Whether it’s in your regular rotation or not, “Fancy” is one of the greatest songs ever written.
Composed by the country singer Bobbie Gentry and made famous by country singer Reba McEntire, the track is the meaning of the American Dream in just over four minutes. It’s got hustle, ambition, sorrow, sacrifice and generations woven into its tapestry.
But instead of bootstraps, the song highlights a red satin dress as the mode for upward mobility.
Let’s dive in and find out exactly why and how all this is the case.
Gentry wrote and recorded “Fancy” in 1969 for her album of the same name. The song was Gentry’s second and final solo single to hit the Billboard top 40.
The fictional song’s meaning is about upward mobility by any means necessary.
Born into poverty outside New Orleans, the character Fancy, when she turns 18, is given a satin red dress by her mother who tells her, Here’s your one chance, Fancy, don’t let me down.
The mother, who is terminally ill, gives her the dress reluctantly, asking for forgiveness, knowing simultaneously that Fancy needs to help her baby sibling who otherwise might starve to death. Because the implication with the gift is that Fancy must be “turned out” and find men to take care of her and get money, Fancy makes herself up, finds those who will pay for what she can give them, and leave the tatters and “plain white trash” she was born into in order for an eventual better life.
Here’s your one chance, Fancy, don’t let me down.
Fancy charms a king, a Congressman, the occasional aristocrat. And to her origins of poverty, she “ain’t been back.”
Said Gentry of the narrative’s meaning, “‘Fancy’ is my strongest statement for women’s lib, if you really listen to it. I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that they stand for—equality, equal pay, day care centers, and abortion rights.”
To Thine Own Self Be True
This is the meaning of the song. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says, how they judge, what they believe. The objective to life is to know your own self and to rest in that knowledge.
So, Fancy puts on the perfume and makeup her mother gives her, along with the heart-shaped locket which has the phrase in it. With this understanding, Fancy heads out on her own.
Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, her mother tells her, and they’ll be nice to you.
For Fancy and her mother, this is the only way out of the cycle of poverty. Soon after, her mom dies. And the welfare people take Fancy’s baby sibling.
But the wheels of fate had turned and Fancy keeps working in her red satin dress.
A Georgia Mansion
After working with these men, including one “benevolent man,” Fancy owns her own Georgia mansion and a New York City townhouse flat. Since then, she “ain’t been back” to her poverty-stricken roots.
Her mother would be happy. That’s all that matters. Especially more so than the judgement of some “self-righteous hypocrites.”
Real Life Beginnings
The song had some parallels to Gentry’s life.
She had grown up in poverty in the south and less than a year before releasing the song, she’d married a casino magnate, Bill Harrah, in a marriage that would last less than a year. Gentry has also cited the movie, Ruby Gentry, as an inspiration. She took her last name from the film, which itself is about a backwoods woman looking to improve her status.
Fancy The Album
The album Fancy earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Both the album and the song were crossover hits in early 1970.
In the early 1990s, country superstar Reba McEntire covered the song, including an elaborate movie-like music video. McEntire’s rendition hit No. 8 on the Billboard country charts. The song became signature to McEntire, who would sing it as an encore for her live concerts throughout the decade.
For years, ever since the mid-1980s, McEntire reportedly wanted to cover the song but her producer at the time Jimmy Bowen said it was too closely associated with Gentry. Later, though, when McEntire switched producers to Tony Brown, she dove in, recording it for her 1990 album, Rumor Has It.
In McEntire’s version, which is shown in the video, Fancy Rae Baker is a famous singer who takes a taxi to her old home. We see her story in flashbacks as she got the dress from her mother and made her way, only to become the celebrity we see at the beginning with fur coat and sunglasses.
As the video, which was filmed on a cold rainy January day in Nashville, ends, Fancy leaves, but the camera shows a sign that says the plot that was her old home is to become Fancy Rae Baker Home for Runaways. Baker forgives her mother. A happy ending.
Stephen King, the legendary novelist, references the song in his book, Duma Key. In the book, the character Edgar says he named his doll “Reba” because the radio in his car played McEntire’s “Fancy” when he got into an accident.
While the entire song is a masterpiece due to its storytelling prowess, highlights from the lengthy lyrics include:
I remember it all very well lookin’ back
It was the summer I turned eighteen
We lived in a one-room, run down shack
On the outskirts of New Orleans
We didn’t have money for food or rent
To say the least we were hard-pressed
Then Momma spent every last penny we had
To buy me a dancin’ dress
Momma washed and combed and curled my hair
And she painted my eyes and lips
Then I stepped into the satin dancin’ dress
It was split in the side clean up to my hips
It was red, velvet-trimmed
And it fit me good
And starin’ back from the lookin’ glass
Was a woman where a half-grown kid had stood
“Here’s your one chance, Fancy, don’t let me down
Here’s your one chance, Fancy, don’t let me down
Lord, forgive me for what I do (Please)
But if you want out, well it’s up to you
Now, don’t let me down
Your Momma’s gonna help you move uptown”
(Don’t let me down, don’t let me down)
The openly gay singer Orville Peck also covered the song, gender-bending the track to include the idea of a young boy growing up and learning femininity and taking advantage of that in order to earn upward mobility. Peck’s version is stellar and very much worth a listen.
Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images