I'm in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. this week arranging convalescence and rehab for my mom. There's no coffee pot in my mom's apartment. The nearest coffee shop is a strip-mall Starbucks so they play piped-in music instead of whatever is on the barista's iPod. And at least this morning they were playing Billy Joel's treacly "Always a Woman."
Before I'd had any coffee at all.
And therefore before I had any psychic defenses.
And so the lyrics seemed a little fuzzy but the conventional interpretation poured straight into my ear.
She will take all your money and show you the door,
Just like A-a-ava Gardner and Zha Zha Gabor,
She'll admire your Mercedes then ask for the key,
She'll say "not tonight"
But she's always a woman to meeeee.
Or something like that... I dunno, those might not be the real lyrics but they still sound like howling misogyny.
And I thought to myself "Seriously?"
And I thought to myself "But she's always a woman to me?"
And I thought, I dunno. Each verse is a recitation gender-constructing clichés: "She can kill with a smile / She can wound with her eyes / She can ruin your faith with her casual lies / And she only reveals what she wants you to see / She hides like a child..." and then theres that peculiar tagline "BUT she's always a woman to me"
The word "but" tends to imply a negation or contradiction but whatever the real verses the lyrics always boil down to Joel saying that on the one hand the subject of the song is a manifestation of the "whore" side of the madonna/whore binary but on the other hand.... she's a knowable madonna/whore to him. Or he doesn't mind. Or he knows how to handle her.
Boil down the gendered cues Joel uses in the song and you get, basically, "she's always a woman but she's always a woman." Where, I guess, that "but" maybe just adds to the "mystery that is woman?"
I dunno. I hadn't had any coffee yet.
The melodic earworm was still lodged in my head when I got back to my laptop so I looked up the lyrics and learned that at least in folklore Joel wrote the song about his very savvy MBA wife, Elizabeth, and the ruthless way she negotiated on his behalf to get his contracts in order after he'd been basically manipulated into signing away the rights and proceeds of all his earliest hits.
Sounds plausible. It's very interesting if true. And a nice acceleration from zero to about 55 for Joel on my not-a-troglodyte-after-all speedometer.
But if it's true it doesn't appear to be well known. To find that explanation I still had to dig through piles of interpretations by others who are simply entranced by the essential romance and eternal mystery of femininity. And/or a sufficiently manly man's ability to cuckold see through the facades and leave her powerless.
So even assuming Joel was playing with the tropes instead of writing paeans to them, it still doesn't explain what the Sam Hill that "but" is doing in what appears to be a pretty enduring definition of what it is to be a woman according to the audience that made and keeps the song so popular.
The coffee's finished soaking in, my hair's dry after my shower, and I gotta get going here.
If nothing else what other song can I hum to get this dang tune out of my head!
"La la la dee dee daa, la la la dee dee dum, la dee da dum dum dum, but she's always a woman to meee."