20 Most Controversial Songs By Women
March is Women’s History Month. And what better way to celebrate than by turning our eyes to the women of country music? No shrinking violets here; these ladies have no qualms about saying what’s on their minds at the risk of backlash and blacklisting, and in doing so, they’ve cemented their place in country music history. Oh, and the songs are damn good too.
- 20. “What Made you Say That” – Shania Twain
The song isn’t controversial, but the music video was. A glimpse of Twain’s midriff sent country music into hysterics way back in 1993. The video was banned from CMT, only to be unbanned once everyone calmed down. Now that half-naked girls are de rigueur in country music videos, Twain’s tummy seems downright quaint, but for a brief moment, Shania was the most controversial woman in country music.
- 19. “Act Like A Married Man” – Jean Shephard
Jean Shephard is one of country music’s unsung outspoken badasses, spending the 1950s recording songs with titles like “The Root of All Evil is a Man,” “I Hate Myself,” and “The Other Woman,” a track in which she sings from the point of view of the titular character. Here, Shephard lays down the law with a wannabe adulterer in this song as she sings “You have a good wife at home, you know she’s never been untrue/She has a whole world of faith and trust and confidence in you/How you can be unfaithful, I just can’t understand/Now why don’t you go home to your wife and act like a married man.”
- 18. “Gunpowder and Lead” – Miranda Lambert
“His fist is big, but my gun’s bigger/He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.” This is the first of multiple songs on our countdown in which a woman kills her abuser. To date this is the best-charting single of Lambert’s career, suggesting listeners weren’t offended by this controversial topic—for that, see the other songs with similar subject matter on this playlist—but just the opposite. Lambert should be commended for creating a great country-rock song that also does its part to raise public awareness about the horrors of domestic violence.
- 17. “Maybe I Mean Yes” – Holly Dunn
People were up in arms—and rightly so—with this song. Containing lyrics such as “Nothin’s worth havin’ if it ain’t a little hard to get/So let me clarify so you won’t have to try to guess/When I say no I mean maybe/Or maybe I mean yes,” it’s difficult to see Dunn’s song as anything but icky at best, a justification or excuse for date rape at worst. Either way, it’s a song no young girl should be listening to as an example of a healthy relationship.
- 16. “Independence Day” – Martina McBride
Another husband-killing song. Though it didn’t chart as well as the other singles from her second album, The Way I Am (1993), “Independence Day” has singularly defined McBride’s career as she sings about a woman who burns her house down in order to free herself from her abusive spouse. The video was a bit controversial too, featuring McBride singing in front of the burning house the lyrics describe, but it won a CMA award for Video of the Year.
- 15. “Single Girl, Married Girl” – The Carter Family
At the time this song was recorded in 1927, lead singer Sara was married to A.P. Carter, who, for all his value as a country music pioneer, wasn’t much of a husband, wandering far and wide with Lesley Riddle in search of songs to work up and subsequently copyright while Sara stayed at home managing the land and raising the couple’s three children. In this song, you can hear the naked desperation in Sara’s voice as she sings “Single girl, single girl/She goes to the store and buys/Married girl, married girl/Rocks the cradle and cries.”
- 14. “Womanhood” – Tammy Wynette
Here Wynette is torn between religious faith and desires of the flesh. As she begs for guidance, pleading “I am a Christian, Lord, but I’m a woman too” she sings for all of those who have struggled with the same issue throughout the centuries. After all, we’re only human.
- 13. “She Thinks His Name Was John” – Reba McEntire
From 1994 album Read My Mind comes a song that wasn’t even originally released as a single, but first garnered airplay from listener requests. Songwriter Sandy Knox’s lyrics never concretely mention AIDS—the song was written after Knox watched her brother die of the disease—and it’s all the more powerful for it. Though the song verges on moralistic (lyrics such as “She lays all alone and cries herself to sleep/’Cause she let a stranger kill her hopes and dreams” reinforce the stigma of AIDS, since apparently “letting” someone give you the disease means you will die alone and unloved) props to Ms. McEntire for having the guts to record such a song, and to the listeners who helped make a song thought too depressing for radio a hit.
- 12. “Heaven Help The Working Girl” – Norma Jean
Pretty Miss Norma Jean scored big with this Top 20 hit in 1967. Penned by Harlan Howard, this song about a waitress doesn’t mention glass ceilings, unequal pay for equal work, or any of the other issues that have plagued women. But when Norma Jean sings “Heaven help the working girl/In a world that’s run by men” all that, and more, is implied.
- 11. “Not Ready to Make Nice” – Dixie Chicks
After the conflagration surrounding Natalie Maines’ 2003 comments about then-president George W. Bush and the Chicks’ subsequent exile from commercial country radio and television, the trio made their return to music with this song, the first single from 2006’s Taking the Long Way. Here the ladies refuse to apologize for their actions as they cite the violent backlash they received for speaking their minds. Whatever your thoughts on their politics, you’ve gotta admit that these women have a lot of guts.
