She’s Always a Woman to Somebody

In 1977, Billy Joel reached the Top 20 with his song, “She’s Always a Woman.” According to Wikipedia,

It is a love song that Joel wrote for his then wife, Elizabeth Weber. . . . Because of her tough-as-nails negotiating style, many business adversaries thought she was “unfeminine,” but to Joel, she was always a woman.

In some ways, that song epitomized sexual relations of that era. For several generations before and after, men were in the habit of placing women on a pedestal. As my own ex-wife put it, “Why is a man like a rug? If you lay him right, you can walk all over him.”

Consider these lyrics from the song:

She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies
And she only reveals what she wants you to see . . .
She can lead you to love, she can take you or leave you
She can ask for the truth but she’ll never believe you
And she’ll take what you give her as long as it’s free
Yeah she steals like a thief but she’s always a woman to me . . .
Oh, and she never gives out and she never gives in
She just changes her mind
And she’ll promise you more than the Garden of Eden
Then she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding . . .
She’s frequently kind and she’s suddenly cruel
She can do as she pleases, she’s nobody’s fool
But she can’t be convicted, she’s earned her degree

Summarizing, it seems Joel found Elizabeth to be harsh and cutting. Not all the time, but — perhaps worse — at times when he wasn’t prepared for it. And not just harsh, but cold, thieving, manipulative (“only reveals what she wants you to see”), uncommitted (“can take you or leave you”), distrustful, unfair (“never gives out . . . never gives in”), cruel and possibly sadistic (“laugh while you’re bleeding”), spoiled (“can do as she pleases”), and privileged (“can’t be convicted”).

Now, honestly, what the hell kind of wife is that? The question is not whether Joel characterized Elizabeth accurately. Maybe he did; maybe he didn’t. Wikipedia seems to say he wasn’t far off, and as his business manager apparently she wasn’t complaining about the song’s inclusion on Joel’s Stranger album. PageSix (Callaghan, 2014) is not kind to Elizabeth, calling her “The Shark” and describing their relationship as follows:

They married in September 1973. . . . [M]any around Joel were concerned: They found Weber controlling, manipulative, rude . . . .

One year, he wrote “Just the Way You Are” as her birthday gift, and after he played it for her, she said, “Do I get the publishing, too?” She wasn’t kidding.

As his wife, Weber was entitled to 50 percent of Joel’s worth and was also taking a cut of his earnings as manager. . . .

In 1982, they filed for divorce, but Joel hoped to reconcile. He agreed to buy her everything she wanted — a $4 million town house on the Upper East Side, an Alfa Romeo — but then he had a motorcycle accident, smashing both his hands. While in the hospital, doped up on pain pills and contemplating what future he might have as a musician, Weber came to visit, contract in hand. Joel recalls her asking him to sign everything he had over to her.

“I may have acted like an idiot a time or two, but I’m not a complete idiot,” Joel told Schruers. “That really killed it right there and then.”

Elizabeth sounds like a real prize. The question here is how a woman of this nature, real or imagined, could be the topic of a love song, without seeming at all controversial. It didn’t seem controversial at the time. I don’t remember any controversy; Wikipedia reports no controversy; a Google search leads to little if anything of that nature.

The public does not necessarily mind weird lyrics. Alligator lizards in the air, etc. Just hum along. Who cares? But some people do care. Slate (Rosenbaum, 2009) derides the song as a “blatant — or blatantly inept — case of attempted artistic theft . . . recycling every misogynist cliché in the book.” The “theft” accusation is that Joel’s song is a ripoff of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” I don’t see that. To my eyes, the lyrics evoke entirely different types of woman.

But how about the accusation of misogyny? It’s not misogyny if it’s about one specific woman and if, moreover, it’s true. Besides, misogyny would imply that Joel didn’t like women. That would be an odd claim, for a man who’s had four wives. What’s more likely is that he loved and/or needed them, and for that very reason was also afraid of them. Consider other lyrics from that same Stranger album:

Well, we all fall in love
But we disregard the danger . . .
Once I used to believe
I was such a great romancer
Then I came home to a woman
That I could not recognize . . .

Granted, there could be misogyny, a mix of love and hate, in a man who can’t keep himself from fluttering too close to the flame. That, I think, is an aspect of that era, especially among men who got burned. It was (and for many still is) a time when it was normal to put one’s woman on a pedestal, living in fear and awe of her; it was a time when many who did so would eventually come around to the view attributed to Rod Stewart, referring to the treatment of men in divorce court: “I’m not going to get married again. I’m just going to find a woman I don’t like and buy her a house.”

To some extent, Joel brought it on himself. He stole Elizabeth from her first husband — from his friend, the drummer in his own band — and maybe he got what he deserved, although it appears she was actually the one who engineered her opportunity to be his partner. But even if what he says is not true for himself (and I think it probably is), it certainly is true for many other men (quoting Callahan, 2014):

[H]e’s always felt a failure where it most counts: love.

