Literary Song Analysis #1 – Cake – Short Skirt, Long Jacket

The first of the series, Literary Song Analysis endeavors to deconstruct popular songs, revealing deep thematic ideas representing the conflict of the modern era through pedantic, superfluous, overly academic writing and ample doses of exaggeration. The first, Cake’s legendary Short Skirt, Long Jacket, reveals the double standard placed on women in a post-feminist world, detailing the pull of career as well the pull of domesticity.

While at first glance, Cake’s popular song “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” may appear to describe the singer’s ideal woman, “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” actually details the double standard imposed upon women by men in a post-feminist environment, pressuring women to not only adhere to the “empowered woman” stereotype but also to the traditional female figure of the era prior to the advent of modern feminism. The singer, in Cake’s general ironic style, lauds the modern-day woman, but in the end reveals a desire for the traditional, domesticated female. This conflict manifests itself in the titular fashion combination of a short skirt and long jacket, transforming it into a metaphor for the double standard modern-day American society places upon its female population.

In the opening lines, Cake describes what seems to be the modern woman. She has “a mind like a diamond” and demonstrates capability at work, such as eliminating red tape and picking up slack. The woman has obvious power in her position, as she tours the facilities rather than merely working there. This girl has “uninterrupted prosperity,” “good dividends,” and “smooth liquidation,” showing financial success as well. The singer goes as far as sexualizing her. For example, she puts up her hair and plays with her jewelry, both visual cues of a woman flirting with someone or attempting to attract attention to herself in a physical manner. He also idealizes her beyond simply a tactile sense – her fingernails, he asserts, “shine like justice,” comparing an area of beauty on the female body to a desirable, abstract concept.

Therefore, many people often assume that Cake’s song “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” merely describes what many would call a modern-day, empowered woman, and that the singer praises her for her independence and competence in work and money. She wakes up early, stays up late (denoting an active social life), and is physically attractive as well. If written by any other band, this would lead to an accurate assumption, but Cake’s past songs of irony and sarcasm denote that more may be at play in this song.

Many people miss the auditory cue that demonstrates a shift in the song’s mood and message. After the third verse and second repetition of the phrase “Short Skirt, Long Jacket,” Cake plays a momentary instrumental bridge (the auditory cue for change in the song). The next verse displays a stark difference between the first three verses describing a modern-day, empowered woman, and describes someone completely different. The singer fantasizes of meeting her at Citibank (where else to meet such a powerful, wealthy woman?) and immediately subjugates her into a subservient role. They meet “when she borrows my pen,” the singer says. Immediately, she is an inferior position. She requires a simple tool (tools remaining firmly in the masculine role of the American cultural psyche), but lacks it to complete her routine tasks. She must ask the singer, a male, for help. Thus, the fantasized relationship initiates with the man firmly in control, and the singer begins to sing about a completely different person.

The singer sings immediately after the meeting that she trades in her MG for a white Chrysler LeBaron. MG is a well known British sports car manufacturer, while the Chrysler LeBaron was famous in its inception as the lowest priced car in Chrysler’s automobile line. While it evolved into a lower-priced convertible for a brief time, by the 1990s, when “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” was written, the LeBaron was known as a medium priced sedan, not nearly as luxurious or fancy as the MG the subject previously drove. The singer drives this point further reminding us that this car, rather than to show off or as a status symbol for the woman’s prosperity, simply exists to get her to places, implying the car is now used mostly for running errands. Also, the car has the hallmark of American comfort – the cup holder armrest. This car the woman now drives more closely resembles a car found in use by modern American families and in modern American suburbia, whose juxtaposition with the aforementioned MG displays a drastic shift in either the woman’s goals, attitudes, or at the very least, her luxury consumption and driving habits.

In short, the singer has, in the short space of one verse directly following their meeting in Citibank, effectively domesticated the woman. She has changed her name from Kitty, a more exotic, adventurous name, to Karen, a very common, conservative name for females. She no longer drives about in the speedy MG, but drives a simple sedan for errands. This woman contrasts sharply with the idealized image of the modern, emancipated woman the singer initially sings of, resembling more the stereotypical 1950s American suburban housewife rather than the Wall Street financial power broker mentioned in the beginning of the song (and whom many people assume this song idealizes).

