In Jimmy Buffet's ballad “Miss You So Badly”, the narrator reveals an enthrallment towards the vocals and lyrics of Patsy Cline, whose words perfectly encapsulate his wistful reminiscence of better times.
While most may see an infantile enshrinement of Cline as a mother figure fairly common amongst inebriated country music fans, I feel this actually belies an undeniable undercurrent of progressive feminist/womanist thought in the works of this genius, under-appreciated in the very academic realms he advocates for.
Keep in mind: Jimmy Buffet is 69 years old, and this year so far hasn’t exactly been kind to rockers that age. We need to acknowledge Buffet’s contribution to feminist thought before all the inevitable post-mortem thinkpieces cast him as the devil incarnate.
Let’s right this wrong, and let one of the finest male feminists have his day in the sun. But not too much sun; skin cancer is a hell of a way to go.
Yes I am talking about the same Jimmy Buffet that wrote “Why Don't We Get Drunk [And Screw]”. In the liner notes of the 1992 album box set he states “I thought back to a late night in an Atlanta diner where I was eating and watching this out-of-focus businessman trying to pick up a [sex worker]. That's all the inspiration I needed."
The narrator is not a suave pick-up artist–he's a bumbling and crass loser whose blunt and downright pathetic pleas for intimacy are put on display for ridicule. Later versions of the songs include references to performing safe sex and avoiding drunk driving, a progressively conscientiousness intent lost on the more casual listener. What’s more feminist than measures for bodily safety and personal responsibility?
This theme can again be seen in the track “Smart Woman (In A Real Short Skirt)”where the neurotic, nerdy protagonist bemoans his struggle within the confines of traditional masculinity and gender roles in courtship. Buffet’s work is a pointed resistance to the expectations of toxic masculinity, a nihilistic farce of rock star swagger, of virile men conquering the unknown to the tune of their own guitars.
Another iconic track, “Fins”, has the ominous chorus, “Can't you feel 'em circlin', honey, Can't you feel 'em swimmin' around, You got fins to the left, fins to the right, and you're the only bait in town”.
This can seem even more disturbing when one considers how fans of Buffet (Parrotheads) have an iconic “fin” hand-gesture that is even as a greeting to other fans. But you aren't meant to identify with the sharks; the protagonist is a goal-oriented woman trying to escape a feeding frenzy of privilege and male entitlement encircling her endlessly. The song is a warning. Buffet himself has stated that, as with “Why Don't We Drink” the inspiration was observed behavior he was critiquing.
These repeated refrains invert the power structures and roles of seemingly standard rock star tales of touring and cruising women. They provide an unflinching mirror to would-be lotharios in his audience, revealing endless depths of self-consciousness and insincere posturing at the expense of their own passion. The lyrics demonstrate a method for these men to recognize their participation in toxic masculine ritual and rape culture apologetics, and offers the hope for desiring more from themselves.
His trope inversion is most subtle yet biting in the lyrics of his most well-known hit song “Margaritaville”. To the casual listener, this paean of manchild indulgence would seem the furthest thing from feminist. The protagonist blunders around a resort community, inebriated for time indefinite, at one point finding his entire days plans thwarted by a stray soda can pull tab he stepped on.
But there is no tragic backstory to this bender, no weepy prologue, no grim nihilistic opening scene reminiscent of Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. The trappings of heteromasculine expectation are shrugged off by the narrator “some people claim there’s a woman to blame”. The song literally ends with the narrator taking on responsibility for the state he is in.
“But I know it’s my own damn fault.”
A similar critique through comedy of errors comparable to “Margaritaville” appears in his track “Cheeseburger In Paradise”. The narrator entangles himself in a fad diet while traveling, aching to his very core for that heavenly burger. No reason or meaning is given for doing so, like in “Margaritaville” the narrator is indulging in narcissist martyrdom for it's own sake.
“Cheeseburger in Paradise” makes an intentional farce of modern romantic notions of wayfaring self-made men. Expectations would have one imagine the rugged traveler to alternately stoically survive on dry hard tack and indulge in every vice that presents an opportunity, taking his rightful endowment by force if necessary. Instead, Buffet’s protagonist partakes in impractical meals of carrot juice and zucchini fettuccine, neither suited for practical travel rations or sufficiently indulgent to satisfy the taking-man’s ego.
Even as Buffet’s work is packed with imagery of cowboys and sailors and other sorts of traditionally masculine traveling life-seekers, the slightest scratching of the surface reveals protagonists making leaps in the directions of these romantic, impossible idealizations and falling way short. Ultimately, these same protagonists recognize the idealizations for the relics they are and choose to move forward in a more authentic, if occasionally undefined, future. Buffet doesn’t claim to have the answers, but he yearns for one, looks deep inside and doesn’t give up hope for something more.
From his heart and soul he croons this yearning day in and day out, just waiting for the right folks to listen.