I’ve just finished reading Charles Foran’s mammoth biography of one of my literary heroes, Mordecai Richler. Privy to Richler’s private papers, held by the University of Calgary, Foran made a startling discovery that had never been made public prior to the publishing of Mordecai: The Life & Times. A letter from Richler to his mother revealed that not only had maman Richler cheated on her husband with a boarder, she had done so in the same room as a 12-year-old Mordecai. Much of the bitterness evident in Richler’s novels can be traced back to this formative experience, and it got me thinking about cheating’s place in song. When the divorce rate hovers around 50 per cent and Tony Parker’s infidelity is splashed across the pages of in Touch, it’s no surprise that popular songcraft has a lot to say about cheating — there was enough material for a half-dozen “Essentially A Playlist.” Here’s the cream of the crop.
Billy Paul — “Me & Mrs. Jones”
I was going to suggest that this is the granddaddy of cheatin’ songs but that honor goes to the final entry on this playlist. However, “Me & Mrs. Jones” is undoubtedly the sex panther of the infidelity song jungle. I can’t even count the number of times it’s been used in movies to soundtrack an instance of someone stepping out, though for my money, Beautiful Girls used it best.
Justin Timberlake — “Cry Me A River”
While Robyn’s “Call Your Boyfriend” is a fantastic track, I think the best contemporary cheating song is JT’s scathing kiss-off to ex Britney Spears. It’s funny to think that at the time the allegations about Britney were considered salacious. Post haircut and crotch-shot, nothing Britney does can really shock us any more.
Bobby Patterson — “If He Hadn’t Slipped Up And Got Caught”
Like Rashomon, cheating lends itself to multiple viewpoints — the two people directly involved and their partners are obvious, but here’s a totally different perspective: the man who has always lusted after a woman but had no chance with her until her husband got caught stepping out, creating an opening for the protagonist to sweep in. Patterson came up with “sloppy seconds” long before Sean Avery.
Sloan — “The Other Man”
The other man in Sloan’s hit is the dude who is hooking up with a woman already in a relationship. While he understands that “I’m the other man / No one’s rooting for me,” it’s actually a fairly sympathetic portrait of a guy whose only sin is seeing a cheater.
Joan Armatrading — “The Weakness In Me”
Armatrading writes this song from the perspective of a woman who is cheating but is feeling deeply conflicted about what she’s doing to the man she’s cheating on. It’s also a plea to the man she’s cheating with to stop coming around, stop calling her and ultimately stop tempting her to cheat.
Johnnie Taylor — “Who’s Making Love To Your Old Lady”
Here’s a cautionary tale from the Sam Cooke understudy Johnnie Taylor (Taylor replaced Cooke in the gospel group The Soul Stirrers when Cooke went solo, prior to his own solo career at Stax and Columbia). Basically the gist of this one is, if you’re stepping out on your woman, you’re leaving the door open to guys like the one in Bobby Patterson’s song — if you don’t want another man in your lady’s bed, you don’t leave that bed.
Fleetwood Mac — “Go Your Own Way”
It takes a gargantuan level of gall to not only cheat on someone, but to then (a) write a song kissing off your partner and (b) make that former partner sing the song and (c) claim that she was the one who did the cheating.
Human League — “Human”
This is the ultimate cheating apologia — when Philip Oakey intones “I’m only human / Of flesh and blood I’m made / Human / Born to make mistakes,” you can picture him in the kitchen, open palms face-up, shoulders shrugged mid-argument.
R. Kelly — “Trapped In The Closet”
If you haven’t seen the feature-length video for this, you really need to. It is one of the craziest things R. Kelly has ever done — and that’s saying something.
Hank Williams — “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
Here’s the real granddaddy of cheatin’ songs — this one from the viewpoint of the person who has been cheated on, cursing the ex to the end of their days and guaranteeing them a lifetime of tears for what they’ve thrown away. Despite being released nearly a year after his death, Williams must have known what an indelible mark on infidelity songs he was making when he wrote this weeper.