Underwood and Punishment

Listening to a popular voice discuss theories of punishment lately, I noticed an interesting interplay between retributive versus deterrent theories. I’m talking, of course, about the country/pop singer Carrie Underwood.

Underwood’s latest all-over-the-radio crossover hit, Before He Cheats, discusses her own somewhat violent reactions to an unnamed Low Down Cheatin’ No Good Scoundrel. Of particular interest is how she connects her reaction to a particular theory of punishment. She sings:

I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped up 4 wheel drive,

Carved my name into his leather seats,

I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights,

Slashed a hole in all 4 tires —

Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.

As any criminal law theorists can attest, there are many different theories of punishment. Punishment may be intended to be retributive — that is, a deserved punishment, proportionate to the offense, based on past actions. Retributive justice is backward-looking — that is, it focuses on past acts, not on likely future acts — and it is often couched in terms of merit or dessert. Or, punishment may be consequentialist — intended to bring about good future consequences. Deterrence — preventing future bad acts — is one type of consequentialist rationale. Consequentialist approaches are forward-looking rather than backward-looking — intended to influence future acts, not punish past acts. To oversimplify, the difference is between “I punish you because it would be wrong for your bad acts to go unpunished” (retributive) versus “I punish you to influence your future decisions” (deterrent version of consequentialist). (And of course, many times, arguments for punishment will combine aspects of retributive justice, deterrence, and other ideas.)

Underwood explicitly states that her actions were motivated by a deterrrent theory of punishment. She has vandalized his car, and the reason that she did so is to deter future bad behavior: “Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.” This is a clearly deterrent approach. The stated reason why she has treated the car so rudely is to deter future bad behavior. However, Underwood’s stated deterrence rationale is unconvincing.

As she notes in her song, she has already ended her relationship with the No Good Scoundrel in question. Thus, it is questionable what sort of deterrent message he is supposed to receive from her actions. It can’t be “don’t cheat on Carrie, or else she will destroy my car” (which would be a message of deterrence) — because he is no longer linked to Carrie.

Underwood seems to suggest that a broader deterrent message has been sent — “don’t cheat on a woman in general, or she might destroy your car.” The problem with this approach is that deterrence must be credible in order to be effective. Underwood’s actions were relatively unusual in nature, and thus unlikely to provide much in the way of future deterrence. There is also the question of why Underwood would risk criminal prosecution herself to engage in an act intended solely to reform a No Good Scoundrel who she is no longer dating.

The more likely motivation, really, is retributive — Underwood is simply angry with the No Good Scoundrel in question, and her mistreatment of his pretty-little-souped-up-four-wheel-drive is intended to express that anger. Cast as retribution, her actions are understandable. Her mockery of the No Good Scoundrel also supports this idea.

This leaves us to explain Underwood’s desire to couch her actions as deterrent. Instead of simply saying, “I trashed your car because you treated me badly and I disliked that treatment,” — a perfectly respectable chain of logic — she offers the more convoluted and less convincing, “I trashed your car because I hope to deter future bad behavior.” Apparently, deterrent actions are more respectable than retributive actions, and so Underwood chooses to frame her acts as deterrent, despite the implausibility of the label. What’s really odd is that all of this is taking place in the context of a country song. If you can’t be retributive in a country song, where can you be retributive?

I really hope that this post deters future misapplications of theories of punishment in country songs.

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13 Responses

  1. Anon says:

    I was with you right up until “Underwood’s actions were relatively unusual in nature, and thus unlikely to provide much in the way of future deterrence.” A number of possible responses.

    First, perhaps her actions are not relatively unusual where she lives.

    Second, perhaps her actions are unusual but not unheard of. Say most women would never engage in such behavior, but a small number of women (Underwood plus n) would (let’s call these women destroyers). And say a man doesn’t know whether he’s dating a destroyer until he treats her badly. A man will avoid the bad behavior if the expected cost of the behavior (probability his girlfriend is a destroyer times cost, both financial and emotional, of damage to his car) outweighs the benefit (whatever that is). Also consider that by publicizing her behavior, Underwood may cause men to believe that the percentage of destroyers is higher than it actually is (salience).

    Finally, perhaps the song is popular precisely because her behavior is vanishingly uncommon, and the song provides women listeners with a fantasy world in which a woman would in fact risk prison to help stop a man from treating other women badly, and perhaps that is a very enjoyable fantasy world indeed.

