[This is an expanded version of unpublished letter to The Guardian.]
The lyrics, describing a knife crime, the murder of a prostitute, are indisputably ugly. I once caught part of a Tom Jones concert on TV. He was singing ‘Delilah’, his 1968 hit. I couldn’t believe my ears; thought I had misheard. I turned it off. Wondered whether anyone else had noticed, ever.
Turns out Dafydd Iwan, a folk singer and former Plaid Cymru president, had raised concerns about the ballad in 2014 (that’s 46 years after Jones’s hit), saying it was “a song about murder and it does tend to trivialize the idea of murdering a woman” (cited Nadia Khomami, “Bye, bye, bye, Delilah? Rugby fans urged to ditch Tom Jones’s song over “dark lyrics”’. The Guardian, 06 02 2016). Tend to trivialise? You can feel Iwan’s caution in even broaching the subject. So, to go a bit deeper:
Someone (male and heterosexual?) writes the lyric in the 1960s and puts it to music that masks the gendered violence portrayed, turning it into an ‘anthem’, a sing-along. Misogyny dressed up as entertainment has not been uncommon in the music industry.
Tom Jones selects the song, and performs it regularly for 48 years. It has a special place in his heart and repertoire, not least because he hears it sung at Welsh rugby games. He explains: ”The woman is unfaithful to him and [the narrator] loses it . . . It’s something that happens in life”. Notice he doesn’t say, “It’s something that men do”. But he gets pretty close to implying the man’s act of violence is ‘only natural’ in the circumstances. And it’s the woman who has done wrong after all. Jones sings: “Forgive me Delilah, I just couldn’t take any more. I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more”.
Yes, Tom, men do murder women, usually their intimates (lovers, prostitutes, wives, daughters). The stats on sexual violence against women and girls are horrifically high and the murder of women is not a crime that is decreasing nationally. Also, as the shadow leader of the House of Commons, and Rhondda MP, Chris Bryant, points out, “It is a simple fact that when there are big international rugby matches on, and sometimes football matches as well, the number of domestic violence incidents rises dramatically” (cited Khomami).
In an attempt to defend the singing of the song at rugby games, the Welsh Rugby Union lauds the song’s musicality as more important than the lyrics (cited Khomami), not understanding that that is precisely what makes the song so obscene. The song’s musicality functions to fetishise sex as power: male power and male violence against women. Jones implicates his singers in his effort to defend performing the song: “I don’t think the singers are really thinking about it . . . “ (ibid.) The musicality the WRU highlight as the song’s value/beauty, aestheticises the violence, the murder of a woman, and thereby renders it subordinate and incidental, of no real concern. Delilah becomes both the narrator’s and the singer’s muse. The two men share a voice, share a story. And without her body, there is no story, no performance. No way of proving heterosexual masculinity.
Jones objects to the lyrics being taken “literally” – as opposed to what? Sexual fantasy? Entertainment? Banter? Poetry? “If it’s going to be taken literally, I think it takes the fun out of it”, he says. This may leave you speechless. So three questions:
- Where’s the fun in VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls), Tom?
- What does the resistance to giving up the song as a “secondary national anthem” (Dafydd Iwan) say about Wales, rugby culture, men’s attitudes to women in 2016?
- And can anyone say why the song should ever be performed publicly again? Never mind as a sing-along celebrating national identity in a rugby stadium.
08 02 2016 / val walsh