I finally remembered to download the version of “Jolene” that Cody Belew sang on The Voice last season, which was the first time I’ve heard that song covered by a man (though not the first time it’s been done, obviously). I’ve been listening to it in contrast with Dolly Parton’s original, and I am fascinated by the fact that two different singers basically tell two different narratives with words that are almost exactly the same.
I couldn’t find the full version of Cody’s cover anywhere on Youtube, and the shortened version he sang onstage really doesn’t show the subtle changes to the lyrics, since it is so abbreviated. If you want to get an idea of the orchestration of the song, here’s how it sounded on air: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=839LnfpoRq8 (embedding disabled, sorry you have to jump). The version for sale is the full song.
Anyway, the main lyric change is that instead of “please don’t take him just because you can” in the first two choruses, he only sings “even though you can,” which Dolly only sang in the last iteration. Also there is a shift of the last line in Dolly’s first verse to open the second verse, either to balance the song a little better or because the producer thought the line fit better thematically with the ending verse.
So how do those changes impact the song?
The change to the chorus matters more. I think it was changed because the song is about competing with a woman. With a woman singer, “just because you can” is a subtle way of acknowledging sisterhood – we all know that impulse, and that women can be that cruel, that perhaps the singer personally could be that cruel. If a man were to use those words they lose a certain…complicity. The shift of “I could easily understand how you could easily take my man, but you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene” to the start of the second (and final) verse is less impactful on the song as a whole, but I do think it de-emphasizes the line that is the heart of the song, which in the original leads off the last verse: “you could have your choice of men, but I could never love again; he’s the only one for me, Jolene.”
The biggest difference is the performances, though, of course. Cody’s is over-the-top dramatic where Dolly’s is almost unemotional, it’s so understated. And I think the two approaches fit the male/female dynamic. A man singing this song is obviously presenting the point of view of a gay man regarding a lover who is bisexual. A woman poses a very different threat to him than she would to a woman; if the bisexual lover chooses her, it could be construed as a rejection not merely of the person but of a way of life and the struggles and perhaps stigma that go with it. Even aside from stereotypes of gay men being overdramatic and emotional, the pleading in the song comes from desperation, so an emotional rendering suits the storyteller.
When the song is sung woman to woman, however, I think the overemotional approach actually mutes the power of the song. In putting my thoughts together for this post I listened to several different covers from female singers, as well, and they all sang the song with emotion. They all sounded like they were begging. The brilliant thing about Dolly’s version is that…she’s not really begging, even though she is using the word, except possibly at the very end.
The emotional place a woman should sing this song from is resignation: knowing that another woman could take her lover away and having no option to stop that from happening except to ask the other woman not to do it. The “just because you can” is important because it implies that Jolene doesn’t actually want him, while the singer doesn’t want anyone else. She “has this talk” basically from a place beyond ego; she’s laying out the realities of the situation, that it’s up to Jolene. It’s a plea for a gentleman’s agreement, for lack of a better term, and it’s done with logic and pride, even as the singer self-effaces in comparing herself to Jolene. The places in the song where emotion cracks through are when she’s talking about the man, not when she is talking about Jolene or even “begging” her. The final chorus ending with “even though you can” is the only place the despair creeps through in a direct address to Jolene, because saying it that way relates the fact that she can back to the singer’s reaction not to Jolene’s motivation.
In my opinion it’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that the other female singers I’ve heard don’t deliver because singing the song like you’re really begging, singing it from a place of despair, basically eliminates the sort of matter-of-fact discussion Dolly’s song has. I can picture the woman singing Dolly’s version sitting down at a bar and calmly addressing the woman her husband’s having an affair with, then getting up and walking away with her head held high, secure in having the moral high ground and in having held onto her dignity no matter what happens. The ones who are reduced to literal begging walk away from the encounter humiliated.
Somehow the emotional rawness of Cody’s version doesn’t give me the picture of losing ground to the mistress by actually begging. Again, I think it’s the male-female versus female-female dynamic. It’s a different kind of competition and a different kind of desperation. And I am just fascinated at the difference in stories told merely by changing the singer.