This is an actual stanza from a Doris Day song: So I walked up the stairs like a good girl should / He followed me up the stairs like I knew he would / Because a guy is a guy wherever he may be / So listen and I’ll tell you what this fella did to me.
Published in 1952, “A Guy is a Guy,” written by Oscar Brand, depicts one young woman first dodging and then succumbing to a young man’s unwanted advances. It’s the typical tale of the aggressive alpha male whose pursuits of women have been preserved as a cat and mouse game. Horrified by its lyrics, and rightfully so, Laura Bell Bundy and collaborator Shea Carter reapply this theme to a new song titled “Red Rover,” also drawing inspiration from Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement to her rapist.
“Her statement hit me like a freight train. I cried and I ached for what she had been through. It felt like it was happening to me, to my sister, to my mother, to my friend. I wanted to stand in solidarity with her,” Carter tells American Songwriter, “and fight against the society that has allowed this abuse against women to be so normalized, so dismissed. How could we allow a man convicted of sexual assault to walk away with a slap on the wrist? This song is dedicated to Chanel and all the women in the world who have fallen victim to sexual violence.”
I can’t keep my distance / You are so persistent, closer by the minute / Now the walls are spinning, sings Carter, taking vocal lead. You pushed me and then you caught me / Now, I was in your trap / I’ll think about you forever / Green eyes and a baseball cap.
The visceral storytelling contrasts against a style not unlike the Doris Day song. “In the song, you have the idea of this woman being assaulted, and nobody cares,” says Bundy. Then, further tragedy befalls her in “how she was treated after it happened in terms of ‘oh, well, he’s a nice guy, an upstanding man, you’re going to ruin his life if you accuse him.’ Her life was already ruined. For the rest of her life, she’ll be looking at her body in a different way─and her relationship with men in a different way.
“What happens is she becomes the villain by just speaking up and talking about what happened to her. Then, she’s doubted because ‘well, she was asking for it. She dressed like that. She shouldn’t be drunk,’” she continues. “I recently just saw the movie Promising Young Woman, and of course, I hadn’t seen it when we wrote this song, but there are a lot of very similar messages in that movie.”
Later, the song descends into a dark Twilight Zone distortion, as Carter’s voice slowly fades into the background. Don’t walk home alone / Don’t drink in a bar, she sings, blurry-eyed. Don’t go to a party / Don’t travel far.
“Red Rover” is a welcome addition to Bundy’s new album, Women of Tomorrow, out Friday (May 7). Since we spoke last summer, the singer-songwriter was moved to include the track on a concept record chronicling a historical perspective on the treatment of women and the many rights, including the right to vote, for which they have fought tooth and nail. “The process of this album evolved me. As much as I made this album to educate and empower other women, the goal actually happened to me,” she reflects. “We struggle as women to feel powerful and yet our power rests inside of us the second we’re born.
“Every generation accepts what they’re told─until they don’t,” remarks Bundy, who grew up in a strict Christian, conservative household down in Lexington, Kentucky. “There were certain things girls didn’t do, and there were certain ways a girl needed to behave. You needed to be a ‘good girl’ and speak when spoken to. There are some damaging things about putting those types of messages out to women. They become part of our subconsciousness, and it’s hard to remove ourselves from them.
“I’ll tell you what, I remember my mom saying to me, as a teenager, ‘Girls don’t call boys. You let them call you. Wait for the boy to call.’ Ok, you don’t want to be considered a hussy or a whore─and get a reputation. That was what was told to me. Then, I remember living in New York, as a single woman, constantly having interactions with men and being hit on by men and thinking, ‘My god, the least safe thing I could do right now is give a man my phone number.’
“My philosophy now is different. You give me your phone number. I’ll call you. I’ll make you wait two days for me to call. I’ll keep the power. And I will know that I am safe. You can’t get in touch with me unless I get in touch with you. Teaching girls these things actually contributed to this belief that women are meek and meager and that men need to be aggressive in order to have a relationship with women.”
Bundy’s research led her as far back as The Laws of Coverture, English laws brought to America, which classified women as “the property of a man, first of her father and then her husband. Through him rested all her power. She could not vote. She could not own property. She could not earn a living wage and control those wages. She could not accept gifts. She was nothing unless she was married to a man and got her power through that man. She was told her entire value was on being desirable and being able to procreate. Women then became competitive to one another to get that man, a.k.a. that power.”
