No Pain, No Gain is one of those songs that reminds me of a bunch of older aunties sitting around the kitchen table — smoking cigarettes, drinking wine, playing spades and talking shit (and lamenting) about men.
Betty Wright strikes me as one of those aunties, waxing poetic about her experiences with men — schooling us young girls on what (and what not) to do to keep one.
Basically, No Pain, No Gain reads as a relationship manual of sorts, filled with some gems, but if I’m keeping it real, a whole lot of codependent encouragement and antiquated space junk.
Nonetheless, it’s one of those classics to which young (-ish) folks probably just sing along, without really paying attention to the lyrics — and just how problematic they are. And this song is problematic as hell.
Let’s break it down (in no particular order or fashion).
First of all, the name of the song. No Pain, No Gain. Why does love have to hurt, though? Is it a prerequisite? Am I too naive to think that love can be smooth — think The Isley Brothers’ Smooth Sailing (even if that has been counter to my experiences)? But seriously, I should expect a certain amount of necessary pain — think Stevie Wonder’s
Ordinary Pain — as requisite to come away with anything meaningful?
“Anything worth havin’ at all / Is worth workin’ for and waitin’ for”
Okay, I can get with that. Love is a verb, and all that. Relationships take effort. And if it it’s worth anything to you, you’ve got to be willing to put in some work. And patience. Oh, patience. I accept that.
But she goes on with: In order to be something / You got to go through something — which begs the question — go through what? I’ve been in bad relationships. Relationships that have caused me to question my worth. And to be honest, mantras like that which Betty Wright espouses would play in my head as I contemplated why I would subject myself to (and make excuses for) the bullshit I experienced.
The more I sit with the faux knowledge that Betty Wright spits, the more glaring just how problematic the song becomes.
“We’re all entitled to make a mistake / We got to prepare for some heartbreak / I was earnin’ my man, while I was learnin’ my man / Something you young girls might not understand”
Earning my man? Learning is one thing, but earning? The whole concept of earning in a relationship doesn’t sit well with me. Shouldn’t basic things like respect, trust, etc., be given freely? Not everything in a relationship need be earned (and by extension, commodified). And frankly, Auntie Betty makes no mention about earning me (save for the flowers and candy and all kinds of gifts that could perhaps be tokens to ease his guilty conscience). And, the tone deaf narrative about selfless sacrifice for a man is played out. But, I digress.
“If it weren’t for the trials we’ve been through / I’d never have the courage to come back to you”
Okay, so…what the fuck happened in the relationship from the get go that would prepare me to be courageous enough to take his dumb ass back after he does God knows what in the future?
“But love is a flower that needs the sun and the rain / A little bit of pleasure’s worth a whole lot of pain”
Heartache and anguish for just a little bit of pleasure? So, as I cry myself to sleep, I should just think about the good times, no matter how few and far between they may have been?
“If you learn this secret, how to forgive / A longer and better life you’ll live”
So, my heart is breaking after my man has done some unforgivable shit, but I should think about the good times, and forgive him?
All of this just seems wrong. And counter to all of my sensibilities.
Maya Angelou once wrote, “When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” So there’s that. That advice seems so much better and gentler for the heart. Sorry, Auntie Betty.