Sugarland’s “Stay” and Metamour Dynamics in Mainstream Music

This song kills me.

I’m not generally a country fan, but I recently moved to a part of the Midwest that plays a lot of country music on the radio and this came on in the car the other day. It grabbed me. The recording is so spare, I assumed it was some kind of classic country ballad. Until I pulled up the video on YouTube, that is. I had to bite my lip to keep from crying in public.

See, I collect “metamour media” — songs, stories, movies etc. that center the relationship between two people who have a lover in common. There’s not a lot of it out there. Mostly, when we tell stories about any kind of “love triangle” we focus on the hinge, the person who’s being “shared” and that person’s relationships with the people who are “sharing” them. We rarely see depictions — either positive or negative — of how the two “sharers” relate to each other.

There are a few examples that come to mind, though. In pop music, we’ve got Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” — a song about two women who discover that their common partner is cheating on them both, and plot together to kill him:

They decided then he’d never get away with doing this to them…

I remember the first time I heard this song, my jaw dropped and I was all, “Holy shit! Was that just a metamour murder ballad??”

Then, of course, there is Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” — in which Dolly plaintively begs her partner’s other lover (or crush) to consider her needs:

And I can easily understand how you could easily take my man, but you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene.”

In other words, “You’re a total badass and I get why he’s into you, but please don’t let him leave me for you; I need him.” This one’s my favorite because she’s singing directly to the other woman. It’s a conversation between the two of them, and it’s extremely human.

And if you think that understanding Dolly and Jolene as metamours is trippy, imagine how much more complex that story gets when the person begging Jolene not to take his man is Jack White:

Well, you can have your choice of men, but I could never love again…

Meanwhile, in the interest of a little more gender diversity, here’s Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson battling crooning it out over a shared love interest in “The Girl is Mine“:

Michael, we’re not gonna fight about this, ‘kay?

One thing I’m sure you’ve noticed is that a major theme in all these songs is conflict. It’s not that we live in a monogamous culture, not really. Our news and art and media are full of stories of people in complex multi-person romantic relationships — it’s just that, at the core of those more-than-two dynamics, what we’re shown is almost always conflict. That conflict shows up as competition. It shows up as controlling behavior. It shows up as heartbreak. We do have some stories in which the metamours eventually team up to oust (or, apparently, kill) a cheating partner — like Brandi and Monica at the end of the video for “The Boy is Mine“:

But I’ve yet to hear a mainstream love song in which someone even so much as, for example, expresses appreciation for their partner’s supportive ex.

And, honestly, I’m kinda okay with that. At least right now. Part of what makes metamour relationships so important to me is that they’re interesting and complex. “Interesting” and “complex” are words that often also mean hard. And I like seeing the emotional difficulties often associated with sharing a partner represented in the mainstream media. I think that, even for those of us who share partners with others intentionally and consensually, many of us have gone through some less-extreme variations on the kinds of struggle, suffering, self-doubt, competition, and conflict as the ones depicted in these songs. People seeing their experiences represented in art they can identify with is a key component of not feeling hopelessly alone.

It’s worth noting that, in many of these songs, it’s never explicitly stated that the person with multiple partners is cheating. It’s generally implied — cuz multiple partners. But, in the interest of identifying with the emotions of the characters, we can read some of these lyrics not as stories about unfaithful lovers or clingy exes who won’t go away, but rather about e.g. “secondaries” in some extremely dysfunctional poly relationships.

Which takes me back to the Sugarland song that started this thread. In the Metamour Intensive seminar I gave at the Transcending Boundaries Conference a couple of years ago, one of the key themes I focused on was acknowledging the complexity of our metamour relationships. I pointed out that even in polyamorous culture, we tend to treat our metamourships as a means to an end; we invest in our relationships with our metamours not for their own unique sakes, but as another way to support our relationships with our partners. Often, our metamours are more-or-less incidental sidenotes to our partnered relationships. And — regardless of whether we like a metamour or not — treating them as if they are simply a part of our relationship story, rather than acknowledging that they are the center of a relationship story of their own, isn’t very compassionate.

When “Stay” first came on the radio, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. I was struck by its musical quality, but figured it was just another average jilted-lover breakup tale. But after listening for a couple of verses, I put it together: This was “the other woman” singing to her lover, asking him to stay with her instead of going home to (presumably) his wife. This immediately intrigued me, since “The Other Woman” is traditionally the villain in romance stories. I was touched to hear her made out as such a sympathetic character. (The song is written from Jennifer Nettles’ own personal life history, and you can see how deep and complicated her emotions about that experience are by the way she expresses herself in the video.)

But what really got me about this song — and I just watched the video again and I’m choking back tears again — was watching the character’s emotional development in relation to her metamour. At the beginning, the wife is nothing but an impediment to her relationship with the man she loves. “It’s just another call from home. You’ll get it and be gone, and I’ll be crying.” She struggles with confusion and frustration over what the wife has to offer him that she doesn’t, why he keeps choosing the wife over her. Throughout the song, she uses the line “Why don’t you stay?” to try and persuade her lover to choose her over his other partner. But, by the end of the song, she has decided to leave him — and she turns the phrase on its head:

“I can’t take it any longer. My will is getting stronger. And I think I know just what I have to do. I can’t waste another minute after all that I’ve put in it. I’ve given you my best; why does she get the best of you? So next time you find you want to leave her bed for mine…why don’t you stay?”

This shift is so important because, by giving that phrase over to the other relationship, she’s explicitly putting herself in the wife’s shoes. She can imagine what it must be like for the wife to have her husband constantly leaving her for another woman. And she encourages him not to do that. She makes her shift toward a compassion even more clear when she describes the wife “beg[ging] you not to go.” Certainly, she’s not leaving him for his wife’s sake. But, in choosing to leave him, she acknowledges his wife as more of a human being than she has throughout the whole beginning of the song. If you watch the video, I think you can see this shift happening around 3:40. It coincides with her shift towards seeing herself as more of a human being, as deserving of a loving relationship with someone who’s really there for her. And watching both those shifts in perspective happen simultaneously is profound.

EDITED TO ADD:

Oh hey, I just remembered, there is a well-known pop song that suggests a pretty positive metamour dynamic. 😉

The Spice Girls – Wannabe

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