15 Rock Star Odes To The Little Lady Left Behind : The Record Hear the songs that epitomize a beloved yet subtly odious subset of the rock-pop tradition.
NPR logo 15 Rock Star Odes To The Little Lady Left Behind

15 Rock Star Odes To The Little Lady Left Behind

Steve Perry onstage in New York in 1979 — his pre-"Faithfully" days. Ebet Roberts/Redferns hide caption

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Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Steve Perry onstage in New York in 1979 — his pre-"Faithfully" days.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Lately, Lady Gaga — the pop performer most likely to do something that will make even her haters take notice — has been unleashing her inner man. She spent the entirety of last week's MTV Video Music Awards in the persona of Jo Calderone, a beer-swilling, pompadoured barfly who's an amalgam of rock gender benders past (Annie Lennox, Freddie Mercury) and Gaga's own on-and-off paramour Luc Carl. What few have noticed is that Jo Calderone is serving a very specific purpose: to bring out the man in Gaga as she promotes a single that makes one of rock's classic macho moves.

Though "You and I," the song she performed at the VMAs, samples Queen and gets its oomph from production by Def Leppard's mentor Mutt Lange, the song it most clearly recalls is "Tiny Dancer" by Gaga's pal Elton John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. That 1971 tearjerker about the long-suffering mate of a touring musician — sing it with me: "Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band" — epitomizes a beloved yet subtly odious subset of the rock-pop tradition: the ode to the little lady (or, very occasionally, man) left behind.

Women hardly ever write these kinds of songs; they're all about the knight's quest, the artistically mandated lifestyle of broken ties and selfish decisions that serves the artist's muse while leaving behind a domestic mess. Gaga, with typical audaciousness, flips the gender script without altering much, exposing the hilarious presumptuousness of these roguish but sentimental outpourings.

Those who love to raise their lighters in honor of sweeping melodic anthems will recognize a long history of sweet talk and lame excuses that forms the subtext to "You and I." This playlist celebrates some of the many shapes and variations the rock and roll ballad of abandonment has taken over the years.

"Beth" by KISS


No song has romanticized marital neglect with as much elegance and understatement as "Beth" – which is something, considering that everything else KISS has done has been vociferously cartoonish and crass. Sung by the band's drummer Peter Criss, who was himself relegated to a humble backseat role in most KISS situations, "Beth" helped countless young female rock fans cope with the fact that the local musician they might hook up with would likely miss every anniversary in favor of another practice session with his hopeless band.

"Faithfully" by Journey

Journey has made a remarkable comeback after being embraced by Ryan Murphy and the other creators of Glee. But this road song, which honors "Tiny Dancer" by including a line about marrying a music man, proves exactly how hard it is for anyone but a feather-haired power balladeer to really pull of a song like this. Sung on the show by ingénues Rachel and Finn, lines like "They say that the road ain't no place to start a family" just ring false. But Steve Perry pulls them off, whether or not he's yet shaven off his moustache.

"Coyote" by Joni Mitchell

Mitchel was always the counterculture's Athena, a warrior woman who could do anything her male companions tried, and more. She often wrote of the incompatible nature of the artistic and domestic impulses, and her "Blonde in the Bleachers" is an unsparing account of scenes she witnessed between her male rocker friends and the ladies they strung along. But "Coyote" is Mitchell's own admission that sometimes she might play the dog role, too. Is "Coyote" about Sam Shepard, whom Mitchell met on Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour? The writer's never denied it.

"Red Guitar" by Loudon Wainwright


Folk's favorite rogue has written millions of songs about his own abhorrent behavior. "Motel Blues" may be the most honest song ever written about a groupie, for example. But this extended metaphor about destroying an old faithful instrument in favor of another (blonde) one, and then losing that too, is his most elegant. And it mentions his future ex-wife, (and Rufus and Martha's mother) Kate McGarrigle, by name.

"I Will Always Love You" by Dolly Parton

The sweetest kiss-off ever written, this song doesn't address a lover — but it is about how ambition can put asunder close personal bonds. Parton first found fame in the late 1960s as Porter Wagoner's musical foil and a regular on his syndicated television show. But the Backwoods Barbie grew tired of being in the country showman's shadow and went solo in 1974. This ballad, later blasted into space via Whitney Houston's version, was her fond but firm goodbye to her Nudie suit-wearing pal.

"Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac

Not a song about leaving a steadfast lover behind, but about being abandoned, this Lindsey Buckingham classic still qualifies for inclusion here because it's so beautifully petulant. The intra-band tensions that inspired Fleetwood Mac's great midperiod are legend, and Buckingham's poppy tantrum directed toward his ex, Stevie Nicks, was their ultimate musical expression. Singing this song onstage must have felt like having a fight in public, every night, for years. I guess they eventually got over it.

"The Winner Takes It All" by ABBA


ABBA, like Fleetwood Mac, lived the downside of the swinging '70s by enduring two intra-band divorces in mid-career — and writing several songs about it. In the BBC2 series-turned-into-a-movie The Trip, there is a scene in which Steve Coogan explains to Rob Brydon how ABBA's Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote this abject tale of sexual defeat only months after splitting from Agnetha Falstad, and imperiously expected her to make art from their intimate disaster. In reality, Ulvaeus and Falstad parted somewhat amicably, and the song was mostly fictional. But Coogan's version is much more hilarious and somehow deeply true.

"Little Rock 'n' Roller" by Steve Earle

Adult companions aren't the only ones affected by the devil-may-care rock and roller's lifestyle. Kids often get the worst end of the deal. Steve Earle is a lovely man and a great songwriter who spent his early years spectacularly messing up, doing drugs and becoming a serial husband (he's now well-matched with his seventh wife Allison Moorer). This heartfelt, slightly unhinged love song is directed at his eldest son Justin — now 29 and an itinerant songman himself.

"Charles" by Scrawl

The '90s were a great time for women speaking up against the rock scene's assumptions. This killer bit of sass comes from the unjustly mostly forgotten Scrawl, a Columbus, Ohio, band who played, as one Youtube commenter has written, "like The Bangles on crack." Directly taking on the false sentimentality of hair metal power ballads, this rewrite of KISS's "Beth" demands that the rock husband Charles not nod off before his guitar-slinging gal finishes practice: "I can't come home and find you asleep," growls Marcy Mays, who knows what a band-aid is for.

"Doll Parts" by Hole


There's no clear way to tell the story of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. The Nirvana leader's 1994 suicide and the Hole leader's subsequent professional and personal travails cast a dark pall over their sadly brief but extremely fruitful collaboration. The married couple had an obviously complicated and what looked like (from the outside) an often toxic relationship; but they also had one of the most exciting creative partnerships rock ever produced. Both wrote heart-wrenching, vindictive, insightful songs about their union. This is Courtney's most tender, which became a hit not long after Kurt killed himself.

"All the Small Things" by blink-182

Ah, emo boys! So feelingful; so full of it. blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge wrote this as a tribute his girlfriend Jennifer Jenkins — and to the Ramones. It's a heartwarming account of a successful rocker love match. She leaves him roses by the stairs; he gets so drunk she has to carry him home. They did eventually get married, by the way.

"Miss Jackson" by OutKast

It's one thing to beg forgiveness from a partner you've abandoned; it's another to request a clean slate from her mother. That's what Andre 3000 did with this Grammy-award winning cut from Outkast's Stankonia album. "You can make a pretty picnic, but you can't predict the weather," he tells his baby mama's mama, assuring her he'll be around for his son's school events. Big Boi throws in a little paternal resentment: "Let her know her grandchild is a baby, not a paycheck." Ouch.

"Gone 'Til November" by Wyclef Jean


The Roots's "You Got Me," a duet with Andre 3000's former sweetheart Erykah Badu, may be hip hop's most elaborate account of a musician and his patient paramour, but this Caribbean-flavored hit wins for its hair metal-like metaphor: the road-bound musician here isn't a Bon Jovi-style cowboy or a Styx-ish seafarer, but a drug runner. I guess whomever Wyclef left behind could be happy he was really only out on tour, meeting cute girls backstage and sleeping on a bus. Can't get arrested for that.

"Wake Me When It's Over" by Terius Nash

This one follows Lindsey Buckingham's lead, as the producer and songwriter also known as The-Dream takes his game higher by airing dirty laundry. Last week Nash made his new album 1977 available on his website for free; apparently he wanted as many people as possible to hear these very angry tirades aimed (we assume) at the singer Christina Milian, whom he recently divorced. The opening cut calls out an ex for taking their business to "the Internet." A very 21st century variation on our theme.