Kitty Wells, who died five years ago this week, had success in country music with her proto-feminist song ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’. The history of this song can tell us much about sexism in music, issues which are sadly still prevalent today.
In 1952 Hank Thompson (anyone remember him?) had a hit with a song called ‘The Wild Side of Life’, which condemned women for going out to bars, drinking and cheating. It was full of bitter rebukes to these ‘honky tonk angels’ and was number one for fifteen weeks.
Kitty’s response song was recorded without any real hope for success – at the time she was considering giving up her singing career. The song itself was actually written by a man called JD Miller, and he cast the blame for cheating equally back to his own sex.
It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song
Too many times married men
Think they’re still single
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong
It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women
It’s not true that only you men feel the same
It spoke the truth from the woman’s point of view, denouncing the sexist and cruel views of some men while still admitting that the woman was ‘wrong’. The song became the first number one country record by a female solo singer and it outsold its inspiration. Perhaps unsurprisingly due to the culture at the time it was banned by some radio stations and the Opry. That should tell you everything you need to know about how powerful a song this was.
Of course at the time the term feminist didn’t exist but Kitty Wells knew that she had changed things, at least in terms of female representation:
Women never had hit records in those days. Very few of them even recorded. I couldn’t believe it happened…Well, Capitol Records got to recording the girl singers, so now we got just about as many girl singers as there are men singers.
Afterwards country music became known for its strong female singers like Patsy, Loretta, Dolly and Tammy. Many of them covered this song too, understanding its significance in the history of their genre. It gave them a licence to tell their own stories in a direct and honest way – calling out men for sexism and double standards.
But right now, more than sixty years later, it feels we have regressed again. In country music the issue of sexism continues, with women barely making dents on the charts and male songs full of sexist nonsense. So far so 1950s. In 2014 Maddie and Tae recorded a response song ‘Girl in a Country Song’, a hilarious send up of all the tropes found in bro-country. The problem is that this song, despite being Number One hasn’t paved a way for continued success by the duo or other women in country music, and it hasn’t changed the content of songs by men, either.
One protest song isn’t enough. It barely made a dent. Every single female artist needs to make a stand and not just in country music – in every genre. And this doesn’t just have to come from the girls, boys need to step up like JD Miller did when he wrote It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.
We need response songs to Blurred Lines and Love Yourself and Shape of You and Body Like A Back Road and all those rap songs where women are referred to as ‘bitches’ and every damn song by Blake Shelton. Listeners too need to reject these songs for what they are – sexist garbage. Also Taylor has to respond to Kanye West’s ‘Famous‘ on her new album – the way she was treated in that song and video is so offensive it’s almost criminal. If that doesn’t inspire a revenge song then I will be sorely disappointed.
Let’s just hope that all across the world there are girls (and their feminist brothers) hearing these awful songs and getting angry enough to pick up a pen and a guitar. We need strong female voices and male allies more than ever. Kitty changed things once, maybe we can stamp out sexism for good this time.
From what I hear on the radio, there are more men singing about loving and praising their women, and women singing criticism of their men, e.g. Carry Underwood is going to scratch her man’s to scratch her man’s truck, etc.
The songs I discuss in this post are about women’s bodies and are offensive to me. But I do find the current crop of songs praising women to be also transparent and quite condescending too. I would like to see more honesty from mainstream male songwriters. Women aren’t afraid to be real, maybe that’s why they don’t get played on the radio.