The history of rock music is in large part a history of men writing condescending and degrading songs about women, so it's interesting when a songwriter like John Lennon - with a track record of some of rock's most notoriously misogynistic lyrics - performs a song that at first listen appears to be apologetic and self-critical. In this episode, I look closely at the songwriting in his 1971 song, 'Jealous Guy', in the context of rock's historic sexism, to see how convincing this gesture of apology really is.
All the songs discussed in this episode, including the original recording of 'Jealous Guy', can be heard here.
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Hello and welcome to the Secret Life of Songs - a podcast on what happens in pop songs and why they mean so much to us. I’m Anthony, a musician who makes music under the name sky coloured, and this week I’m going to be looking at ‘Jealous Guy’, a song written and performed by John Lennon during his solo career, released on the Imagine album in 1971. The song bore directly on Lennon's life and on his relationship with Yoko Ono, functioning as an apology for an incident when, in a rage, he demanded she list everyone she had slept with before their relationship.
It was written during a period of Lennon’s career when the direction of his songwriting was tending towards a personal, defiant honesty. Imagine and the album before it, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, were written and released in just two years, and contain songs like ‘Isolation’, about the loneliness he experienced in the final years of the Beatles, ‘Crippled Inside’, prompted by memories of how as a younger man he made a habit of mocking people with disabilities, and several songs about the traumas of being abandoned by his father and the sudden death of his mother in a car accident, most notably in the song which opens his debut solo album, simply titled, ‘Mother’
These songs were written around the time Lennon was undergoing primal scream therapy with Arthur Janov in California, and songs like ‘Mother’, which features an outro of screaming directly inspired by his therapy, can be seen as an extension of the therapeutic process he was undertaking, and which he described like this: ‘Before I wasn’t feeling things - I was having blocks to the feelings … primal therapy allowed [me] to feel feelings continually … the feelings come through, and you cry’. These feelings Lennon was breaking through to, naturally, were about his troubled past, but the ‘past’ he refers to in the opening line of ‘Jealous Guy’ - ‘I was dreaming of the past’ - is nothing to do with his early life: it concerns Yoko’s life: her past, before John knew her, which he has no claim to. It’s only now, as he’s apologising through writing this song, that he realises this:
The musical structure of the song builds from a sense of vulnerability and confusion, through declamatory expressions of apology, before, by the end of the chorus, seeming to arrive at a conclusion and a sense of normality being restored. I want to show how the effectiveness of Lennon’s songwriting - his handling of melody, harmony, and song structure - manages this apology in such a way that it leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling Lennon has - within the song - accepted his own apology, denying Yoko the chance to respond with anything other than total forgiveness.
Although the first chord of the introduction is the tonic major (G major), it swiftly moves down towards the minor 6th chord - E minor - that ‘minor fall’ we’ve seen in previous episodes. It then moves to the dominant (D major, D7), before going back to E minor, and finally back to the tonic for the vocal entry. The high register of the piano chords, and the strings backing them, is significant here - without bass, the sense of harmony, of being ‘in a key’, is weakened, and so, despite being a relatively simple sequence of chords which start and end on the tonic, the effect is more ambiguous - it feels untethered, floating uncertainly in musical space.
The verse is structured around the sense of this initial unsettled ambiguity building inevitably towards the emphatic resolution in the chorus. The uncertainty of the introduction is extended into the verses, being expressed harmonically through the oscillation between that minor chord on the sixth - the E minor - and the dominant; Lennon moves from this E minor area to D major twice, and back to E minor again, before the first introduction of the subdominant - C major - at the very end of the verse, which is the song's first ‘grounding’ moment. This takes the song into the chorus, and establishes a clear sense of G major as the song's key for the first time. In addition to this oscillating between E minor and D major, he uses extensions over the D major and E minor to further muddy the harmonic waters: so D becomes D6 then D7, and E minor becomes Em7 and Em#6, the most dissonant chord in the song.
The melody mirrors this sense of confusion in the verses, of going back and forth, by using a melodic sequence, which drops in pitch. [explain and demonstrate] This falling sequence, which adds to the verse’s sense of insecurity and uncertainty, is unusual - it’s much more typical in pop song verses to use rising melodic sequences, where each iteration of the sequence is higher than the previous, like the one in ‘God Only Knows’ I talked about in episode 4. However, Lennon starts to create a sense of build by using a more conventional rising sequence on the repeated final lines of the verse (‘I began to lose control’ in verse 1). As all this is going on, Lennon’s acoustic guitar gradually comes through in the mix, which contributes to the sense of gathering momentum, and when we hear the return of the tonic, it feels inevitable.
Cleverly, however, Lennon staggers the sense of a full return to the tonic: the first note of the melody in the chorus is the major 3rd above the tonic (not the tonic, as might be expected), and the second chord of the chorus, following the tonic (G major), is D minor over F natural (Dm/F) rather than the dominant. This chord, while using a note not in the tonic key, doesn’t feel dissonant because it’s followed by C major; the sequence hints at a key change into the subdominant at this point (one of Lennon’s favourite devices - he does it in 'Imagine', for example) - this D minor 'hinge' chord also allows the appearance of the Bb major chord on ‘made you cry’. This is Lennon’s most unusual chord choice in the song; it uses two notes (Bb and F natural) not in the home key, which gives the music at that point its sense of sudden uplift, or something being renewed. Together with the melody rising up to almost its highest point at the end of the phrase, this harmonic device is the musical equivalent of sweeping oratory, like the climactic sentences of a politician’s stump speech.
