‘The Other Woman’ – Jessie Mae Robinson and The Perfect Pop Song

If nothing else sunk in, one thing became truly clear to me during the exam season. I cannot revise to music. The power of music is such that it must encompass my entire mind or none of it, and its presence renders it impossible to ignore. Music pollutes my entire being, like dye in water, turning my colour completely to its own. I could occasionally copy up notes to music if said music was jazz or classical, without a voice accompanying the music, but any kind of singing would immediately enrapture me beyond return. If I could bear it, I think it would be possible to revise whilst listening to, say, Rihanna, because the lyrics are inconsequential.

Snobbery, you say? Yes. Yes it is.

It became clear whilst I was listening to a particular song and attempting to re-read some wildly illegible notes re: The Faerie Queene, that it is lyrical content, or weight, or substance, which is impossible to ignore. It can’t accompany the same space in the mind as Edmund Spenser, or any revision material for that matter.

The song in question was ‘The Other Woman’ by Nina Simone. Or, I should say, performed by Nina Simone. To say it was by Simone would be to discredit a figure worthy of more praise that my tongue – or in this case, my tapping fingers – can utter. The songwriter was Jessie Mae Robinson. A master of what we might call the pop standard, Robinson wrote many of the blues and R&B songs that still rattle somewhere around the common unconscious – ‘Let’s Have a Party’, ‘I Went to Your Wedding’, etc. She was also the very first African-American woman to be inducted into ASCAP – the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Her songs are often characterized by a deeply reflective loneliness, somehow universally relatable in their heartbreaking affirmation of the worst coming to the worst, despite being insular in nature and often uplifting in overall tone. ‘The Other Woman’ is, simply, one of the most incredible pieces of lyricism ever constructed – in my humble, slightly snobby opinion. Find the song and listen to it while I do my best to explain why that is. If Nina Simone is a little too severe for your taste, the slightly less maudlin Lana Del Rey has covered it.

I argue that ‘The Other Woman’ is a song that could be described as a miniature piece of theatre. Like a music box that, once opened, reveals a set of figures, all spinning in their own circular orbit, it has at its center a cast of characters – the titular ‘Other Woman’, her married man, his jilted wife, and their oblivious child or children – that one can picture in the mind’s eye whilst ingesting every word. Each of these characters is portrayed three-dimensionally and with a remarkable empathy and lightness of touch, creating, as the song develops, a melancholic portrait of people at the crossroads of a life constructed for them before they were born. From the opening, we have a vision of the central character:

The other woman has time to manicure her nails,

The other woman is perfect where her rival fails,

And she’s never seen with pin curls in her hair,

Anywhere. *

Despite being a wonderful piece of set-up, so far this conforms pretty well to the stereotype that many of us hold of the so-called ‘homewrecker’. This is a character that is held in some contempt by many people, one that has defined many a failed romance and populated many a redtop headline. The song will go on, however, to paint a full picture of this woman, and of all of the lives that intermingle with her doomed romance.

On the subject of doomed romance, it is clear enough to any sane person that the husband is the main instigator of heartbreak in this situation. That being said, that does not make him a monster. On the contrary, Robinson is determined to paint his portrait as one of an unhappy adult, disillusioned with what once had seemed the perfect life. Describing the break from ‘old routine’ that gives both the ‘lonesome queen’ and ‘her old man’ some forbidden doomed joy, especially in the slightly revised lyrics of the Lana Del Rey version (see footnote). These allusions are brief, I grant you, but that is the beauty of the well-crafted pop song. Brevity is essential in creating a subtle and evocative pop classic; otherwise we end up with a sprawling, ten-minute lament that might not register the same emotional punch. Bob Dylan’s seven or eight minute long acoustic ballads spring to mind. Like aphorisms, or even great poetry, pop songs are at their most effective and evocative when the economy of their lyrics is as refined and minimal as can be without succumbing to mind-numbing over-simplicity.

Returning to the titular character, it is perhaps her story with which we are most encouraged to sympathise. Robinson’s juxtaposition of the two lives either side of the roving male, both tragic in their own way; function simultaneously as both sentimental and melancholic descriptions of daily monotony. The line, “There are never toys that scatter everywhere”, evokes simultaneously a sentimental image of the nuclear family, with its warmth and chaos, and the pristine loneliness of the isolated mistress with her “fresh cut flowers in each room”. It is in this section of the song that we are introduced to the child, or possibly children, of the wandering man and his jilted wife. Another character (or characters) interwoven, without their knowing, into the many coils of the affair. The daily strife of the stay-at-home mum is, perhaps rather traditionally, contrasted with the beauty and elegance of the “lonesome queen”, who will, “As the years go by … spend her life alone”.

Perhaps this is a reminder of the some-time virtue of the ghostwriter, an oft-maligned figure in much of modern popular culture, one associated with the likes of the aforementioned Rihanna, and other lukewarm chart-topping artists. The criticisms leveled at Justin Bieber’s most recent output is exemplary of this dislike of artists with several songwriters behind them.

Obviously, the music of those singers like Rihanna is designed to fulfill a different purpose, one that ghostwriters are more commonly associated with in the present day, and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what that purpose is. You also don’t need me to tell you that pop – by which I mean, chart – music does not have to be this way. Like the fast-food industry, it is built on the ease of mass production. To inject a little more thought into it would require time, money, and risks.

To have a singing voice is to possess the raw tools – the axe, the ore – but an angelic voice does not a poet’s soul make. But this song, with its beautiful characterization and theatricality, serves as a reminder of the power of the carefully crafted lyric, and that the soul of the voice is undoubtedly the words uttered, not the vocal acrobatics that can often blur the image beneath. It is also a reminder of how quick we can be to forget figures like Robinson, who deserves our appreciation just as much today as she did back then.

‘The Other Woman’, by Jessie Mae Robinson

The other woman has time to manicure her nails,
The other woman is perfect where her rival fails,
And she’s never seen with pin curls in her hair,

Anywhere.

The other woman enchants her clothes with French perfume,
The other woman keeps fresh cut flowers in each room,
There are never toys that’s scattered

Everywhere –

And when her old man comes to call,
He finds her waiting like a lonesome queen.
‘Cause to be by her side is such a change from old routine.

But the other woman will always cry herself to sleep,
The other woman will never have his love to keep,
And as the years go by the other woman will spend her life alone, alone,
Alone.

*[Note: I have used the slightly revised lyrics of the Lana Del Rey version. Nothing from the original is omitted; merely the structure is altered slightly, and the emphasis in the end of the third verse is switched from the perspective of ‘The Other Woman’ to that of her “old man”.]

Words by Michael Hocking

Picture by Harriet Poppy Speed

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