An Ethics Song Challenge: “That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be” (1971)


I heard Carly Simon’s hit (she co-wrote the lyrics) in the car today; I hadn’t listened to it or thought about it for decades. When I first listened to the song, I just took it as more whiny Sixties “our parents don’t know how to live and we’re still stuck with the world and values they created” lament. Now, after being married myself and actually fighting through life, I realize its a much smarter and perceptive song than I thought, and one that raises a lot of complex ethics issues. I’d be very interested in the commentariat’s thoughts about…

  • “What’s going on here?”
  • Is it fair for the singer to blame marriage as an institution because her parents are miserable?
  • What would be the responsible course for her parents?
  • Does the singer have an ethical obligation to do something about the state of her family other than sing about it?
  • Who cares whether all her friends are married and she isn’t? Why should that matter?
  • How does someone make the decision to get married responsibly and competently in the midst of so many factors that create bias?
  • Is she getting married for the right reasons? What are the “right reasons”?
  • How many rationalizations are at work?
  • The song is partly about about cultural influences at the end of a “cultural revolution.” Does the song reflect that period’s legitimate deconstruction of marriage as an institution, or accurately reflect how cultural norms favoring marriage and traditional families were still powerful?
  • …and anything else.

8 thoughts on “An Ethics Song Challenge: “That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be” (1971)

  1. One of my all time favorite female voices and one of my favorite songs from her.

    I’m not sure this is where you wanted to go with this but here goes anyway.

    I think it’s a tunnel vision view into the perspective of someone and the possible pitfalls of love and marriage. The author/singer is clearly wrestling with whether to give in to love and marriage or to give up on it due to the pitfalls that have been witnessed. In the end it sounds like the author/singer chooses to take the risk and the reasons why are unknown. It could have turned out like all fairy tales, “they lived happily after”, or not.

    There is always a risk with love and marriage but you really cannot gain the possibility of a real lifelong relationship and the challenges, rewards and growing together that come with it without the risk that come with the bond.

  2. As a longtime client of mine used to say, “Ho boy.”

    Her wiki page says she was sexually assaulted by a teenaged boy family friend when she was SEVEN! So, let’s posit she was severely damaged emotionally. Not a criticism, simply a fact.

    I’ve been reading books from the era of this recording. “The Feminine Mystique” “Fear of Flying.” I’ve previously read parts of Gloria Steinham’s biography. Jong, Friedan and Steinham are (were?) all unhappy women who had bad relationships with their fathers and husbands and boyfriends. They were all also Jewish (Simon had a Catholic mother but her father was the Simon of Simon &Shuster! Who the hell knew?) Complaining, particularly about their husbands, is the Jewish woman’s national past time. And sure, that’s a stereotype, but stereotypes do not arise from thin air.

    These women indiscriminately visited their unhappiness on an entire generation of young women (my generation). The second wave feminism was, as a friend just said yesterday, “palpable” in the early ’70s.

    This song just makes me want to say, “Oh just shut up, Carly. Fish or cut bait but stop complaining about everything. Grow up.” And given who her father was, I’d also throw in a “You’ll never have to work a day in your entire life!” The song is just watered-down Freudian claptrap. Oy!

  3. “You say we’ll soar like two birds through the clouds
    But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf
    I’ll never learn to be just me first
    By myself”

    Well, there’s the cultural problem right there. Those are the most important lyrics in the whole song for me. They tell us that people aren’t given enough of a cultural basis on which to form independent identities for themselves. If they don’t do that, they can’t learn to set boundaries which allow them to negotiate effectively with their partners, or identify deal-breakers before committing. It’s a bad idea to sign up with someone for the long haul without having some sense of what you want out of life.

    • It’s the problem with current “anti-racism.” You can’t spend your time and energy waiting for validation from other people who could care less about you. It’s not they don’t like you necessarily, it’s they have other concerns. Make your own way first.

  4. In the nineteenth century, the humorous magazine Punch gave the following advice to young persons contemplating marriage: Don’t.

  5. – What’s going on?

    This song illustrates what most of us know — marriage is a compromise, a much deeper one than “the way we’ve always heard it should be” reveals. A successful marriage is a hard-won surrender of each person’s independence and a bond forged not just through passion, pleasure, and idyllic romance, but domestic trench warfare, bitter feelings, gradual acceptance, and hard-fought turf battles.

    I think her song encapsulates much of that, but a bit too ruefully. It also reminds us of the difference between then and now in some striking ways. For example, this part of the third verse:

    But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf –
    I’ll never learn to be just me first
    By myself.

    So this is actually reversed today, where “Me first” has completely replaced “putting her on a pedestal.” This is not a lament from me, but an observation.

    But the song does a good job of illustrating the reality as opposed to they ideal of marriage — the grind it can become, the price it can exact even when successful. Like many worthwhile things in life, marriage demands a great deal of personal sacrifice, especially “Me first, by myself.” I guess that’s why it’s not for everybody.

    – I’m not sure she’s blaming marriage, exactly. I think it’s more of a lament about the cost it can, and often does incur, and her personal experience with that vis a vis her parents.

    – Her obligation to do something indeed exists, but I believe that to be beyond the scope of the song.

    – Women (the ones I know, at least) always care when their friends get married and they don’t. To me, this is a non-ethical consideration and more related to womanhood.

    – Making the decision to marry responsibly requires understanding how hard it is. Those that don’t often end up in failed marriages. This is an argument for marrying later in life.

    – Rationalizations? By by numbers, maybe 1, 19, 27, 37, 57, 58, 69. I’m not really sure how to subject a song, which often has multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings, to this type of analysis, so I’ll plead incompetence here.

    – Regarding cultural influences, I would say both. It highlights both the ideal of traditional marriage and laments it in the context of the zeitgeist.

    – If there’s anything else, I’ll leave that to others.

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