“Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That”

dolly parton

In the mid-1990s I was in a grad school program for writing and two men at a department party in a drab classroom decided to tell me they couldn't take me seriously because of how I dress. I would never be a serious poet because I like to wear dresses and sometimes bright colors and would I like another drink? Would I like to go to their apartment for more? In a 1977 interview with Dolly Parton, Barbara Walters rudely asks, "You don't have to look like this, you're very beautiful, you don't have to wear the blond wigs, you don't have to wear the extreme clothes, right?" In a demure, almost melancholy voice, Dolly offers one of her canned Dollyisms—"I would never stoop so low to be fashionable, that's the easiest thing in the world to do." Walters keeps coming at her, though, with the even more aggressive: "Do you feel like you're a joke, that people make fun of you?" Dolly replies:

"Oh I know they make fun of me, but all these years the people have thought the joke was on me, but it's actually on them. I am sure of myself as a person. I am sure of my talent. I'm sure of my love for life and that sort of thing. I am very content, I like the kind of person that I am."

Dolly's 1987 hit "Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That" is a song that objectifies men the way men usually objectify women—"why'd you come in here lookin' like that / in your cowboy boots and your painted on jeans"—basically blaming the man for the fact of his body in his clothes and its ability to distract. "Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That" is exhilarating: fast-paced, raucous, and including the irresistible, transcendent joy of a late-in-the-song a capella key change. The rugged throat rattle on the "Why'd" that follows is bordering on heroic. Women country artists have been brandishing this particular weapon for decades, from Brenda Lee's 1957 hit "Dynamite" to Carrie Underwood's 2006 hit "Before He Cheats." The throat rattle gives no fucks. It's an exclamation point, a defiant rale buoyed by its own unstoppable vivacity. Sprung in spirit from the depths of the body, it remains risky for the real damage it might do born in the throat. The sound is tough, emphatic, and employed just briefly enough in "Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That" to keep us on our toes.

Most every woman has had a Barbara Walters come to slut-shame or render her invisible or ridiculous. Most every woman knows what her body is really worth and to whom. Every day that I dress myself is a calculation of confidence x safety + courage ÷ rape culture. Every day is an answer to Dolly's titular question. I have used my body almost my whole life to get me noticed or to keep me paid and now I'm gonna listen to this song again because there's that throat rattle, and it sounds like survival.