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Soapbox: On Possessive Lyrics

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soapboxThere’s a moment in The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when Slatribartfast asks Arthur, ‘Is that your robot?’

‘No,’ says Marvin, ‘I’m mine.’

This scene comes to mind every time I hear a barbershop tag that finishes a love song with the information that the beloved is now, ‘Mine, all mine’. However much sympathy I have had for the sentiments expressed up to that point (which is often quite a lot; I’m a soppy old soul despite my misanthropic appearance), it largely evaporates in the face of this blatant possessiveness.

You can’t own the person you love most in the world. Even once they have decided to team up with you so you can build a life together, they are still their own person with their own preferences and opinions and needs and – most importantly – the right to determine their own destiny. Asserting that they are all yours doesn’t make you sound romantic, it makes you sound like Monty Burns gloating over a pile of gold.

Now, I know why people do this. It’s rarely because the song itself includes these words, interestingly. Most of the examples you hear are actually lyrics changes effected by the arranger to deliver a good vowel to hang a post on. ‘Ah’ is nice and bright and ringy for your final tonic chord, with the diphthong to add a little sparkle at the end of the note. Moreover, the slightly darker vowel on ‘all’ shapes the phrase excellently in tandem with a penultimate IVmin6 chord in tight voicing before releasing back onto the tonic.

But just because it’s a musical choice doesn’t make an appealing experience for your listeners. Well, it might be for your male listeners: as various scholars have observed, chord-worship is strongly implicated in constructions of masculinity in barbershop and its specific forms of homosocial bonding. ‘Mine-all-mine’ tags often sound much more like a bunch of blokes saying to each other, ‘Hey, I’ve pulled!’ than any real conversation with a woman.

Not meaning to be inherently heteronormative about it, I should add. But you have to note that to end on this vowel, arrangers have often had to go back into the song and changed other lyrics to make the rhyme scheme work. And in doing so they often add in the point that the beloved is ‘divine’ (angel-hood an optional feature – though frequently implied by the divinity if not stated overtly).

And this only compounds the issue. Calling your beloved ‘divine’ is obviously intended to be a compliment. And to be fair, it does at least avoid trivialising women in the manner of much early-20th-century song that has formed barbershop’s staple repertoire, with all its beautiful dolls and baby-faces.

But attributing angelhood was a key component in controlling women throughout the 19th century, and in denying them rights and opportunities outside the home. Protecting women’s purity, beauty, and moral elevation was the excuse for denying them the vote, the right to own property, or educational opportunities beyond the decorative. Step off your pedestal by displaying independence of thought or action and you were either herded back into your prescribed role if you had not strayed too far, or punished mercilessly. When Emmeline Pankhurst pointed out that women are actually human beings, she was in direct revolt against the Victorian ideal of the Angel in the House.

I guess the other thing to point out here is that the ‘divine – mine-all-mine’ trope is more than a little over-used. I didn’t get grumpy about it the first time I heard about it, just took it in my stride as part of the song. But when you hear the same the thing again and again, your suspension of disbelief starts to falter and your critical faculties get in on the act. So the problem with this is not just that it’s sexist, it’s that it’s a cliché.

(Interesting reflections to be had on clichés and semantic depletion on the back of this.)

While I’m grumping about lyrics and the patriarchy, I do so long for the day when we hear a love song that celebrates a woman for what she says or does rather than what she looks like or is wearing. Since we’ve been thinking about the Pankhursts, how about:

Moonlight becomes you
It lights up your deeds
You certainly know
What Parliament needs

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