Beyoncé’s ‘Jolene’ Sadly Doesn’t Pack the Same Punch

On an album of otherwise excellent songs, "Jolene" (which is meant to be a girl-loss anthem, not a girl-boss anthem) gets rid of Dolly Parton's seductive vulnerability.

Beyoncé’s ‘Jolene’ Sadly Doesn’t Pack the Same Punch

By now you’ve seen the white smoke billowing from Parkwood Entertainment’s chimney heralding the arrival of Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé’s eighth studio album. Shaped and informed by her southern roots and her experience at the 2016 Country Music Awards where she received an icy (un)welcome from the genre’s inner circle, the 27 tracks feature banjos, Willie Nelson, Linda Martell, mentions of small-town dive bars, and Dolly Parton—making it the closest thing to a country album the superstar has ever put out. 

I like it! It’s fun and genre expansive and production-wise, sonically delectable. The singles she released to tease the album—”Texas Hold Em” and “16 Carriages”—remain my favorite. But I’ll take that as a sign to sit with the 25 brand-new songs a bit longer, let them roll around in my brain like Beyoncé’s warm and warbled Texas drawl, and see how they grow on me. But there’s one song I do feel ready to denounce due to the infinite amount of time I’ve already spent with it. It brings me no joy to do so but…Bey’s spin on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” misses the mark of what makes that song so potent. It’s a shallow cover not really worth swimming around in. 

“Hey Miss Honey Bey, it’s Dolly P,” Dolly Parton herself says in the interlude intro to the song, “Jolene’s” iconic fingerpicking ostinato revving up behind her voice. “You know that hussy with the good hair you sing about? /Reminded me of someone I knew back when/Except she has flamin’ locks of auburn hair,” she continues. 

But what transpires is a song threatening a woman—presumably Becky with the good hair of Lemonade fame—to back down from stealing her man. And the song has been run through the Girl Bossifier 5000, leaving little to chew on. Sprinkled with adaptations, “I’m beggin’ of you, please don’t take my man” becomes “I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man” and “Please don’t take him just because you can” is updated to “Don’t take the chance because you think you can.” The grief-laden vulnerability of Dolly’s version that acknowledged Jolene’s seductive power is nowhere to be found. Instead, Beyoncé is singing to a woman she is confident won’t ruin her 20-year relationship, dissing her attempt at even trying. So then why is she even addressing her? Why does she care? Why should we?

What makes the original so enduring is Dolly’s appeal to the other woman’s sensibilities. This dude is all I have, pity me, she basically croons. It is gorgeously pathetic, the rhythmic motif of the guitar never quite delivering us to a point of satisfaction. While I can appreciate the gesture of a more confident narrator, Beyoncé’s beautiful rendition of the song’s despondent melody is at odds with this revamped message of nothing comes between me and my man, not even a pretty woman. The decision to have a chorus come in to finish out the bridge is also such a bizarre choice, dissolving any perceived intimacy in the conversation between the narrator and Jolene. 

I’m glad Dolly hopped on to introduce the song. It is no small courtesy for the Queen of Nashville to hand over the reins of her career-defining heartbreak ballad to Queen Bey, effectively silencing country music’s (arguably racist) purists. I just wish the power imbalance between the narrator and Jolene and the raw vulnerability of begging this auburn-haired woman remained intact during that transition of power.

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