In his latest single “Different for Girls,” Dierks Bentley presents a quaintly gendered (if well-intentioned) view of relationships and break-ups, broadly examining the behavior of women through the lens of typical male responses. Men, Bentley indicates, self-medicate their emotional wounds with booze and casual sex, letting themselves go to seed. It’s suggested then that women do the opposite or, if not exactly the opposite, some mixture of crying softly into their pillows while stoically keeping up appearances in public.
This all works on country radio, where nuance isn’t always the preferred approach, and it’s hard to deny that Elle King’s vocal contribution helps make for a great sounding record. But it’s also kind of hilarious for this black-and-white, Mars-and-Venus way of looking at complicated behavioral psychology.
Enter Miranda Lambert’s “Vice,” the first single from the superstar’s forthcoming sixth album and first new music since her divorce from Blake Shelton. Written by Lambert with Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally (who also co-wrote “Different for Girls”), it will no doubt scan as some sort of confession or comment on her own high-profile breakup, whether she intended it that way or not.
But it’s probably not the response anyone expected of her, given Lambert’s history. The more obvious choices would have been sweeping, epic heartbreak on the level of “Over You” or the one where she just burns shit to the ground — amassing NRA-boner-generating amounts of gunpowder and lead to exact a spectacularly explosive revenge on the root cause of her suffering. Instead, she chooses sad and resigned. “Another vice,” she shrugs, her worldly temptations sounding more like inevitable household chores than harmful transgressions.
As a portion of Lambert’s work has done for years now, “Vice” challenges that notion of dignified behavior (as defined by men, no doubt) for a woman emerging from the wreckage of a relationship. In “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Lambert turned manic and unpredictable, cutting her hair and scaring everyone in town. In “Vice,” she’s dressing up to get drunk at home and crawling out of a stranger’s bed at 7 a.m., shoes in hand, while the track’s buzzing electronic backdrop evokes a hazy dream state.
How this plays on conservative country radio is anyone’s guess. Where it has typically been fine for men to express sexual desire from sensitive and generous (Conway Twitty’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”) to explicit (Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse [Ride a Cowboy]”) or just the desire to get loaded, women’s expressions of the same have often been met with resistance.
But looking back across country-chart history shows songs by female artists that broach these topics have frequently — and perhaps surprisingly — become commercial smashes as well as cultural milestones. For daring to express worry-free sexual desire with her 1975 single “The Pill,” Loretta Lynn was obstructed from having a Number One country hit — though the song went on to become one of her biggest pop hits and gained notoriety for its brash talk. Five years earlier, Sammi Smith’s version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” flipped the male perspective and put a woman in the position of initiating and enjoying sex — eyebrows were no doubt raised and pearls clutched, but it was nonetheless a huge chart success (Number One country, Number Eight pop) and a Grammy winner despite any initial hesitation from radio.
More recently, the Dixie Chicks recorded a non-single fan favorite with “Sin Wagon,” a tale of breaking bad and doing some “mattress dancing.” (Natalie Maines reveled in repeating the suggestive euphemism in the lyrics: “That’s right, I said mattress dancing!”) In 2005, Lee Ann Womack reached the Top 10 with “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” describing a woman who embraces her urges in spite of the inevitable self-loathing the next day. Just last year, Cam took the sex-positive route with her first single “My Mistake,” putting her short-term carnal enjoyment ahead of propriety and eventual heartache, though it was quickly shelved in favor of “Burning House.”
Unfortunately, there just hasn’t been enough such expression from women inside the mainstream. On the flip side, any given year could yield a mountain of songs by men singing about sex as well as its intersection with heartbreak — some written with women in mind, others clearly intended for guys (see Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down”). Not that every breakup song by a female artist should be some retread of “Vice,” mind you, but history shows incredible commercial potential for women audacious enough to speak their minds — and reveal some glimpse of human frailty. When the idea of women singing about sex is so normalized in country that no one blinks an eye when Lambert describes her carnal weakness — “another call, another bed I shouldn’t crawl out of” — it’ll be a sure sign of progress.
Because while it may be different for girls when their hearts get broken, in the end, it’s not that different.