Deconstructing Lyrical Mythologies: Jolene by Dolly Parton

Where were we…….?          Ah, yes.   Jolene.

Man, I love this fucking song.

Jolene: Written by Dolly Parton and released in 1973, nominated for two Grammy Awards for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and coming in at No. 217 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” in 2004.

Admit it, my ladies.   There is deep recognition in this song.

It is a rare woman who at some point in her life hasn’t been confronted with the realization that she WASN’T the fairest of them all in the eyes of HER fairest of them all.    And that shit SUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKS.

Before we plunge our incisors into the meat of this gem, I want to set it up so you can see it properly.    There are a couple of reasons why these lyrics are so effective and why the song grabs you right in the lady-nuts.

  1. It leans heavily on the idea (Nay!  The completely internalized, digested, and assimilated understanding) that aesthetic beauty is currency, and that this currency is the only asset with which one can attain love and companionship.  This is especially weighty if you are a woman/girl/female-identified.  But honestly, our perfection-driven consumerism, much like the patriarchy, affects everybody, able or not.
  2. That the partner with which the protagonist is so enamored is utterly voiceless and, frankly not to be addressed.  Ever.  It’s not even a consideration.   “Don’t bother the man with your petty feelings, honey.   Let him follow his boners into every pretty face he pleases!  You can’t stop it!!  I know you can see his boner!!!  For GOD’S sake, DON’T TELL HIM YOU CAN SEE HIS BONER!!

Good?   Great.


Here is a rendition by Miley Cyrus because she (and her band) kills it, dayed.

Let’s break it down:

“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene”  (Repeating the name of the woman who threatens to come between you and the love of your life opens the song with a mysterious sense of either desperation or romance.  Both?  We don’t know yet.   The song is just getting started.)

“I’m begging of you please don’t take my man” (THERE it is!)

“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene” (I’m leaning towards desperation here.)

“Please don’t take him just because you can” (We don’t know Jolene yet, and I’m not sure the protagonist of our story does yet, either.  However, this line appears to hand Jolene the majority of the power in this dynamic.  Is Jolene the kind of woman who would seduce a man even though he is married to another woman?  Are ALL woman THAT kind of woman? In the next verse, we start to understand why the power is skewed toward Jolene and away from the protagonist.  (Fun Fact: Dolly Parton recalls that she wrote this song about a woman who flirted with her then-husband in a bank.  The description of her, however, is that of a young fan that requested an autograph at one of Dolly Parton’s shows.)

“Your beauty is beyond compare
With flaming locks of auburn hair
With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green
Your smile is like a breath of spring
Your voice is soft like summer rain
And I cannot compete with you, Jolene.” (WhooooooooBoy.  My heart just floats away into pieces every time I hear this verse.  Recognizing the complete and unattainable game of your opponent is…..devastating.   No competition.   I mean, WE know that Dolly Parton is a stone cold fox, ever since she first appeared and now, in her 70s.  But, in this song, we are all NOT Jolene, and that’s the expertly crafted point.)

“He talks about you in his sleep
There’s nothing I can do to keep
From crying when he calls your name, Jolene.” (Here Dolly takes us deeper down the depression hole of “he’s literally speaking Jolene’s name while he’s lying unconscious next to the protagonist.  Maybe this was after they had made love?  Maybe he wasn’t in the mood that evening because she wasn’t Jolene?  Neither scenario is fun, but there you have it and now you know what my mind does when I don’t have it tethered to something productive.)  

“And I can easily understand
How you could easily take my man
But you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene.” (Again, the power is ALL Jolene’s because 1)beauty and 2)unreasonably deaf-mute man.  But “PLEASE.  He means something to me!!!!   SOB!!” 

Here is where I take issue with the song:  How is a relationship with someone that you can’t talk to about your most vulnerable insecurities, meaningful?  Doesn’t he have a say in the matter?  What if he DOESN’T want to be with Jolene, he just mumbles about her in his sleep because the human mind and body are weird as FUCK?  I mean, I have weird sex dreams about people I know all the time, but I DEFINITELY don’t want to be with them romantically.”

“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene”
I’m begging of you please don’t take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
Please don’t take him just because you can.” (I know that the function of a repetitive chorus is to be the emotional metronome of a song, but this particular chorus does a genius job of maintaining a quickening sense of desperation.  When paired with the rhythmic and consistent picking of the acoustic guitar, UGH!!  IT HURTS SO GOOD!)

“You could have your choice of men
But I could never love again
He’s the only one for me, Jolene.” (Here’s where whatever is left of my heart crumbles and disappears into a puff of dust.  I know that feeling.  That feeling that you logically understand is false, but can’t help feeling it anyway when you first break up with someone.  It’s the feeling that there won’t ever be anyone as perfect for you, ever again.   It is not real, but it feels. so. real.)
“I had to have this talk with you
My happiness depends on you
And whatever you decide to do, Jolene.” (Again with giving Jolene all of the power.   I WISH the protagonist would go talk to her damn lover.   We aren’t given a reasonable explanation as to why she doesn’t.  Not even a little.  Is he violent?  Is he emotionally absent?  Is he an ACTUAL angler fish?  I wish this song wasn’t so complacent about this seemingly insignificant piece of the puzzle.    To me, this is the most insidious part.   It’s that it doesn’t seem to matter.  That we aren’t entitled to the man as a presence in our emotional plight, even though he’s a major source of it.)

“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
I’m begging of you please don’t take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
Please don’t take him even though you can
Jolene, Jolene” (Enough already.  I’m exhausted.)

I love this song.  I will never NOT love it.  I hope I haven’t ruined it too much for you.   Or….Rather….I hope I’ve ruined it just enough so that you don’t identify as strongly with the protagonist anymore.  Because you are beautiful and you are worthy of unconditional, supportive and nurturing companionship, regardless of who your Jolene may be.

Next up: The Boxer by Paul Simon

Do you have a song you’d like me to de-mythstify?   Let me know! Comment below!

2 thoughts on “Deconstructing Lyrical Mythologies: Jolene by Dolly Parton”

  1. Beautifully written, great, in depth analysis. I think the appeal of the song is that most of us can relate, having been in a similar situation, emotionally speaking. What a sad, beautiful song. Millie C. kills it, as do you EZ!

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