Songs about terrible relationships

[Spoilers for several old musicals.]

TV Tropes lists dozens of examples of the “I want” song (where the hero of a musical sings about their dream of escaping their small surroundings).

After watching a bunch of musicals on maternity leave, I’m wondering how many examples there are of the song genre “I’ll never leave my man, even though he’s terrible.” Often they’re (otherwise) great songs!

In Show Boat (1927), Julie and Queenie sing “Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine” about their suboptimal husbands – “I even love him when his kisses got gin.”

In Carousel (1945), Julie sings “What’s the Use In Wond’rin” about her husband.
“Common sense may tell you
That the ending will be sad
And now’s the time to break and run away,
But whats the use of wond’rin
If the ending will be sad?
He’s your fella and you love him –
There’s nothing more to say.”
The ending for Julie is indeed sad, unsurprisingly since the play starts with her quitting her job to hang out with this guy despite a cop warning her that he preys on young women. Shortly after this song, he dies in an attempted robbery.

The whole play Kiss Me, Kate (1948) is kind of along these lines, like The Taming of the Shrew which it mirrors. Lilli sings:
“So taunt me and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I’m yours till I die.”

In West Side Story (1957), Maria sings “I Have a Love”:
“When love comes so strong
There is no right or wrong.”
Pretty sure there actually is, given that her lover just stabbed her brother to death.

In Oliver (1960), Nancy sings “As Long as He Needs Me” about her brutish boyfriend. Then he beats her to death.

My favorite response to this genre is “She’s My Girl” by mathematician-turned-musical-comic Tom Lehrer, with this introduction:
“I’m sure you’re familiar with love songs on the order of He’s Just My Bill, my man, my Joe, my Max, and so on where the girl who sings them tells you that, although the man she loves is anti-social, alcoholic, physically repulsive, or just plain unsanitary, nevertheless she is his because he is hers, or something like that. But as far as I know there has never been a popular song from the analogous male point of view, that is to say, of a man who finds himself in love with, or in this case married to, a girl who has nothing whatsoever to recommend her. I have attempted to fill this need.”



6 thoughts on “Songs about terrible relationships

  1. Anna

    A cover version of “What’s the Use of Won’drin’?” by Amanda Palmer:

    Warning: domestic abuse
    It’s how I heard the song for the first time, so this meaning will stay with me.

    Thank you for the Tom Lehrer song, I haven’t heard it before.

    Reply
    1. Julia Post author

      Ooh, this version really brings out the creepiness of the line “And something gave him the things that are his/
      One of those things is you.”

      Reply
  2. crea8ive53

    This example is not from a musical, but there are plenty of 50s/60s rock examples that aren’t really tongue-in-cheek misogyny, such as “Runaround Sue” —

    Here’s the moral and the story from the guy who knows
    I fell in love and my love still grows
    Ask any fool that she ever knew, they’ll say
    A-keep away from-a Runaround Sue

    Reply
  3. lalaithion

    The Word of Your Body, ostensibly a love song, from Spring Awakening, has the lines:

    Oh, I’m gonna be wounded
    Oh, I’m gonna be your wound
    Oh, I’m gonna bruise you
    Oh, you’re gonna be my bruise

    Reply

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