LOVE AS LACK/LOVE AND DEATH/THE WOUNDS OF MASCULINITY
Inspired by a 13th-century romance, Rosalía’s El mal querer tells the story of a woman battered and imprisoned by her jealous husband. The album and her music videos have been labelled as feminist in different occasions, and there are good reasons for it, but in my view it is worth more specification.
El mal querer (The Bad Loving) is not only a reinterpretation of flamenco in its musical dimension. Its lyrics draw on as much as they challenge the major rhetoric of love in the genre, made of, among other things, unrestrained passions, shattering pains, natural metaphors, prohibitions, daggers, shiny eyes, pierced hearts, secrecy, the night and the moon, loneliness, “until-deaths” and disgrace; a rhetoric the logics of which can be found around the world.
Rosalía’s is not a feminism of slogans. She goes beyond, adopting in every track the point of view of one of the two characters (the bride/wife and the groom/husband) to explore their psychological processes, making plain the logics behind the wrong way of loving she’s exposing.
In the first track, the bride has a bad omen (“That broken glass/I felt it creaking/Before it fell to the ground/I knew it was going to break”), but decides to ignore it. In the following three tracks, it is the groom/husband who speaks. Next, we reencounter the point of view of the now wife. Beginning with a long lamentation, she goes through a process of rising awareness of who her husband really is (track 5) and how she hadn’t noticed before (track 6, in fact a flashforward): “You don’t realise you’re trapped/You realise once out/You think: how did I get here?”
In response to the last question come tracks 7 and 8, two flashbacks. First, the bride is said to be suffering another living hell, and, in her loneliness and desire to escape, she finds a “fallen angel”. That’s the future husband. Track 8 offers a glimpse of a sexual encounter between the two characters. She has completely surrendered to him: “Tie me up with your hair/To the corner of your bed/For even if your hair breaks/I’ll pretend I’m tied.”
We’re taken back to the main timeline in track 9, a lullaby to one of the children of the marriage. And finally, in track 10 the resolution arrives. The wife confronts the husband and kills him, just after letting us know that she has been told to put up with the situation and that everybody knows but says nothing.
Track 11. An empowered wife has learned a lesson: “I allow no man/To pass a sentence upon me”. Eternal goosebumps.
Three different but interdependent logics are present in this story and, probably, rejected by the wife in the final track. The first one is the conception of love as lack. From Ancient Greece (see Plato’s Banquet), through Christianism and up to now, desire and love have been understood as the manifestation of the constitutive incompleteness of individuals. It seems that humans can only achieve completion in the union with someone else, their “better HALF”. That’s how we are all driven by dominant norms to look for a couple, to find a saviour outside instead of finding peace within ourselves. Both characters in El mal querer demonstrate this logic of mutual dependence. The bride, for example, runs away from both her intuitions and her external situation, marrying with her eyes closed, with the hope of achieving solace in an indissoluble union. Remember: “…even if it breaks/I’ll pretend I’m tied up.” Remember also that emotional dependence is an important factor to explain denial and toleration of abuse.
The second logic is the one Michel Onfray calls “nothing, all, nothing.” This is the logic of “love at first sight” and “happily ever after”. Fairytales, songs, films of all kinds, religions and culture in general have taught many of us that, for a love to be real, there is no room for gradual construction or half-measures. It hits us all of a sudden. We go from nothing to all. The other becomes everything for us, even if we don’t really know them. Real love is deprived of caution and reflection. And it is also intimately related to death. Remember: “until death do us part.” If we add all the “I-would-die-for-youes” and “I-can’t-live-without-youes”, it is clear that death is a marker of real love. In fact, if it ends before death, a love doesn’t seem so real, so… love. The groom: “Without saying anything she has sworn that for me she’d kill herself,” “If she wants as if she doesn’t, she will be with me until she dies.” This is Chapter 2 (“Wedding”), with knives as metaphors of the eternity of the union.
Love as lack is a logic of complementarity and, in the codes of patriarchy, this means division of roles by gender. I find the arc of the groom/husband fascinating in regards to this. El mal querer offers a complex depiction of male psychology under a heteropatriarchal order.
I have always defended that feminism is not only good for women. Men can also find relief and freedom in a feminist society where they are not forced anymore to prove all the time their bravery and mastery of the situation, which can be too demanding and instil angst about not measuring up. I won’t deny that patriarchy is much harder for women than for men, but it is also undeniable that many men suffer because of it. Usually, men are forbidden to be vulnerable or to express certain feelings, which may end up obscuring those feelings to men themselves. At the same time, they are encouraged to face situations with “boldness” and aggressiveness instead of empathy and dialogue. Relevant data here are, for example, the high rates of suicide and risk conducts among them.
The groom/husband in this story feels small. The day of his wedding he can’t believe his luck for marrying such a beautiful woman. His claim about how the bride would die for him is just a façade, the formulation of his need of having his internal whole filled forever (logic of lack, “The bonfire was put out with her kisses,” and logic of nothing, all, nothing). He has bought the bride with a ring, but “with your eyes, cousin, I will illuminate my way”. Getting to marry this woman is in some way a prove of his worth, which in turn generates both a great emotional dependence and a great fear of failure.
In the third track, he’s become jealous even of “the water you drink when you moisten your lips.” He’s convinced that she will leave him any moment and concludes that “If I don’t hold you tight/I feel it’ll be my fault”. The chorus of the song revolves again around the wife’s eyes: “I think of your gaze, your stabbing gaze, a bullet in the chest.”
This love, this bad loving, hurts. It’s a bullet in the chest because it comes from frailty, from feeling undeserving. And he deals with it ignoring the source of his emotions, blaming others, concealing his sense of inferiority by asserting his masculinity, his superiority over HIS wife, through violence. In the logic of patriarchy, women as a “half” prove men’s superiority by being dominated.
Track 4 (“You can’t leave here”). “It hurts me more/Than it hurts you” or, in other words, “I do this because I love you”. The voice is joined by sounds of motors, accelerations, skids: symbols of risk, strength, aggressiveness, the length of certain body parts or, in other words, virility. “Don’t be mistaken with me/With the back of my hand/I make it crystal clear.”
Perhaps, without the demands of masculinity, the story would have been very different. This is no justification, of course, and neither a model of the psychology of all abusive husbands, but it’s something we really need to keep in mind in education.
The husband is somehow a healthy child of patriarchy, but patriarchy is totally fucked-up.