Earlier this week I was listening to my Motown Pandora station, like I do, when the Four Tops’ “Ain’t no woman (like the one I got)” came on. And I suddenly got over years of ingrained ambivalence and realized how incredible this song is.
First let’s just take a moment, or 3 minutes and 35 seconds, to appreciate the fabulous Four Tops. Oh my God:
Do not continue reading until you have watched the entire video, possibly 3 to 5 times.
Since I was really little I’ve been into all the beautiful and absurd lyrics that I heard on the radio–mostly Oldies 104.3 WJMK, obviously! (To wit, “I’m holding you so tight, you know you could have been a handle.”)
As I got older, I started looking for secret meanings and shocking twists. Like those nutters who clicked through The Lion King frame by frame, looking for SEX in the dust cloud, I was the little asshat announcing to all my friends that “I’ll be there” was about stalking. “Just look over your shoulder, baby!? That’s horrifying!”
Um, not that my friends really cared. Most of them were like, “Wait, what song?” This was not exactly the “Paul is dead” of my generation.
The point is, one day in the late ’90s, my proto-feminist, adolescent ear suddenly heard the line “It’s my word she’ll obey!” and decided Ain’t No Woman was a horrible, sexist, relic of a song.
This all happened around the same time that I was cast in the vital role of wedding guest in my middle school’s production of Taming of the Shrew. Since I didn’t actually have anything to do in rehearsals, I spent a lot of time fretting about things like being submissive and being a shrew and the confusing notion that someday someone might try to mess with my mind by serving me beef without mustard. I was not going to stand for one more declaration that a woman’s value was based on her ability to obey, no sir!
But what I missed when I wrote this song off so long ago is the beautiful tension and movement throughout. I love the first verse:
Every day the sun comes up around her
She can make the birds sing harmony
Every drop of rain is glad it found her…
Ok, good, good. She is uniquely special, the center of the universe! Tra la la. But what comes next?
…Heaven must have made her just for me
This twist slays me. The whole world revolves around her–and so obviously, by logical extension, she is destined to revolve around him? The song builds up to the phrase at its very center:
I would kiss the ground she walks on
‘Cause it’s my word, my word she’ll obey,
The obey part still makes me uncomfortable. It probably should. That’s fine. But I love that the whole song, maybe the whole relationship, hangs on this one balanced but unstable sentence.
All of this, bizarrely, makes me think of some kind of debate between Ptolemaic and Copernican theories of the universe. She’s the sun (ignore for the moment the line that says the sun comes up around her). But does that mean that she is the center of the solar system and he orbits her? Or that she rises and sets around him, providing the light and warmth he needs?
Depends on where you’re standing. And just as Levi Stubbs and co. shift from foot to foot in the video, so does the song–which is precisely what makes it so good. As one of my old professors, would say, it’s magic.