Call Your Girlfriend and the other woman
When Call Your Girlfriend first came out, my friend Katie posted it on Facebook with a comment that said, roughly, “You think love has been written about in every possible way, then something like this offers a brand new perspective,” though I think she was probably funnier. Robyn is brilliant at doing this. She grabs hold of a subject that should be played out - in this case, new romance - and makes it sound as if this is the first time anyone has thought to write a song about it.
Call Your Girlfriend is about getting together with someone who already has someone. Pussycat Dolls went there in 2005 with Don’t Cha, that relentlessly catchy hit that was as classy as a belch. “I know you like me, I know you do,” it teases, all finger-in-mouth YouPorn coquettishness. “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?” It’s a come-on that operates as a taunt to the invisible girlfriend, who falls short of being “raw” like this dancing troupe of sizzling maneaters. Sisterhood withers and dies against its percussive sex-‘ah’s as Scherzy and co seduce their target.
Taylor Swift danced the same dance in You Belong With Me in 2009; it’s less obnoxious, but more insidious, because the central conceit is the same - the incumbent isn’t good enough. “She’ll never get you like I do” is school-hall “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me”, here dressed down in banjos and geek specs. This enemy-bitch isn’t an insignificant background figure. We know something about her. She wears short skirts. She’s head cheerleader. But all she’s really done wrong is have a boyfriend Taylor Swift wants.
Dolly Parton went straight to the other woman in 1974 with compassion and a plea for solidarity. “Please don’t take my man,” she famously begs of her bombshell. Jolene is a stunner who deserves the language of a love song, with those “flaming locks of auburn hair, and ivory skin and eyes of emerald green.” Parton can barely contain her empathy. She can “easily understand” why Jolene might fancy a bit of her husband. She gets why her husband might fancy a bit in return. In desperation, she chooses to appeal to human decency. Lust is simple. This song, fraught with the knowledge that it does not have the upper hand, is far from it. It quivers with sadness and respect.
Call Your Girlfriend could so easily have joined that Plastics gang of Don’t Cha and You Belong With Me, as a cool kiss-off to the vanquished other woman who doesn’t know she’s been ditched yet. If it had been that way, Robyn would have been saying, simply, get on the phone and tell her you’re mine now. But, as with Jolene, this is between the two women. The boyfriend is barely a consideration. Robyn is Jolene, fleshed out, the morning after. She’s taken the man. She feels bad about it. All she can do is return the respect Dolly Parton extended to her.
“Give your reasons, say it’s not her fault,” she instructs, only too aware of how broken a boot-stomped heart can feel. She informs him how to cut the ties cleanly and kindly: “You tell her that the only way her heart will mend is when she learns to love again / and it won’t make sense right now, but you’re still her friend. And then you let her down easy.” In less deft hands this sentiment - the new girlfriend assuming she knows exactly what will make this less painful for the old one - would have been unforgivably arrogant. But Robyn isn’t drawing on her previous experience as a dumper; she’s remembering how it feels to be the dumpee. Everything she says is born of insider knowledge, and that’s why she cares so deeply.
This is a song about hurt, without malice. “You just met somebody new.” That’s how it happened. Everyone has been on one or both sides of that. It wasn’t meant to cause pain. Dolly Parton and Robyn can have a difficult conversation between women, about women, without pitting women against each other. And even Gretchen Weiners knows that that’s just like, the rules of feminism.