Meaning Behind the Song “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes

The meaning behind Kim Carnes’ 1980s classic “Bette Davis Eyes” actually holds a warning. The song starts out enticing, but soon turns sour, becoming a tune of advice to anyone lured in by the woman depicted in the lyrics.

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A song brimming with mystery, “Bette Davis Eyes” answers a few questions – like Who is she? What makes her so dangerous? Why must we stay away? – but maybe things are better left to the imagination.

The Origins

“Bette Davis Eyes” was written in 1974 by singer/songwriters Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon. The latter initially recorded the song, releasing it on her 1975 album, New Arrangement. However, it would not be until the early 1980s that the tune became the Kim Carnes hit we know it as today.

“We loved Bette Davis,” DeShannon explained the song’s origins in an interview. “We were always talking about what great movies and how we love her. Anyway, Donna had this idea and she brought a lot of papers over one day. She said ‘Do you think you can make anything out of this?’ So I kind of went through and looked at some lyrics and put some things together and we wrote this song.”

When DeShannon recorded and released the tune, “Bette Davis Eyes” sounded wildly different with a rollicking barroom blues-rock riff carrying the song along.

“When I went in to record it, the producer said ‘I don’t hear it that way,'” DeShannon explained. “He was very adamant about turning it around into another version. So, time went on and Donna was sending the song around to different people, the version that we had recorded on the demo. She was taking some other songs over to Kim Carnes because she was recording and she just happened to have that demo with her and she gave it to Kim and the rest is history.”

Carnes’ version, released in 1981, featured a stripped, slowed, and synth-driven arrangement that added to the tune’s sultry mystique.

Who is Bette Davis?

The inspiration for the song was American actress Bette Davis, a renowned figure during Hollywood’s Golden Age and an icon still today. The starlet, best known for her role as Margo Channing in the 1950 film, All About Eve, often portrayed strong, independent female characters and her distinctive eyes became her trademark.

Davis was 73 at the time of the song’s success, and reportedly wrote letters to Carnes, Weiss, and DeShannon to thank them for making her “a part of modern times.”

The Lyrics

Emerging from climatic synths, the woman in the song comes to life, slowly being painted by the Carnes’ sensual rasp. The tune details her from the top down, heralding her powerful, near-irresistible, allure.

Her hair is Harlow gold
Her lips sweet surprise
Her hands are never cold
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll turn the music on you
You won’t have to think twice
She’s pure as New York snow
She got Bette Davis eyes

She’s not just captivating in her looks, she’s got the chutzpah to back it up. She’s bold, confident, and definitely skilled in the art of seduction. She seems to know what she wants and goes after it, but no partner is safe when under her spell.

And she’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
All the better just to please you
She’s precocious, and she knows just
What it takes to make a pro blush
She got Greta Garbo’s standoff sighs
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

It all appears fun and exciting once she gets someone home. She’ll let you take her home / It whets her appetite / She’ll lay you on the throne / She got Bette Davis eyes, the song plays. Then, as an almost Black Widow-like trope, she eats lovers whole, chews them up, and spits them out, leaving them wondering what just happened.

She’ll take a tumble on you
Roll you like you were dice
Until you come out blue 
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

She’ll expose you, when she snows you
Off your feet with the crumbs she throws you
She’s ferocious, and she knows just
What it takes to make a pro blush
All the boys think she’s a spy
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

The erotic charade is suddenly over and it’s like she’s flipped a switch. However, you can’t regret having loved her because … well, She’s got Bette Davis eyes.

(Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

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