Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
Late last month, country superstar Miranda Lambert finally released her eagerly awaited new single, “Vice.” It wasn’t eagerly awaited just because it was her first single in a year, and the first one from her upcoming sixth album. It also happened to be her first single after a highly publicized divorce. And as it’s difficult to separate the fan from the voyeur in many of us, the public was ready for something big.Are we looking for a world in which men behave better—a vision more in line with God’s revealed vision for humanity—or a world in which women behave just as badly as men?
Lambert did not disappoint, although she did manage to subvert expectations. Known for (literally) explosive revenge songs like “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead,” this time she released a slow ballad of searing honesty and deep introspection. First a cappella, then over strong but spare instrumentals, she sings about the search for oblivion through any method available, progressing from wallowing in sad music, to drinking, to one-night stands. Even her attempt to leave town and start over is really just another way to avoid facing life—“another vice.”
If we wanted to hear catharsis, we got it. We also got superb artistry; the song is being widely hailed as one of Lambert’s best. But it’s also being hailed for something else. According to Jon Freeman in Rolling Stone:
As a portion of Lambert’s work has done for years now, “Vice” challenges that notion of dignified behavior (as defined by men, no doubt) for a woman emerging from the wreckage of a relationship. In “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Lambert turned manic and unpredictable, cutting her hair and scaring everyone in town. In “Vice,” she’s dressing up to get drunk at home and crawling out of a stranger’s bed at 7 a.m., shoes in hand, while the track’s buzzing electronic backdrop evokes a hazy dream state.
Freeman goes on to add, “Unfortunately, there just hasn’t been enough such [sexual] expression from women inside the [country] mainstream.”
He backs this up in part by contrasting “Vice” with another current country hit, “Different for Girls,” sung by Dierks Bentley with Elle King. In this song, women handle breakups a little differently:
It’s different for girls when their hearts get broke
They can’t tape it back together with a whiskey and Coke
They don’t take someone home and act like it’s nothing
They can’t just switch it off every time they feel something
Freeman considers this take on things “quaintly gendered (if well-intentioned)” and “kind of hilarious for this black-and-white, Mars-and-Venus way of looking at complicated behavioral psychology.”
Insofar as generalizations are always—okay, almost always—going to be problematic, Freeman has a fair point. It’s no truer to say that all women handle breakups alike than it is to say that all men do. But his larger point has problems of its own.
Though he acknowledges that songs like “Vice” don’t need to be the new standard for every female singer, Freeman still holds up the ability to live that life and sing about it as aspirational. Why? Because it’s considered acceptable for men, so it ought to be acceptable for women too. He skips over the discussion of whether it’s a life worth living. But it’s a question we need to ask before we can join the chorus urging women to go for it. “Men did it first” just isn’t enough.
This is not to say that Freeman is wrong about the sexual double standard: It’s been very real for a very long time. Read up on practically any period of history if you doubt it; again and again, you’ll find a prominent belief that boys will be boys but women must be ladies. Even many Christians buy into it, though there is no scriptural basis for it.
The urge to tear down that mistaken belief has merit. The question we too often fail to take seriously is, what do we set up in its place? Are we looking for a world in which men behave better—a vision more in line with God’s revealed vision for humanity—or a world in which women behave just as badly as men?
Go back to “Different for Girls” for a moment. As problematic as its generalizations are, about both men and women, it seems to grasp something that Jon Freeman missed: that if there exists a paradigm about how women handle sexual behavior and breakups, instead of suppressing it entirely, maybe we ought to look at what it contributes to a civilized society and what we might therefore want to keep from it. If the typical member of one gender “don’t text her friends and say, ‘I gotta get laid tonight,’” maybe that hypothetical person is on to something. Maybe she even has the right idea.
But this view is sharply at odds with a culture that wants its sexual freedom, with as few limits or restraints as possible. Freeman sums it up thus: “When the idea of women singing about sex is so normalized in country that no one blinks an eye when Lambert describes her carnal weakness—‘another call, another bed I shouldn’t crawl out of’— it’ll be a sure sign of progress.”
But progress in what direction? Even Freeman acknowledges that Lambert’s song is “sad and resigned . . . her worldly temptations sounding more like inevitable household chores than harmful transgressions.” There’s a signal here that, intentional or not, should not be ignored. The life of “Vice” is a life that both stems from and leads to emptiness and despair:
Standing at the sink not looking in the mirror
Don’t know where I am or how I got here
Well, the only thing that I know how to find
Is another vice
Miranda Lambert may have been unconventionally frank here, but her song—not incendiary, but lingering in the ashes of regret—is ultimately the best argument against Freeman’s goal. If her hopeless, world-weary lyrics and tone are any indication, the advocates of women’s sexual freedom are trying to give us something that no one, after all, truly wants.
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