When country music, regional resentment, and gender politics collide

While hunting around YouTube for the best version of Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers’ “New England,” I came across another remarkable text: the music video for Reba McEntire’s 1986 song “Whoever’s in New England.” Written by Kendal Franceschi and Quentin Powers, the song was a #1 hit on Billboard’s country charts and inspired McEntire’s first music video; the album of which it was a part was McEntire’s tenth, but her first to go to #1.

I’m not being ironic in using the adjective “remarkable” to describe the song and accompanying video. Both present a wife’s lament about suspicious business trips “up North” to Massachusetts taken by her husband, “an executive on his way up.” The video alternates between scenes of a lonely McEntire in her home and driving her husband to the airport and (imagined?) images of her husband dining and frolicking in the snow with a Boston businesswoman. “You know its not too late, ’cause you’ll always have a place to go / When whoever’s in New England’s through with you,” the singer declares in the song’s conclusion. In the video, her husband realizes the error of his ways, abandons his flight at the airport, and returns to McEntire’s arms.

The song seems to me to encapsulate a strain of the South’s late-twentieth-century resentment and feelings of inferiority toward “elites” from New England—and especially, and explicitly, Massachusetts—even amid the South’s own simultaneous political, economic, and cultural ascendancy.

Wikipedia tells me that McEntire’s song is a response to Barry Manilow’s 1976 recording “Weekend in New England,” a song penned by by Randy Edelman. In “Weekend,” the singer addresses a lover with whom he has spent time in New England (although it’s not clear that he is otherwise spoken for). The liaison occurs on “long rocky beaches” and the singer returns to “the city,” evoking the New England of coastal tourism, an escape from modern life.

But the lyrics and video of McEntire’s song establish a contrast, instead, between the tall buildings, executive boardrooms, fancy restaurants, and public parks of urban Boston and a suburban, implicitly Southern, home featuring both modern and country accents. New England is cold, with winters that may be “beautiful” but “can last forever.” It’s a foreign “up there,” and one needs a “place to go,” a Southern home to return to, when it inevitably abandons you.

The other woman (still from music video for Reba McEntire, "Whoever's in New England")
The other woman (still from music video for Reba McEntire, "Whoever's in New England")

Strikingly, the video also casts this contrast in terms of two models of feminine styling and comportment, aligning 1980s-era controversies over feminism with the clash of “icy” New England vs. the South. It depicts McEntire at home in her kitchen and/or at her husband’s side, clad in a sweater, denim, and a sensible perm. Compare this with the woman with whom he has an affair. She is not the secretary taking notes on his presentation; instead, she’s a businesswoman sitting among the men at the conference table. She wears glasses, a men’s-style jacket, and a tie, and her hair is pulled up severely. She, indeed, is the aggressor in their encounter: her smile cuts to his, then to hers again, after reeling him in for a dinner out. And the stained-glass window behind her, for some reason depicting the state seal, brands her and her behavior as unquestionably “Massachusetts.”

In short, watch this video. I think it could be a really useful in teaching—a compelling launching point for a discussion about the regional, cultural, and gendered dimensions of U.S. politics in the 1980s, and their many intersections.

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