Double Feature: SZA’s Ctrl and Dolly Parton’s Jolene
Written by Sam Bowden
I keep the six-disc CD changer in my car fully stocked. It’s my favorite, if not slightly outdated, way to consume music on the road. Recently, occupying the third and fourth slots were two albums that I felt were strangely destined to be played back to back. The third was SZA’s Ctrl (2017), a genre-defying meditation on modern dating that has practically become canon for Gen Z-ers and twentysomethings. And in the fourth was Dolly Parton’s Jolene (Expanded) (1974), a sadgirl country-pop classic that has been cemented as one of the legend’s greatest works. As “20 Something,” the bittersweet final track of Ctrl, transitioned into the titular track of Jolene, I realized that these two albums have a number of parallels. Nearly fifty years between them and genres apart, SZA and Dolly Parton both share with emotional honesty their experiences as young women in complex relationships.
I don’t think much case needs to be made for the popularity of Solana Rowe (SZA). For many young women and men alike, her album Ctrl is the closest thing to scripture in our lives. Over the course of three mixtapes and an LP, she went from a musically ambitious high school student making alternative R&B to full-on pop star celebrity. Her 7M Instagram followers are devout, and with each passing day the pleas of “Where is the new album?” grow more desperate and hostile. Dolly Parton naturally has a different demographic of listeners, seeing that she has been at it for so long. She well might have fizzled out, at least music-wise, if not for a resurgence in a young fanbase over recent years. Many of us who fit in SZA’s target demographic “discovered” Parton through her cameos on the Disney Channel series Hannah Montana. Just like she did for Miley Stewart, she became our “Aunt Dolly.” Many of us ventured to revisit her classic tunes when we grew older; I for one impulse-bought a copy of Jolene during a visit to Nashville, TN celebrating my 21st birthday.
The main thematic parallel that ties the two albums together is messy relationships. In both of their worlds, there are cheating men, other women, and heartbreak galore. Take “Another Woman’s Man” and “Barbara On Your Mind” from Jolene, for a couple example. In the first, Parton is conflicted by her being in love with a taken gentleman, and she “won’t be the one to break her heart.” In the second, Parton’s lover calls her the wrong name in bed half-asleep—a classic dilemma of infidelity. These sorts of issues are all throughout Ctrl, too. In “Supermodel,” SZA is officially leaving her man because he’s being dishonest and secretive. But even heroines have flaws, and she’s “been secretly bangin’ [her man’s] homeboy” as well. In “The Weekend” we get the 21st century update to the famous “Jolene,” where it’s not just one woman but multiple women that SZA has to share a man with. And one can’t help but make a lyrical callback to Dolly’s beloved worker’s anthem when we hear SZA sing “you’re like 9 to 5 / I’m the weekend.”
Another thread tying the two works together is a sense of insecurity about their status as a twentysomething young woman. Ctrl was released when SZA was 26; Jolene when Parton had just turned 28. At this point, the women are still navigating insecurity and self-doubt in their youth. SZA just wants to be a “Normal Girl,” could swing being a “Supermodel” if need be, and is searching for guidance to make it through her “20 Something”s. Parton can never compete with other women (“Jolene”), and feels the “lonely dripping down her face” (“Lonely Comin’ Down). These insecurities are only heightened by the fact that they can feel when their partners are letting them down. SZA knows her lover doesn’t mean it in “Garden (Say It Like Dat),” and Parton knows “there’s nothing quite as sad as a one-sided love” (“When Someone Wants to Leave”).
But it’s not all bad for our heroines. Love is a constant, and they know they will grow from these experiences. In “Broken Clocks,” it’s “still love, nothin’ but love for you.” In the song that Whitney Houston made famous, but Parton penned, the title alone says it all: “I Will Always Love You.” Near the end of Parton’s version, in a conversational tone that makes the words all the more poignant (much like the voicemail recordings of SZA’s mother and grandmother), she says: “I hope that life treats you kind / And I hope that you have all you ever dreamed of.” As young women in clearly fractured relationships, both SZA and Parton seem to be at peace. Through their songs, they find emotional maturity amidst the unfairness of love. Optimism is fleeting and hope comes through in idealistic statements. SZA “promise[s] to get a little better when [she] get[s] older” on album standout “Prom,” and Parton knows that “somewhere there’s a garden where only love grows” in “River of Happiness.”
If you are in love with one of these albums, I strongly urge you to visit the other for quite a vibe change-up. The experience, however, will be familiar. You will hear young women being wronged by some man child. You will hear stories of being anxious, lonely, and uncertain. You will search for peace alongside them. Through all of these things, one can find guidance and a sort of maternal comfort in our protagonists. If these big-haired, beautiful, glamorous women are going through it, maybe it’s not so bad that we’re going through it, too.
“Double Feature” is a column where writer Sam Bowden compares two seemingly incompatible records, usually one new and one old, to highlight peculiar coincidences in music’s history