Saturday, July 7, 2012

You, Me, and He: A History of Cheating in Songs

Interiors. Fatal Attraction. Dangerous Liaisons. Presumed Innocent. Damage. The English Patient. Unfaithful. When characters cheat onscreen, they do so at their own risk. Things rarely end well. And if they're really unlucky, by the time the credits roll, someone in the party of three, or four, will probably be dead.

In music, the stakes are rarely quite so high. Pop songs tend to focus mostly on love for two, but in R&B and especially in country, protagonists have been cheating and getting away with it for decades. In the '70s, Barbara Mandrell kept finding herself in bed with men who weren't her husband: "The Midnight Oil" (1973), "Married, But Not to Each Other" (1977), "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" (1979) -- that girl got around!

"I Just Started Hatin' Cheatin' Songs Today," Moe Bandy discovered on his first chart single in 1974, but five years later, he overlooked his disgust long enough to score his two biggest hits with them: "I Cheated Me Right Out of You (No. 1) and "It's a Cheating Situation" (No. 2). In 1982, though, payback arrived, in the form of the No. 4 hit "She's Not Really Cheatin' (She's Just Gettin' Even)." Two years earlier, John Anderson had his own brutal romantic epiphany with "She Just Started Liking Cheatin' Songs." I wonder if Mel Tillis's "Send Me Down to Tuscon" was on her "Most Played" playlist.

And then there were the Kendalls. The father-daughter duo that rose to country fame singing "Heaven's Just a Sin Away" in 1977 rarely strayed from the topic of straying: "It Don't Feel Like Sinnin' to Me," "Pittsburgh Stealers," "You'd Make an Angel Want to Cheat," "Teach Me to Cheat" and "Cheater's Prayer," the latter of which began with the possibly blasphemous line "Lead us not into temptation..."!

Creatively, few romantic entanglements spawn such sweet pop music as having a heart divided, as Mary MacGregor did in her 1977 No. 1 pop, No. 1 country hit "Torn Between Two Lovers." Five years later, Ray Parker Jr. made his side dish the main course in "The Other Woman" and ended up with a No. 4 pop hit. For R&B singer Joe's biggest album, 2000's My Name is Joe, he played the cheated on in his No. 1 Hot 100 single "Stutter" and the cheater on the album track "Get Crunk Tonight." The latter presented cheating from an asshole's point of view, one that singer-songwriter-producer Ryan Leslie would revisit with 2009's "You're Not My Girl."

TLC took cheating to the tit-for-tat extreme with 1994's "Creep," three years after the trio's manager Pebbles (with a little help from Salt-N-Pepa) delivered a stern warning about the other woman lurking in your own "Backyard." On the flipside of the love game, the great Shirley Murdock was far more sympathetic than she should have been playing the other woman in her two biggest hits (1986's "As We Lay" and 1988's "Husband"), despite being beautiful enough to land a man of her own.

But then what's looks got to do with it? Despite what Cherelle sang in "Everything I Miss at Home," her 1988 No. 1 R&B hit, when it comes to cheating, there's only rhyme and reason in the songs. Men don't leave and women don't stray because their spouses are unattractive or did everything wrong. Blame it on human nature. Neither men nor women are inherently monogamous. We cheat because of who we are: human beings who are not necessarily meant to be with just one person.

I'm not condoning or damning infidelity, in or out of songs. We're all responsible for setting the boundaries in our own relationships. Whether extracurricular sex is right or wrong depends on you, your partner and your conscience. Just say a little cheater's prayer that you don't end up with an Alex Forrest on your hands.

Those of us who would prefer not to bend to human nature get to live vicariously through unfaithful characters in songs without having to risk wrecking our own relationships and ultimately facing a different kind music. There's also a certain desperation and urgency in loving someone you can't have, or shouldn't have, and when a third party is involved, it makes for compelling musical drama.

Even when it's mostly about sex. We can listen to a song like "Contagious," the 2001 hit by the Isley Brothers featuring Chante Moore and R. Kelly, who'd previously played the other man in collaboration with the Isleys on his own 1995 hit "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)," and appreciate the joy of extramarital sex without soiling our own comforter. When the music over's, we can return to our regularly scheduled romance with clean sheets and not an ounce of guilt.

Mtume "You, Me and He"

Cheaters Beware! A man scorned can be just as dangerous as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction!

D'Angelo "Shi*t, Damn, Motherf*cker"


Alexi said...

Let's not forget Barbra Mason's lament in "Another Man Is Beating My Time".

Jeremy Helligar said...

Good one, Alexi! Now all of the good cheating songs are flooding back! Remember "Your Wife Is Cheating on Us," by the late Richard "Dimples" Fields?