She’s Always a Woman

Among the classic Billy Joel songs is the sort-of love song, She’s Always a Woman. It’s a really fascinating song.

Wikipedia gives this explanation of the song’s lyrics:

It is a love song that Joel wrote for his then wife, Elizabeth Weber. Elizabeth had taken over management of Joel’s career, and was able to put his financial affairs in order after Joel had signed some bad deals and contracts. She was a tough and savvy negotiator who could “wound with her eyes” or “steal like a thief”, but would “never give in”. Because of her tough-as-nails negotiating style, many business adversaries thought she was “unfeminine,” but to Joel, she was always a woman.

This may be true, but is uninteresting. What Billy Joel’s then-wife was like is of no concern to anyone but them and the people with whom she negotiated. As such, it’s not really helpful. So what, if anything, can the rest of us make of this song?

The first few lines give a good idea of the tone:

She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes
And she can ruin your faith with her casual lies
And she only reveals what she wants you to see
She hides like a child but she’s always a woman to me

The first two descriptions suggest captivating beauty, which make a great deal of sense for what will follow. After that comes a collection of faults, following by the conclusion, “but she’s always a woman to me”. It’s by no means the clearest of conclusions, since, after all, how could she be anything else?

One possible explanation is in the final line preceding the conclusion. She hides like a child, but is always a woman to him. That is, to her she embodies the ideal of the adult, even when she behaves like a child. Taken this way, the refrain makes sense since all vices are a privation of virtue; a woman, as such, is honest. To ruin one’s faith with her casual lies is the act not of a woman, but of a sinful woman; a woman damaged by sin and only part woman.

Interpreted this way, it fits in with the rest of the song. Consider the next few lines:

She can lead you to love, she can take you or leave you
She can ask for the truth but she’ll never believe you
And she’ll take what you give her as long as it’s free
Yeah she steals like a thief but she’s always a woman to me

All of these things are privations, yet she remains a whole woman to him. The next few lines are more of the same:

Oh, she takes care of herself, she can wait if she wants
She’s ahead of her time
Oh, and she never gives out and she never gives in
She just changes her mind
And she’ll promise you more than the garden of Eden
Then she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding

And then we finally get more explanation:

But she brings out the best and the worst you can be
Blame it all on yourself ’cause she’s always a woman to me

These lines are extremely interesting both because they give an explanation of why he insists on treating her like a woman when she is such a damaged woman, and also because it is advice to someone else who is dealing with her. I’m going to get back to that in a moment but I want to look at the final verse first:

She is frequently kind and she’s suddenly cruel
But she can do as she pleases, she’s nobody’s fool
And she can’t be convicted, she’s earned her degree
And the most she will do is throw shadows at you
But she’s always a woman to me

The first line here is interesting because like the first line of the first verse, it’s not wholly negative. It begins with a virtue. The conclusion which immediately follows—but she can do as she pleases, she’s nobody’s fool—can be taken two ways. It can either be a general sort of permission because she is not a fool, or it can be taken to mean that she has no loyalty and explains it as not belonging to anyone (a common way that disloyal people try to portray loyalty as a vice). Either interpretation works with the rest of the song.

The line about how she can’t be convicted because she’s earned her degree is a very curious cause-and-effect. Presumably this refers not to a criminal conviction but is saying (metaphorically) that one cannot win an argument with her. She is too experienced at dueling with words (which I take to be the metaphorical significance of “she’s earned her degree”).

The final fault attributed to the woman—and the most she will do is throw shadows at you—brings us back to the explanation that I want to come back to. The crux of why she’s always a woman is that she “brings out the best and the worst you can be”. That is, in being devoted to her he finds motivation, both to good and to evil. She gives him a reason to live. It is, however, an insufficient reason. We know that because she’s not God, but he explains it in more concrete terms. The most she does is throw shadows at him. Shadows are curious things because they have form without substance. A shadow is merely the privation of light; it looks like something but isn’t real. You cannot touch it or taste it or hear it; you cannot even, in the strictest sense, see it. All you can see is where the shadow isn’t, from which you infer the shadow. Shadows are, in the strictest sense, illusions. All she ever gives is appearance without substance.

There are, then, two possible reactions. One is realism. To admit her faults, and do whatever seems appropriate with that information. (If she really is as bad as she sounds from this song, that would be leaving her if she were not one’s wife and trying to help her as best one can if she was.)

The other is what the singer recommends to the man who has replaced him, to whom he is singing this song: pretend that she’s what you want her to be, even though she obviously isn’t.

There is another interpretation of this song. It’s more pleasant but harder to square with the lyrics. In this interpretation, “she’s always a woman to me” connotes forgiveness. This basically requires ignoring almost all of the other lyrics, as they describe ongoing faults which are not repented of, but where there is a will, there is a way.