“Cat Fight,” a slinky film noir-style hook, addresses “in-fighting among women and how futile that is,” notes Bundy. Can’t you see we’re burning up all our power / Acting like we still wanna be locked up in some tower, she sings with a deep smokiness. They’re saying someday my prince will come / I’m saying I’m climbing down, and I’m gonna get me some.
In the modern era, other stale, sexist traditions slowly, but surely, crumbled. It wasn’t until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, prohibiting “discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, or age in credit transactions,” that a single or married woman could even open a credit card or home loan without permission from a man. “No wonder women felt like they needed men as a gateway to prosperity, power, and independence. Try being a woman in the workforce at that time and not be able to take out a credit card or home loan,” she offers.
Elsewhere, Bundy examines consumerism and targeted advertising with the opening track “American Girl,” a magnetic slice of melancholia surrounding the so-called American Dream. Why’s it so hard being an American girl / Why’s it so hard living in a first-problem world, she laments. When the prettiest things are now holding me back / And I can’t get away from this massive attack / Why’s it so hard being an American girl.
With the record firmly rooted in 1950s aesthetics, there’s fascinating context surrounding such songs, particularly when considering women entered the workforce in droves during World War II and were then shoved back into the home 10 years later. “If you actually look at the marketing and advertisements, they almost have to do with ‘hey, you are not enough without this product’ or ‘you’re not going to be beautiful enough’ or ‘you won’t be young enough to get that man without this product,’” she says sof the song. “At the end of the day, no matter how perfect we are on the outside and all the shit we buy or been told to buy, if we don’t work on what’s inside and fill that cup, we’re not going to be happy.”
“Women got a taste of what it was like to have a sense of independence from earning a living wage and that sense of being autonomous and providing something other than birthing a child,” she continues. “Then, there was this strong push to keep women at home for the family unit. That was also the beginning of television. Those were the images we saw on TV ─ the Donna Reed and the idea of what home life really was. It said, ‘This is the dream. You must have what Donna Reed has in order to be happy.’ And it’s out of reach─that perfect home life─and it’s so delusional. I believe some of those images are still deeply set into our collective subconsciousness.”
Another cultural shift occurred when birth control became legal for unmarried women in 1972 with the Supreme Court case Eisenstadt v. Baird. Previously, the first oral contraceptive hit the market in 1960 but it remained illegal to even advertise until 1965, and only married women were then allowed to buy it. “Women hadn’t even known how their bodies worked for 200,000 years. This last 100 years, so much of our advancement has come from the fact that we have been able to plan a family. We are educated about how our bodies work. Then, you see young single women going ‘wait, I can be a sexual being and enjoy sex. I can go to college and not get knocked up because I have this thing called birth control. Then, I can enter the workforce, and I can make my own money. I can get a credit card now. I can get a home loan. I can really start to be financially independent. Now, I can buy what I want.’”
Laura Bell Bundy’s Women of Tomorrow, which pairs nicely with a podcast of the same name, co-hosted with Carter, encapsulates much of women’s modern history across 10 songs. From the lounge-stunner “Sick of Saying Sorry” to the entrancing piano song “Good Guy,” the record, produced by Bundy, Carter, and co-writer Jeremy Adelman, is the kind of musical masterpiece that transcends the rigid structure of the format.
“The podcast made Shea and I dive into these different decades of American history with women and how women have been viewed culturally. It has taught me so much about our history, in general,” offers Bundy, “and why things are the way they are now. If you don’t know your history, you can’t properly understand why we do the things the way we do them.”
Now, Bundy sets her sights on a stage musical, in the style of The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler and Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me. Currently in the throes of research, through reading various playwrights (predominantly women of color), she envisions “five different women from different socio-economic backgrounds, races, and sexualities speaking to their own perspectives on each of the issues,” she says. “It’ll be a show that teaches you the history but also gives you a really personal perspective.
“That’s the other thing: I’m a white woman. I know women’s history and my own history as a woman─but only through my lens,” she adds. “You can’t say, ‘Oh hey, this is the way it is for all women everywhere,’ because it’s not. I would obviously love to have this mounted on Broadway. My real goal, though, is that this show can be available for colleges to do.”