It’s then followed by the ‘proper’ return to the tonic, on the repetition of ‘I didn’t want to hurt you’. The melody drops and hits the tonic note, and the chords follow the much more conventional G, D/F#, Em - before finally finishing on the title line, ‘I’m just a jealous guy’ and a very solid-feeling IV-I cadence (C, G). The sudden shift from the climax of ‘I made you cry’, with the dramatic gesture of that sudden Bb major chord, to this return which undercuts the previous line's grandiosity - not so that it’s exposed as suspect but so that the listener cannot fail to think of the gesture as sincere. The chorus as a whole feels to me like the expression of an idealised apology from the perspective of the person saying sorry; an apology which involves its own forgiveness. Despite its clear intention to demonstrate vulnerability and honesty, the rhetorical sweep of ‘Jealous Guy’ seems to me to deny the possibility of rejection or criticism. Embedded in the musical structure is the sense of inevitability towards resolution; the song’s final return to the tonic, having moved through so much harmonic and melodic uncertainty, embodies the supplicant’s hope that the state of things before the harmful act can be restored perfectly.
I want to talk about misogyny in rock music and to see this song as a document in the history of rock’s evolving male perspectives towards women: all dehumanising in their own way, but not always directly, and often surreptitiously. I’m always interested - or rather, I always feel suspicious - in moments when men perform a drama of their own humility before women. As always, understanding the meaning of a particular song involves grasping what expectations we as listeners bring to the moment of listening. In songs like ‘Jealous Guy’ much of the emotional effect is derived from its apparent reversal of the usual open hostility of the male rock singer towards his female partner - by hearing a man appearing to be self-critical, and admitting fault - we feel in new territory, and are - I think - initially impressed, simply because it’s a departure from the usual overt male pride and bullishness we expect in a rock song, and, in particular, a rock song by someone like John Lennon, who had a well-documented history of writing openly misogynistic songs, which, indeed drew on his personal history of violence against women. When Lennon wrote the lyrics for ‘Run for Your Life’ for the Beatles in 1965, a song which he much later said he regretted, it was only a particularly extreme form of the pervasive hostility towards women in pop songs of the time:
Well I'd rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man
You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Catch you with another man, that's the end
Male boasting was a common feature of the blues tradition, which Lennon drew so much of his inspiration from, and which did often spill into condescension towards women and glibness about violence against them. In their book on misogyny in rock music, The Sex Revolts, however, authors Simon Reynolds & Joy Press suggest that layers of subtlety or irony in the chauvinistic onstage personae of bluesmen like Muddy Waters were missed by young British men who heard it and transposed it into a more simplistic, aggressive misogyny, as in the work of heavily blues-influenced bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who. In line with ideas of freedom, then being defined by the likes of Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets as freedom from responsibility, hostility towards women in rock n roll enacted a sort of misdirected rebellion against the status quo, by identifying women as defenders of middle-class respectability. It’s that culture that Lennon was writing within and for, when he wrote his misogynistic screeds in the early years of the Beatles. It’s been well-documented how avidly he listened to the records of Chuck Berry, whose lyrics often displayed a casual possessiveness towards women. Lennon may also have heard this record by a less well-known bluesman, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, who opened for the Beatles when they toured North America in 1964:
I have no idea if this song, ‘The Jealous Kind’, was a direct influence on Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’, although it seems likely he would have heard it. Either way, Henry’s song, recorded in 1962, is an example of the sort of normalised abusive behaviour that was part of so much pop music of the rock n roll era: the suggestion that the jealous man is the victim of unreasonable behaviour, the idea that his jealousy is the best proof of his devotion, and an increasingly coercive insistence that she ‘must’ forgive him. Only at the very end do we get a faint hint that he recognises he might be, if not out of line, then at least straying out of what is widely accepted behaviour. But it’s lost in the helpless repeated refrain it ends with: ‘I’m just the jealous kind, I’m just the jealous kind …’
Lennon’s song is different in many respects but at its core I’m not sure it really is that different in what it implies about jealous behaviour: for Henry’s ‘rudeness’ we have Lennon ‘losing control’, for Henry being ‘hurt’ about the time before ‘we met’ we have Lennon ‘feeling insecure’, and both, crucially, use the word ‘just’ when making their final judgment of themselves: ‘I’m just the jealous kind’, ‘I’m just a jealous guy’.
I don’t want to put myself forward as a better judge than them: I don’t know what it was like to be in the shoes of either songwriter. Perhaps it really did feel like unprecedented emotional openness to Lennon when he wrote this song, given his experiences and the circumstances of his upbringing, the profoundly misogynistic cultures he was both raised in and drawn to. But I have noticed the song's emotional appeal to other men - men such as myself. To me, especially when I hear cover versions of it, full of earnest feeling, the sense of self-exoneration is unmistakable, and it makes me want men to have higher expectations of what honesty would really sound like.