It's almost never a good thing to be a bad man in a Carrie Underwood song.
Why, you ask? Because Underwood has a habit of making sure such villains get what's coming to them. And so it is again in her latest hit. The mid-tempo, modern country ballad "Church Bells" starts out sounding like a fairy tale, but it concludes as anything but.
White Dresses, White Picket Fences
Oh, things have a promising start here, to be sure.
A pretty-but-poor country girl named Jenny ("Broke as h---, but blessed with beauty") soon beguiles a wealthly businessman ("She caught the eye of an oil man dancing/One summer night in a dime store dress"). And it sure looks as if happily ever after is in the offing, with wedding bells (hence the song's title) soon chiming away: "She could hear those church bells ringing, ringing/And up in the loft, that whole choir singing, singing/Fold your hands and close your eyes/Yeah, it's all gonna be alright."
Or not. Because, well, happily ever after almost never makes for a "good" country song, right?
Empty Bottles, Closed Fists
It's not long before her rich husband's dark side emerges, one fueled by the bottle. "Everyone thought they were Ken and Barbie," Underwood narrates. "But Ken was always getting way to drunk." From there, the song takes a more ominous turn into domestic abuse. "Saturday night, after a few too many/He came home ready to fight."
Jenny tries to hide the evidence of her husband's abuse when she goes to church: "It was all bruises, covered in makeup/Dark sunglasses/And that next morning, sitting in the back pew/Praying with the Baptists."
But Jenny, whom Underwood describe at the outset of the song as a someone who "grew up wild, like a blackfoot daisy," is about to dish out some abuse of her own. The permanent kind.
"Jenny slipped something in his Tennessee whiskey/No law man was ever gonna find/And how he died is still a mystery/But he hit a woman for the very last time."
The Problematic Satisfaction of Vengeance
Underwood rightly suggests that alcohol-fueled domestic violence is a terrible thing. But then she does what so many movies and songs have done before: trying to right a horrific wrong in an even more horrific way.
In the process, "Church Bells" both glorifies murder and minimizes it, because the song suggests that her spunky heroine's rich, violent husband had it coming … and that she got away with it.
When asked about the revenge thread that has woven through a number of her songs and albums over the years, Underwood has repeatedly said, essentially, that it makes for good drama, that it's a fantasy, not reality. It's just a story that provides a certain kind of narrative satisfaction when a bad guy gets what's coming to him and when his victim gets away with the crime.
Still, in a world in which violence and vengeance make headlines frequently, I'm not as certain as Carrie Underwood is that all of her listeners can discern between fantasy and reality as cleanly as she believes they can.