Dolly Parton's 'Jolene' Works As A Stealth Lesbian Love Song
Dolly Parton: country music legend, hardworking philanthropist, pop culture icon, and the last great American unifier. From drag queens to church ladies, even in these incredibly divisive times, we can all bond over our love of our favorite country superstar, her musical genius, sharp sense of humor, and unwavering kindness skyrocketing her into an unparalleled status of American sainthood.
Beloved by all, and even named the most marketable country artist in the world in 2017, Dolly Parton is a particularly special figure to her many LGBTQAI+ fans. The legendary singer's unwavering support of the community, her dedication to creating empowering music, often emulating a comforting sense of home and belonging, and her fearlessness in staying true to herself throughout her life only a few of the reasons why she's been dubbed an "LGBTQ Icon."
Yet Ms. Parton's connections to the LGBTQAI+ community may run even deeper, as her iconic hit "Jolene" may actually be filled with homoerotic undertones, according to Nadine Hubbs, the director of the Lesbian-Gay-Queer Research Initiative and a professor of women's studies and music at the University of Michigan.
Yep, you read that right. There's actually a pretty compelling argument for "Jolene" as a lesbian love song, or to paraphrase Hubbs' appearance on WNYC's Dolly Parton's America podcast series, the prelude to a threesome. So how, exactly does this work? To get technical -- and country -- for a quick second, it all starts by analyzing the trope of 'the other woman' song in country music, according to Hubb's 2015 paper, "'Jolene,' Genre, and the Everyday Homoerotics of Country Music: Dolly Parton's Loving Address of the Other Woman."
"Typically when female country artists sing to or about the other woman, the address is adversarial, if not downright menacing," she wrote. "Examples include the Loretta Lynn classics "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" (1966, number 2) and "Fist City" (1968, number 1) and Carrie Underwood's 2006 number 1 hit "Before He Cheats." In "Fist City" Lynn warns the other woman, "You better move your feet / If you don't wanna eat / A meal that's called Fist City."
Dolly, however takes the high road, driving right past the exit to everyone's new favorite vacation spot, "Fist City," first and foremost through referring to the other woman by her name, Jolene. Although seemingly mundane, considering other women in these songs have been called everything from a "tramp" ("Before He Cheats") to a "no good, white trash ho" ("Cheater Cheater"), the fact that Dolly calls Jolene, well, Jolene, is actually pretty tame. This is extra notably given that Dolly wrote the best song ever about going to a wedding and throwing rocks at the bride:
Yet her compassion towards Jolene doesn't stop there. Instead of degrading her like many of her country counterparts, Dolly compliments her throughout the song, gushing about her beauty, her voice and her smile, almost as if she's into Jolene romantically -- or at least sexually. "When she gives this list of, of everything she admires in, in Jolene and her beauty and says 'I can easily understand how, how my man would want you,' am I the only person then, who images her and Jolene getting together if this guy doesn't work out?," Hubbs asked on the podcast. "Or even one more fourth verse that finds this love triangle dissolved into -- a three way?" Well, per the request of the show's hosts, she made the song's theoretical ending a reality:
"I'm glad I had that talk with you,
I'm glad we met in person, too,
That place you took me to was quite a scene,
It's true that my man found you first,
But you awakened such a thirst,
Now you're the only one for me, Jolene"
Pretty catchy, right? Dolly seemed to think so too. "We played her the new verse and she got the biggest smile on her face," said podcast producer, Shima Oliaee of their listening party.
While Dolly denied the intention of homoerotic undertones in "Jolene," telling host Jad Abumrad he's "overthinking it," she said she could see why the song could be interpreted in this manner. "I guess if you were a lesbian you might think that, but I was not thinking that at all when I wrote it, but that's fun!"
Even with this denial, Ms. Parton, on occasion, has leaned into the implied connection, singing a version of the song for her "Gay crowd" on Seth Meyers, swapping the titular "Jolene" for "Drag Queen," and further cementing her status as a true pop icon. To paraphrase yet another one of the country singer's iconic songs, we will always love you, Dolly!