Let us begin with the Willie Nelson song, "Always On My Mind." It is a big hit and the reasons for that probably have something to do with the nice tune and with the incredible singing of old Willie himself, but also with the fact that it seems to be saying something that makes sense to America. It is about how men don't say what they feel.
The song is sung by a man who has clearly been given the gate by some woman. He was indifferent. He didn't love her "quite as often as he could have" and he didn't treat her "quite as good as he should have." He sometimes made her feel "second best" and he "didn't hold her all those lonely, lonely times," but he is sorry now:
Little things I should have said and done,
I just never took the time.
You were always on my mind.
You were always on my mind.
The singer then goes on to plead for a second chance, the clear import of the song being that he was misjudged. He is somewhat stunned that his indifference has been taken for indifference. He regrets that his coldness has been interpeted as coldness. He is chagrined that his refusal to love is seen as a refusal to love. What's going on here? What do these women want?
One of the interesting things about the Willie Nelson song is that after all this time, after eons and eons of the women's movement and men being told they have the communication skills of rocks, the song is not only popular, but the hero of it is made to seem a victim. Willie Nelson, who talks for America, sings him plaintively, sympathetically. There is not the hint of derision or rebuke in the lyric, the tune or the way the song is sung--nothing about how he got what he deserved, goody-goody--and I, for one, had to listen to it several times before my contempt for the guy built and my sympathies shifted from him to her--wherever she may be.
To women, the song must sound like the old male refrain all over again. If there is a universal peeve that women have when it comes to men, it is that men do not say what they think, never mind what they feel. In the movie "Diner," for instance, one of the characters tells his friends that a drawback to marriage is that there is no longer any reason to talk to his wife. Before marriage, there was sex to talk about. Marriage made sex commonplace. What's there to talk about?
The line gets a laugh because "Diner" is set in 1959 and things are supposed to be different now. The fact that they are not remains something of a mystery. Maybe the reason for this is that men are always seeking replicas of their mothers--women who are quite content if the praise goes only one way, who are always there, who will never abandon them and who, either in fact or in myth, seem to be able to intuit anything. The result, as the Nelson song makes clear, is men who somehow expect women to know what they think and what they feel. Not only that, but wives and lovers are supposed to require less, not more, proof of love than other women. This, after all, is the lesson mother taught.
In the end, what you get is not rugged (and, therefore, silent) masculinity, but stunted development instead--man as a child, immature, relying on the woman to interpet his grunts, intuit his wishes. The Willie Nelson song is a musical version of the man-as-fool theme, which is as old as Dagwood Bumstead and as new as Archie Bunker. Always they need a level-headed woman to keep them out of trouble, to discern their needs, to love them no matter what and, like mother, put a Band-Aid on their versions of skinned knees.
You may ask if women are not, in Watergate parlance, the unindicted coconspirators of these petty crimes and the answer is probably yes. But no matter how it happens, it makes you want to throw up.
In the end, it seems we are going nowhere. The stereotype, if not the reality, remains the same: Real men get victimized by their inability to express emotion. They are blameless. Sorry, but we are what we are--giddyap!
But maybe someday someone will sing a song about a man who controlled his own life, who said what he felt and felt what he said, who did not make a victim out of himself and the people who cared for him--a song about a man, not a man-child. It would be nice if Old Willie would sing it. One thing's for sure. Frank Sinatra won't.