- 10. “Letter to Mom” – Iris Dement
This song would have been incredibly controversial–if the mainstream had ever had a chance to hear it. From her 1996 country-folk album The Way I Should, the “letter to Mom” mentioned in this song details a young girl’s molestation by her mother’s new boyfriend. It’s everything a country song should be: a solid honkytonk arrangement beneath an absolutely gutwrenching story. When Dement’s unique voice sings “One night he climbed into my bed/He left me wishing I was dead/I’ve been walking around with secrets now too long” it’s a rare soul who doesn’t want to lay right down and die with her.
- 9. “I Wish I Was A Single Girl Again” – Maddox Brothers & Rose
The best hillbilly band in country music history takes a look at marriage’s downside with this infectious classic. As her brothers hoot, howl, and interject with bits of yokel witticism, sister Rose sings “When I was single and he used to come to court/He always brought me candy and I thought he was a sport/Now we are married and what do you think/He bought a gingham apron and he showed me to the sink.” It’s a wonder any woman who heard this song wanted to get married at all.
- 8. “Fancy” – Reba McEntire
In an extremely loving—if extremely unusual, and more than a little gross—gesture, a mother turns her daughter out, prostitution being the only way to escape suffering the same fate as the rest of her poverty-stricken family. By following Mama’s advice, including “To thine own self be true” and “Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy/And they’ll be nice to you,” Fancy is able to get herself a mansion by working her, ahem, “charm” on “a king, a congressman, and an occasional aristocrat.” Take note, Julia Roberts: this is how you portray a hooker with a heart of gold.
- 7. “Goodbye Earl” – Dixie Chicks
Oh, those halcyon days of 2000, when the controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks was about a murder ballad in which the victim kinda deserved what he got. Despite country music’s long association with murder ballads, mainstream radio got their knickers in a twist and several stations cut the song from their playlists. The hilarious video featuring an undead Dennis Franz fared a bit better, winning the CMA award for Music Video of the Year.
- 6. “Stand By Your Man” – Tammy Wynette
Since this classic’s release, a debate has raged about the meaning of its lyrics. Is the song feminist in that it encourages equality, or is it anti-feminist because—among other reasons—the lyrics “you’ll have bad times, he’ll have good times/Doing things that you don’t understand” implies that women just can’t wrap their pretty little heads around “boys will be boys” behaviors such as infidelity. The real controversy came when former First Lady Hillary Clinton cited Wynette’s song in the midst of her husband’s 1992 presidential campaign after reports of him having an extramarital affair with Gennifer Flowers surfaced, stating she wasn’t “Some little woman standing by [her] man like Tammy Wynette,” thereby raising the ire of country music lovers and Wynette herself. But you know what? When push came to shove, Mrs. Clinton followed Tammy’s advice. And then she offered an apology to the legendary singer.
- 5. “Down From Dover” – Dolly Parton
In the anthology The Rose and The Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad, music journalist Eric Weisbard describes the way he makes Dolly converts out of ex-punks: “I’ve never played ‘Down From Dover’ for someone and not seen his or her jaw drop. Can you believe this? That was a Dolly Parton song?” Among most non-country listeners, Dolly is just a mass of boobs, fake hair, and pop crossovers. Those of us in the know are aware that’s far from the truth, and no other song better proves it than “Down From Dover.” An unwed mother-to-be is cast out from her family and waits in vain for the man who impregnated her to return. The final stanza is the saddest of all as you can hear the tear in Parton’s voice as she sings “My body aches, the time is here/It’s lonely in the place where I’m lyin’/Our baby has been born, but something’s wrong/It’s too still, I hear no cryin’/I guess in some strange way she knew she’d never have a father’s arms to hold her/And dying was her way of telling me he wasn’t coming down from Dover.” “Dover” never had a chance on the radio, and although Dolly re-recorded it for 2001 bluegrass album Little Sparrow, it’s still her best least-known song.
- 4. “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)” – Tanya Tucker
America clutched its collective pearls as country music’s bad girl Tanya Tucker sang about sex. Funny that the issue wasn’t raised when the David Allan Coe-penned song was also covered by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
- 3. “Harper Valley P.T.A.” – Jeannie C. Riley
Riley lays the verbal smackdown on hypocritical, small town gossips in this 1968 hit that catapulted her into crossover stardom. She topped both pop and country charts with this instant classic that’s been covered by just about every girl singer in Nashville–and the occasional dude as well (Billy Cyrus). Unwilling to apologize for her miniskirt or the way she’s raising her daughter, Mrs. Johnson ranks as one of country music’s most colorful characters.
- 2. “The Pill/Rated X/Fist City/The Wings Upon Your Horns” – Loretta Lynn
The Coal Miner’s Daughter doesn’t shy away from hot topics; in fact, we could have made an entire playlist composed entirely of Lynn songs that have been “banned” from radio (over a dozen at the time of this writing). With these songs and lots more, Loretta directs her sharp tongue toward the new birth control pill, divorcees, teenage sexuality, and suckerpunching husband-stealing hussies. If only contemporary country radio stars had the guts to be so outspoken.
- 1. “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” – Kitty Wells
There’s no other song that could top this list. A response to Hank Thompson’s 1952 hit “The Wild Side of Life,” Wells’ song delivers a sweetly-sung reply that lays the blame squarely at the feet of her accuser. Kitty Wells may be the consummate lady, but when she sang “It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women/It’s not true that only you men feel the same/From the start, most every heart that’s ever broken/Was because there always was a man to blame,” country music never had more balls.