“None of those people in the arena screaming your name really know you,” Joel tells author Fred Schruers in the new book “Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography.” . . .

“You just need one — one person out of millions — to know and accept and love you for being, well, just the way you are . . . I see old folks walking down the street who look like they’ve been together 50 years, and there’s something very touching about it — that they’ve lasted so long. I used to wonder: How come I don’t have that?

I haven’t read much about Elizabeth. But whoever she was, the emerging picture is a familiar one, at least to me: in some ways, it’s what I experienced myself. There’s a man who has a successful career, or maybe he’s struggling, but in any case he counts on the woman to bond with him, to become a special friend. Part of what he finds attractive about her is that she can carry her own weight. She’s a capable partner: practical, diligent, aware of what needs to be done. Unfortunately, unlike him, she’s not necessarily in it for the two of them.

Evidently this started to change with the women’s movement, circa 1970, partly because women were becoming financially able to go it alone, and partly because, over time, feminists succeeded in imposing a new ethic. In this new expectation, many women came to believe that the important thing was commitment — not to the man but, rather, to herself. For many women, at that point, apparently the real sign of marital success was the ability to find a rich one, get a free ride, and then loot him in the divorce. This seemed to be the message of certain readings discussed in another post.

It appears that men like Billy Joel — and, no doubt, many good women, too, who found themselves used and jilted — were relying on the memory of their childhood homes, and of older generations’ marital environment. That environment featured reduced opportunities and excuses (both romantic and financial) to break up; enduring community standards and expectations; stable homes and upbringings; and traditional personal values. The resulting mix seems to have discouraged a belief that extramarital affairs are glorious, or that they prove one’s success or independence, or that marital breakup is a normal solution to one’s current discomfort.

It seems, in other words, that Joel was still surfing a dying wave. He admired the 50-year marriage, but there wasn’t going to be one for him. Instead, he and/or his women thought it was better to use people for what they’re worth, while you’re young, and then figure out some way, later, not to be lonely when you’re old. Joel’s solution, when he got old, was to be rich, and thus to snare yet another young one, but that won’t work for most. One can’t be sure it’s really working even for him.

So the question is, how could Billy Joel sing a love song that put Elizabeth on a pedestal? Assuming she was indeed a shark, it seems he was engaged more in worship than in love. She was more like his mommy, or maybe his schoolteacher, than his soulmate. I don’t mean that in a belittling sense; it just seems that she saw him coming, that she knew what he was, for her purposes, more than he knew himself. He was the artist type, complete with motorcycle accidents and suicide attempts, while she was the manager. The song essentially says she was in total control, and apparently he admired that until it became ominous — as, one suspects, it had to do eventually.

Billy Joel was not alone in that mentality. That was — and, again, to some extent still is — an era in which men pursued women, while women sat in judgment. In the popular music, and in the thinking in which many men were raised, the woman was the center and purpose of life. With her, there was a home, and the dream of a rosy, shared future; without her, there was nothing. She was the manager, the mommy, the sometimes inscrutable god to whom we offered our sacrifices. Winning her favor — and, admittedly, sometimes the favor of other women as well — was the consummate affirmation of our worth.

Somehow, it became normal for men to throw themselves at the feet of women who did not necessarily deserve that, who would not necessarily live up to the hopes vested in them. It became sadly normal for men like Billy Joel to idolize a cruelty that he describes in “Stiletto”:

She cuts you once, she cuts you twice
But still you believe
The wound is so fresh you can taste the blood
But you don’t have strength to leave
You’ve been bought, you’ve been sold
You’ve been locked outside the door
But you stand there pleadin’
With your insides bleedin’
‘Cause you deep down want some more
Then she says she wants forgiveness
It’s such a clever masquerade
She’s so good with her stiletto
You don’t even see the blade . . .
You’ve been slashed in the face
You’ve been left there to bleed
You want to run away
But you know you’re gonna stay
‘Cause she gives you what you need
Then she says she wants affection
While she searches for the vein
She’s so good with her stiletto
You don’t really mind the pain

Frankly, that is sick. Not to be too hard on the guy, because I could sympathize. But, no doubt about it, there is an imbalance there that, over time, cannot endure. The imbalance may itself be a contributor to the feminist movement, or at least to its worst excesses, insofar as men positioned themselves as weak, needy, accepting of abuse, and making excuses for it.

Again, obviously, many women have been in a similar situation. The difference is that, when Tammy Wynette sang, “Stand By Your Man,” she drew a lot of criticism for it from feminists — and what she describes in that song is not remotely the extreme of “Stiletto.”

I don’t presently know what causes the imbalance. It may be due to cultural or biological forces that unequally oblige men to seek out women, while women choose or are expected to remain aloof. It may be due to a belief that men are happier or more fulfilled in life when they are married, when possibly that is not true for many. Whatever the cause, it presently seems that Billy Joel’s “Always a Woman” stands at a historical apotheosis to which American society will not soon return.


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