Mixed Emotions: “Before He Cheats”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 13, 2008
Louisville Slugger sales: Up 247%
At my weekly karaoke bar outing with fellow College Bowlers / Empty Orchestera Vocalists, a trend has started to emerge: every single week, a different drunk, blonde girl tries her hand at Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” At first I was heavily in favor of this trend–always cool to me to see a new-ish song emerge as a future classic, and it was a welcome change of pace from the still great but fairly tired “Since U Been Gone.” But with every week, the song becomes less and less novel, and it becomes more and more likely to soon join the ranks of the karaoke damned.
Consequently, the song has really sort of gotten under my skin, until I have become forced to sort of analyze the deeper implications of Carrie Underwood’s revenge fantasy. Now ever since Gloria Gaynor claimed her survivor status after a bad break-up in 1979, female-sung pop music has become less and less content with such a passive response to male deviance, and have started taking action. Kelis declared I Am Woman, Hear Me Yell Like a Motherfucker (and even organized an army to her cause), Blu Cantrell let her credit cards do the talking, and Lily Allen arguably got the most creative, having his toilet clogged and then feeding him laxatives (woof). Clearly, Carrie has invented no new phenomenon.
Even stacked up against those, though, something about “Before He Cheats” remains kind of unsettling. Maybe it’s because it’s Carrie “All-American Girl” Underwood, the American Idol herself, doing the smashing–what part of Jesus Taking the Wheel is this, exactly? Maybe it’s of the specificity of the whole thing–in a song that could’ve just said “I fucked up his car” and moved on to bigger and better revenge tactics, Carrie instead goes to town, keying the car’s side, carving her name into the leather seats, and taking a Louisville Slugger (not just any bat would do the trick) to both headlights. Clearly, she’s thought this out in advance. Hell, maybe it’s just because of the possibility of it being Tony “Mr. Nice Guy” Romo’s ride getting the shit kicked out of it.
But what I think really sort of weirds me out about this song is the implied double standard of the thing. Sure, when some chick is belting it out while hammered at a Girls’ Night Out, it sounds relatively harmless, a statement of empowerment for the supposedly fairer sex not being content to take emotional abuse lying down–fair enough. But imagine if it was some dude wailing on his guitar about the way he took a bat to his ex-girlfriend’s car. Somehow, I don’t think “Maybe next time she’ll think before he cheats” would be seen as quite so empowering.
And that’s why it blew my mind to find out that, in fact, the song had started out as “Before She Cheats,” as penned by the decidedly male songwriters Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear. However, the two wisely realized that taken from a male perspective, it would’ve sounded insecure, sexist and more than a little creepy–in other words, it’d be a Nickelback song. But Carrie, hearing the song and realizing its potential, took her magic scissors to it, changed a couple “she”s to “he”s, and voila, a career-solidifying hit with the third longest run in Billboard chart history. And with a nice girl like Carrie behind the mic instead of a scumbag like hm, Chad Kroeger perhaps, who could possibly believe there was anything morally questionable about the song?
The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that “Before He Cheats” isn’t just the story of a spurned woman sticking up for herself, it’s a tale of an extremely bitter girlfriend slipping into near-psychosis. The entire structuring of the song’s verses involves Carrie contemplating a bunch of “Right now, he’s probably…” scenarios involving her (possibly ex?) boyfriend, and seemingly basing her violence on those indiscretions. But the fact is, nowhere in the song is it said that Carrie actually knows that he’s doing any of this stuff right now–frankly, all of it could be in her head. Taking it a step further, Carrie never even describes how she caught him cheating in the first place, so how do we even know that he cheated on her in the first place? The “Cheats” protagonist could very well just be a mentally unstable woman acting out of jealousy and paranoia.
You could say that it’s sexist to make such assumptions about the song, but once again, imagine if this was a badly-shaven dude in a dirty t-shirt and jeans singing it instead of Carrie–who would possibly think that this was the story of a clear-thinking, morally justifiable protagonist then? It’s even highly possible that Carrie realized this and meant “Before He Cheats” to be interpreted as such, and that it’s more of a character study than a personal statement of intent. I’d choose to give her the benefit of the doubt on that.
Somehow, though, I don’t think the girls sending this song to the karaoke rafters quite see it that way.