Run For Your Life- The Beatles and gender violence

Those of you who know me are well aware that I’m a huge Beatles fan, and I have been one for longer than I care to remember. So it is hardly like me to write just a single word against the Liverpudlians’ canonical work. But I felt that one of my latest reflections on their work (and a very late one, I admit), could be used in the classroom, especially on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, on November 25th.

It was only some weeks ago, while I was listening to Rubber Soul (1965) on my way to work, that it suddenly dawned on me that the last song on the album, “Run For Your Life”, by John Lennon, was supporting gender violence. It’s a catchy song, I’d sung it a thousand times (not one of my favourites, but not bad either), and there I was, finally coming to the realisation that, as a male threat to his partner, it could not be clearer:

“I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man [..]

You’d better run for your life if you can, little girl,

[…](if I ) catch you with another man, that’s the end”. 

Lyrics: https://www.musixmatch.com/lyrics/The-Beatles/Run-for-Your-Life (You may also watch the video above with syncronised lyrics if you’ve got the Musixmatch extension for Chrome installed).

I was ashamed I hadn’t realised before. I thought that, perhaps, it could be read subversively, that the lyrics were so blatantly violent and intolerable (at least, by today’s standards), that maybe the lyrical subject was sort of parodying those thugs who could even consider beating or exerting any kind of violence against their partners because they felt jealous, or the woman had decided to break up with them.

But then I started researching for more information about the song, and I found out that the first line in the song actually comes from an Elvis Presley song, “Baby, Let’s Play House”. Apparently, the message in that song had more to do with desire than actual violence. In any case, this act of possession has to be taken as positive in the context of the song. The reference is not surprising: The Beatles at the time (especially so Lennon) were still heavily influenced both by Elvis, whom they had met during their American tour in August that same year, and by rock’n’roll at large.

Then I remembered a song featured in the Beatles’ Live at the BBC  album [1] (1994), “I Got a Woman”, by Ray Charles. This is not exactly about gender violence, but does support the victorian ideal of the angel in the house:

“I got a woman way over town that’s good to me oh yeah […]

She’s there to love me both day and night
Never grumbles or fusses always treats me right
Never runnin in the streets and leavin me alone
She knows a woman’s place is right there now in her home

Besides, having a look at some of the other songs in Rubber Soul, namely “Drive My Car”, “Norwegian Wood” and “Girl”, all three depict selfish, manipulative women, taking advantage of the poor man. I felt terrible: I have used “Drive My Car” so many times with my students (my year 1 students loved the beep-beep yeah bit), and I have recently used “Norwegian Wood” for my #CLILphonetics course here at CIFE. Lots of misogyny underlining the album, apparently.

All of this seems to show how stereotypes of gender relations were portrayed in popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s, and how society at large must have been quite lenient towards gender violence – or at least it was not regarded as negatively as it is nowadays.

 In 1992, “Run For Your Life” was banned by a Canadian radio station, for promoting violence against women (source here). John Lennon himself, in the 1970s, confessed “Run For Your Life” was his least favourite Beatles’ song (source here). Probably, he is right about the rather unfortunate lyrics, the melody is OK.

With all of this in mind, could a song like “Run For Your Life” be used in the classroom? Here are some possible activities:

  1. Play the song, or just the first verse and chorus, without giving any information about the title of the song, band, year…Then have students (Ss) guess who the artists are / when the song was written…
  2. Give Ss a worksheet with the lyrics. It may contain typical gap-fill exercises, or reordering the lines in the song. You could also make the most of rhyming words, and ask them to find all the words in the song containing a given sound, for example, /ai/ (hide, life, line, mind) or /e/ (dead, head, let, end, said). More ideas to work with songs
  3. Discuss:
    • what’s the relation between the people in the story?
    • Whose point of view do we get?
    • How would you describe the narrator [Ss could use adjectives of description, modals of deduction: he must be… he can’t be… ; or he seems to … ].
    • What has happened between them just before the story in the song? [using past modals of deduction: They must have… They can’t have…]
  4. Use the same song (the same music) to write alternative lyrics to it. You may write the new lyrics:
    • from the girl’s point of view
    • from the new boyfriend’s point of view
    • up to you: come up with new lyrics

You may use the Musixmatch app to remove the Beatles’ voices, and let students sing their lyrics. If Ss are too shy to sing their song in front of their classmates, maybe they could subtitle a video featuring the original lyrics with their new lyrics. They may use dot sub, amara, or any other subtitling app.

My very own personal interpretation:  I recalled what my film professor at University used to say, that he didn’t care much about what the author really meant; that once the text has been made public, every reader can interpret it as they like. So, as I said before, I choose to take this song as a parody and an attack against those  who think people belong to other people, that someone can be their possession.

[1] Live at the BBC is a compilation of songs they recorded in their early years for BBC radio shows, including both Beatles’ songs and hits by other artists, especially from the 1950s.

Further reading:

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