Why Everyone Is Arguing About Beyoncé’s Cover of “Jolene”?

On her new album, Beyoncé put her own spin on Dolly Parton’s country classic. Of course everyone had an opinion.

Dolly Parton and Beyoncé, in black and white, against a yellow background.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Johnny Nunez/Getty Images and Ron Jenkins/Stringer/Getty Images.

Fans rejoiced on Friday when Beyoncé finally dropped the long-awaited follow-up to her 2022 album Renaissance: the 78-minute, genre-defying behemoth that is Cowboy CarterCowboy Carter was more or less promoted as a country album, given the aesthetics and visual markers of the rollout as well as the country genre of the first two singles, but it ultimately transcended categorization, as the singer herself promised with a declaration that Cowboy Carter “ain’t a Country album,” but “a ‘Beyoncé’ album.” Nevertheless, the album clearly has definite country elements, including interludes voiced by some of the genre’s greatest artists, like Willie Nelson and Linda Martell, as well as plenty of samples of country classics. Then, of course, there’s “Jolene,” Beyoncé’s re-imagining of the Dolly Parton hit, which the singer changes from a vulnerable plea to a threatening “warning.”

The pop star’s take on the beloved tune has ignited a debate across the internet, with both proponents and detractors of the changes voicing their opinions in think pieces, album reviews, and posts on social media. So why are everyone’s knickers in a bunch? Below, a full examination of the fallout to Beyoncé’s “Jolene.”

What’s the big deal about this version of “Jolene”? You said Beyoncé changed it. 

She has indeed! This piece from People magazine has a detailed comparison, but it might be best to pull up the lyrics side by side to see all of the changes. In Parton’s 1973 hit, she sings to a girl with “auburn hair” whose “beauty is beyond compare,” and literally begs her not to steal her man “just because [she] can.” Parton mentions how her “happiness depends on” Jolene, whom she feels inferior to.

Beyoncé’s version of the tune takes no prisoners. She “warns” Jolene “don’t come for my man,” and cautions her: “don’t take the chance because you think you can.” She promises the girl—who is not described, but in an intro to the song voiced by Parton is alluded to as the same “Becky with the good hair” from Beyoncé’s 2016 album Lemonade—that she “don’t want no heat with” Beyoncé, because she may be Queen Bey, but she’s still “a Creole banjee bitch from Louisianne” who would “hate to have to act a fool.” You get the picture.

Another big sonic departure from the original is the addition of a bridge, which brings in a male voice that promises: “I’mma stand by her, she gon’ stand by me, Jolene.”

Campy! Fun! What was the reaction to the song?

Dolly Parton Shares Unfiltered Opinion of Beyoncé's 'Jolene' Cover - Parade

Divided, as you can imagine. Professional critics, generally speaking, were not fans of Beyoncé’s version. The Washington Post’s pan of the album calls the track one of the “lower-hanging tribute covers.” But even the largely positive album reviews cast off the song: Rolling Stone calls it “cheeky and humorous … even if it doesn’t add much,” while Stereogum agrees it’s “cute” but calls it a move that is “hacky and obvious,” chastising Beyoncé for covering an oft-covered song and musing that she “might as well cover Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ while she’s at it.”

A large contingent of the pushback seems to revolve around the point that, as Chris Willman writes for Variety’s review, “taking out all the vulnerability lessens the tune a little.” Slate critic Carl Wilson poses a similar question in his review: “Why do ‘Jolene’ if you’re going to remove the most unique and powerful element of the song, that the narrator is baring her vulnerability and asking the mercy of her rival? That’s something that a post-Lemonade Beyoncé could never do, so she reduces it to a generic boast track about the greatness of her own marriage.”

Similar critiques have cropped up on social media, with some lamenting the loss of the original track’s sense of pain and even homoeroticism, while others have rolled their eyes at the idea of Beyoncé going to these lengths or slamming other women for the sake of someone like Jay-Z. (To many onlookers’ amusement, rapper and certified bringer of chaos Azealia Banks took to Instagram Stories to tell Beyoncé to “find new content,” because “nobody, and I mean NOBODY thinks [Jay-Z is] even remotely attractive.”)

Did anyone defend it?

Yes! The Atlantic ran a full textual exploration of the song in which Spencer Kornhaber asserts that Beyoncé “isn’t just playing into some trad-wife cultural resurgence” or presuming herself superior over other women, but is instead echoing the right of the Black family to “defend itself,” especially within the context of the album as a “subversion of the double standard” of violence in music, where the predominantly white field of country music will rally behind themes of dominance and violence, but those same themes in the predominantly Black field of hip-hop get artists “vilified as dangerous, and even prosecuted.” Vox writer Kyndall Cunningham also reminds us that the song is just one more in a long “history of outspoken, scorned women in country music,” calling to mind Carrie Underwood’s karaoke staple “Before He Cheats” and Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.”

As a Black woman, I have also seen a lot of love for Beyoncé’s “Jolene” among other Black women, from my friends to my mother to strangers on the internet. While the praise isn’t unilateral—Azealia Banks surely proves we’re not a monolith, after all—what it comes down to is this: This rendition, to me, screams about the labor of Black love, which has to defy plenty of odds to subsist without falling apart. Black women don’t have time to beg—or, rather, historically, begging has gotten us nowhere. Instead, we have learned that we must defend what we’ve worked so hard to create—even, potentially, our own delusions about our relationships. I’m not going to say it’s the best song on the album, but it’s got some real textual layers. (Also, Stevie Wonder plays the harmonica on it!)

But the biggest name defending the song is Miss Dolly herself. After the album’s release, the singer, who previously expressed her desire for Beyoncé to cover “Jolene” in her own way, posted a message to her Instagram: “Wow, I just heard Jolene. Beyoncé is giving that girl some trouble and she deserves it!”

You seem to be a Beyoncé fan; what do you make of all this hubbub?

While I find the entire discussion to be engaging, I think it’s time that we distance our understanding of covers as things that need to be “better than” the original to be worth it. Different versions of a song can exist and speak to different audiences, and that’s fine! The original is still there, to love, to revel in, to play on a loop, the way I often have. Beyoncé’s addition does nothing to change that.

I also don’t believe that song lyrics are always a clear-cut representation of the singer’s personal reality. Artists frequently put on personas and play characters, which is one of the great things about music as a form of storytelling.

I will offer one slightly unconventional reading of the track: What if it were actually from the point of view of Beyoncé’s mother? Tina Knowles has Louisiana Creole heritage—you might remember the popular lyric from Beyoncé’s “Formation”: “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana”—and could be the “creole banjee bitch from Louisianne” that Beyoncé self-references in the song. Tina’s relationship with Beyoncé’s father, Mathew Knowles, was famously beset with rumors of infidelity and abuse, something that has long been referenced in the singer’s lyrics. When Tina first filed for divorce in 2009, Beyonce would have been in her late 20s and Solange, Beyoncé’s younger sister, in her early 20s, which falls in line with the new “Jolene” lyric: “We’ve been deep in love for 20 years, I raised that man, I raised his kids.” In this reading, Beyoncé is channeling her mother’s ferocity in trying to protect a marriage before its eventual dissolution. And I like to think of the subsequent song, the murderous “Daughter,” as Beyoncé’s internalization of both of her parents’ (literal) cutthroat gumption.

Whether you like the changes to “Jolene” or not, I think it makes a worthwhile sonic and lyrical portrait of Black womanhood. And if there’s one thing Beyoncé makes clear, it’s that we better listen.

Related Posts

Our Privacy policy

https://newsnews123.com - © 2024 News