener nor narrator actually knows what’s going on inside the bar, we can only imagine that the boyfriend walking out to find his truck vandalized with his girlfriend’s name would not serve as a message that the relationship is over, but would simply result in confusion.

At this point, I’d like to look at the details Carrie uses in describing the rival for her boyfriend’s affections. She is bleached blonde, sings karaoke, consumes fruity mixed drinks and can’t shoot a combo in pool. Looking at these facts, I propose to you that Carrie Underwood is actually singing about herself as the frisky tramp slow-dancing with her man.

She is blonde, and while it might not be “bleached”, that word could possibly apply to the American Idol makeover Carrie and many others, such as Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken and Taylor Hicks, have gone through in the process of competing in FOX’s television series to become more “pop idol”-like. Considering her vocal talents, I believe that it’s very likely that Carrie Underwood would sing karaoke while she was out for the night, and who better for a country belle to cover than Shania Twain’s collection of hits?[v] While it’s possible Carrie Underwood pounds whiskey like a hardened cowboy and plays pool better than Paul Newman, I find it very likely she would enjoy a “fruity little drink” and have difficulty shooting a combo, if only because the former is delicious and the latter a reasonably advanced billiards skill to achieve.

If we conclude that Carrie is either imagining all of the elements of the song and then taking such a violent action against the truck or is really the woman in the bar, this can mean only two things. The first is that our narrator is a maniacal stalker who has failed to gain the attention of the owner of the truck in previous attempts, only he has turned her down or she has perceived him to have turned her down. The complete, detail-obsessive story she’s constructing in the song is her rationalization for the act meant to appease the lone oasis of sanity that exists in her envious, deranged mind. To really get her rage at a peak before the act, Carrie fantasizes a story where her victim is about to go home with a girl just like her, meaning the fact she was snubbed by him is an even more egregious offense towards her. She leaves her name – which the man in the bar might not even recognize – as a symbol of both her dedication to him and to her growing insanity.

The other option, and this is the one I think is correct, is that Carrie is suffering from a multiple personality disorder, or more formally, Dissociative Identity Disorder. She knows exactly what’s going on inside the bar and can justify her actions because she’s in the bar, enjoying herself and getting frisky with her boyfriend. Due to the separation that occurs between personalities, Carrie cannot specifically remember spending that time in the bar with her boyfriend because she didn’t experience it, yet her brain is aware that it happened. Much like trying to justify a bad case of déjà vu or psychic premonition, Carrie adds “probably” to each line even though she is most definitely sure these events are taking place.

If Carrie’s first personality was in the bar with her boyfriend enjoying the night, then it is her second personality that also has a relationship with the man and is outraged at his infidelity that evening to the point she vandalized his truck and sang a song about it. Ready to head home for the night, her boyfriend gives Carrie, still in her happy, drunk first personality, the keys to his truck so she can get it started while he goes to the bathroom a final time before the trip home.

Standing outside the bar with the key in her hand, the personalities switch. The second personality, now beside her boyfriend’s truck with no recollection of the evening other than the fact she just knows he was with another woman, decides to take action and vandalize the truck. This helps to explain how she got into the truck to destroy the leather seat without breaking any windows and where the key came from that was used to damage the side of the car and possibly, depending on the quality of leather, carve the word “Carrie” into the seat.

It can be concluded that since a rational person would not commit that brazen an act of vandalism without proof, and since the lyrics of the song avoid any mention of legitimate evidence of cheating, then Carrie must either be imagining or participating in the events. Since this is the case, she is either a delusional, potentially schizophrenic stalker or suffering from DID, both of which lead us to believe that “Before He Cheats” is a cry for help from a desperate, sick woman.

[i] Aaron Tippin, “Kiss This”. Alan Jackson, “5 O’ Clock Somewhere”.

[ii] Dixie Chicks, “Earl”.

[iii] Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”.

[iv] Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue”.

[v] This doesn’t explain the use of “white trash version”, because I find it incredibly hard to believe there’s anything other than white trash versions of Shania being sang in karaoke bars.


James Kabala said...

I assumed she was taking revenge on an EX-boyfriend and imagining not a second case of infidelity, but a post-her continued career of womanizing.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Great song, great video. The song was the inspiration for my new parody:

Before She Beats (The Wrong Jeep)
Dr BLT (c) 2007

If you'd like to hear the unplugged version, just replace the B4 in the link with the word, "Before".