And what of the short skirt/long jacket combination the singer raves about repeatedly? This phrase is obviously important enough to repeat a total of three times, with the song ending with this phrase. The titular short skirt/long jacket represents the duality and tension between the acceptable desire for a modern-day woman, and the more socially unacceptable desire for the traditional, domesticated woman. In the post-feminist age, men who desire the latter are seen as oppressive, while the men who desire the former are lauded as progressive. Women, also, are condemned for desiring to be housewives and praised for ambition in the workforce. This constant tension between two stereotypical extremes plays out in the short skirt/long jacket metaphor. The short skirt represents the emancipation of woman (womens’ rights are, generally, directly associated with rising hemline) – the woman is emancipated sexually in her choice of dress, but also in her career decisions and financial success. However, the long jacket would cover the short skirt, blocking it out.

This dichotomy represents the modern-day society’s double standard towards women. Because of the general success of the modern feminist movement in the United States, women do experience unprecedented freedom and individual prosperity, but old habits and traditions linger. Yes, women may now wear short skirts and still consider themselves socially acceptable; however, the singer allows this modern-day woman to exist, but only if she continues to cover it up with a long jacket. She may be successful and independent, but once she meets the singer (i.e., a potential mate), she must immediately place herself in a subservient role and domesticate herself, effectively covering her once symbol of independence and emancipation – the short skirt – with the long jacket of traditional feminine roles. In essence, Cake’s Short Skirt, Long Jacket represents the murky post-feminist world, idealizing what many would consider the ideal, emancipated woman, but in the end revealing an undercurrent of nostalgia for the “good old days” – the stereotypical, domesticated woman.



Filed under wordsmithing

10 responses to “Literary Song Analysis #1 – Cake – Short Skirt, Long Jacket

  1. justjillsblog

    I have written a response/rebuttal. I hope you enjoy. 🙂

    Your assessment is only half right.

    First, you are wrong in assuming the first two verses are celebrating the freedom of the empowered woman in a post-feminist society. It is all tongue-in-cheek. “A mind like a diamond” clearly represents the diamond ring of marriage. In Norse mythology, the more decorated, bejeweled rings were given to those enslaved under the one who wore the simple, master’s ring, making the diamond ring symbolic not only of marriage, but of subservience. The image of a woman touring a facility is also tongue-in-cheek. It reduces her to the role of a tourist—one who can only observe as opposed to having the authority to command any change. And then there are phrases like “good dividends,” which is easily representative of having ample breasts and hips or a shapely butt, and “smooth liquidation,” which instantly brings to mind the call for smooth skin and perfect make up. You don’t need to wait for her to put up her hair or play with her jewelry for the singer to have sexualized her. He has been doing that from the very beginning.

    The line where the singer says she wakes up early and stays up late has also been misinterpreted. Instead of denoting an active social life, it is demanding everything from the woman. She must get up early in order to get everything done that is expected of her, but she must also stay up late if she wants to be considered fun and cool. It reeks of the unrealistic check-lists people have for their future spouses—must work out and have a good body, must be able to cook really well, must want lots of kids, etc.

    In the next verse, the woman is now obviously domesticated. The misinterpretation lies in the belief that she was ever emancipated from said domestication in the first place.

    Take the short skirt/long jacket combination as the ultimate proof of this. The very fact that a short skirt is representative of the emancipation of women from a male-dominant society is laughable. A short skirt? Really? How is that at all a separation from what many men expect from women? It’s sex, pure and simple. The long jacket is indeed representative of the traditional, domesticated, moral woman. But the short skirt isn’t representative of the free-spirited feminist. What the short skirt/long jacket combination is truly representative of is the duel standard the male-dominated society has set up for women—the demand to be sexy and moral at the same time.

  2. Ted

    In response to your response, in true literary fashion:

    You are correct in the singer sexualizing the subject from the very beginning in subversive ways. However, I would contend that the short skirt still represents the sexual emancipation of women. Power over sexuality has always been the hallmark of oppressive male patriarchal societies, from the inability to use birth control to genitial mutilation. In the history of women in America, the relaxing of social mores concerning clothing has always correlated with the rise of women’s rights. The flapper and the tramp in the 1920s, for example, were represented and symbolized by their clothing, often described by the shocked social conservatives of the time as sexually promiscuous.

    While the short skirt has been sexualized by the dominant male patriarchal society, this only proves that the oppressive ideals of conservative, anti-feminist forces remain strong and continue to subvert the progress of female freedom. Yes, today’s still male-oriented society has subverted what once was a symbol of feminine sexual freedom, but it does not take away the great victories in sexual emancipation for women in America that it continues to represent today. I still contend that the short skirt continues to represent female emancipation, especially in the socio-sexual sector.

    I eagerly await your reply.

  3. justjillsblog

    I do agree that the ever-evolving styles dominant in female fashion have correlated with the rise of women’s rights. Your history is correct. What I don’t agree with is the interpretation of the short skirt in this particular piece of media.

    You, yourself, have agreed that the singer sexualized the subject from the very beginning of the song. Why, then, would the over-arching, reverberating symbol of the song–namely, the short skirt and long jacket combination–symbolize anything other than the continued sexualization of women as a whole?

    If the pattern you originally set for the song was true–the first two verses celebrating the emancipation of women with the third verse bringing them back into domesticity–then the short skirt long jacket combination would only naturally resemble the juxtaposition of female emancipation and the male longing for domesticity.

    But we have both agreed this is not the case.

    The first two verses, while putting on the appearance of celebrating female emancipation, clearly sexualize the subject in multiple ways. It is therefore only logical to deduce that the image of the short skirt long jacket combination–the thesis of the song–would follow the same pattern; namely, the juxtaposition of the sexual and moral demands on women.

    What say you, good sir? 😉

  4. I always thought the song was about Agent Scully:

    Ever since I heard the song, I always thought the singer wanted a woman who was conservative on the outside, and trashy/slutty on the inside. I agree with Jill about the short skirt. Rising hemlines may symbolize the rise in women’s rights, but when the short skirt is being looked at, wanted by, or even discussed about through song by a man, it becomes sexual.

    • justjillsblog

      Hahaha, I watched that music video with Scully so many times my freshman year! I can’t listen to that song without thinking about her. And even when I’m watching X-Files, whenever I see her in a short skirt and long jacket I think of the song. Good stuff, that.

  5. Interesting analysis, but I think you over read the entire song. My wife, in some respects, could be the woman you’re talking about. (She loves the song, not that it matters) She works long hours, and understands that being attractive is a benefit in the workplace, and that this has nothing to do with some of what you imply. It also goes to men, short, overweight can be a deterrent, and unless you are a computer engineer in a hole, dress matters.

    You’re partly right, but it seems you are using the song to express your views. Fair enough.

    • Ted

      The post is definitely very tongue and cheek, so please do not take this as purely representative of my ideals. 😀

      Cake, however, is pretty infamous for the double meanings of their songs. While I do exaggerate the possible double meaning, I do think that Cake is trying to be somewhat ironic with the tonal shift in the end of the song. Also, totally cool that you’re a stay-at-home father (if your moniker belies the truth). I would love to be one myself (and my wife totally wouldn’t mind) but my conservative parents (and her conservative parents) would thusly slay me and stick my head on a pike as a warning for all future deviants. 😀

  6. Desiree Stevens

    They did an interview at one point about this song. They said it has nothing to due with any of the oppression of woman, or really anything this deep, close but it’s more of the end there. They want these two very different things, but they really can’t decide what half they like better, but the perfect woman would be both so he wouldn’t have to choose. Being able to have this woman who is the best of both worlds: in the transition state of being wild and calming down for a simple life, so he can have all the mystery and danger of Kitty, but the sweet picket fence life of Karen.

  7. ZaphodBeeblebrox

    I always took the long jacket to mean a lonnnng “police” jacket. In police speak having a “jacket” is that the police know who you are and you come up often enough to have your own file… With priors written in summary on the outside of the jacket. When a police offers sayd “yeah, I pulled her jacket and this is what I found…” it means he/she has looked up her file and seen what trouble she has been in.

    In other words a capable intelligent woman with an uncontrollable side. Of course, I am biased, because that’s the kind of girl that I like 😉

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