  2. Anon Prof says:

    That song gets into your head and won’t go away. It’s almost as bad as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

    Do men actually like this song?

  3. Alice Ristroph says:

    Insightful analysis, Kaimi. Once or twice I’ve advised students that they can learn a lot about criminal law by listening to country music. One of the lessons is that beyond the ivory tower, deterrence and retribution aren’t mutually exclusive. Most people want punishment to achieve both goals. So give the cheating jerk his just deserts, and also hope that you’ll deter future cheating. When justifying your own violence, why limit yourself to just one theory?

  4. A Non Amos says:

    Ms. Underwood is far from the first in the musical/punishment theory oeuvre. A relatively recent example: Blu Cantrell covered much the same ground around six years ago with her single “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!)”. Ms. Cantrell didn’t hide her espousal of a retributive message behind any dubious claim to deterrence; however, she did add a significant restitutionary justification for doling out punishment when her man got “buckwild.”

  5. A Non Amos says:

    Sorry, the link tag didn’t work on my comment. The link for the “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!)” lyrics is http://www.lyricsdomain.com/2/blu_cantrell/hit_em_up_style.html. And note that Ms. Cantrell broaches the subject from the R&B, rather than country, genre.

  6. R or D? says:

    I think you may have overlooked one of the branches of the deterrence tree, Kaimi. Underwood was aiming at general deterence of crimes against a specific victim. Her actions communicate to anyone (general audience) who might cheat on Carrie Underwood (specific victim) that pain will follow. Isn’t this a plausible deterrent message?

    Admittedly, its a rare flavor of deterrence. Its usually the state that engages in general deterrence, but the state rarely has any interest in general deterrence on behalf of single individuals. Single individuals, of course, would love to deter any and all future offenses against them, but most single individuals don’t have the ability to disseminate their self-serving deterrent message effectively to the general public. Luckily for Carrie, she can get her self-serving deterrent message out in a way that the rest of us can’t.

    Still, its a self-absorbed sort of deterrence (“I have a message for everyone about me, Carrie Underwood!”). Maybe its the self-absorbtion that makes it seem like there’s got to be some retribution in there?

  7. racer X says:

    Of course she is speaking to general deterrence. Note the lyric later in the song:

    “I might’ve saved a little trouble for the next girl,

    ‘Cause the next time that he cheats…

    Oh, you know it won’t be on me!”

    This is the problem with you academics … you overfocus on part of a text without comprehending the whole!

  8. racer X says:

    Of *course* she is speaking to general deterrence. Note the lyric later in the song:

    I might’ve saved a little trouble for the next girl,/

    ‘Cause the next time that he cheats/

    Oh, you know it won’t be on me!”

    This is the problem with you academics … you overfocus on part of a text without thoroughly examining the whole!

  9. Fraud Guy says:

    Yes, I do like this song, mainly for the lyrics work together.

    However, I think everyone here has missed a point. Please note how the lines of lyrics start (my emphases):

    “Right now, he’s probably slow dancin’ with a bleached-blonde tramp and she’s sayin’ that she’s thirsty

    Right now, she’s probably sayin’ ‘I’m drunk!’ and he’s thinkin’ that he’s gonna get lucky

    Right now, he’s probably dabbin’ on three dollars worth of that bathroom Polo….”

    So basically, her rampage is not due to her witnessing the actions that are driving the behavior, but from her imagining what is happening inside that bar she saw her boyfriend walk into with the other woman.

    Now if this was a bad comedy, she would later find out that the girl was his sister or cousin, who just came in from out of town….

  10. Laura says:


    That is some fine work you’ve been doing in punishment theory! May I also direct you to the early blues work of Bessie Smith for some highly original retributist material, including the famous “Mistreating Daddy” :

    Mistreating daddy, mama’s drawed the danger line

    Yes, you’ll cross it, I’ll get you

    If you see me setting on another daddy’s knee

    Don’t bother me, I’m as mean as can be

    I’m like the butcher right down the street

    I can cut you all apieces like I would a piece of meat

    Note the themes of both moral blameworthiness and lex talonis that run throughout so much of her work…

  11. AYY says:

    “I really hope that this post deters future misapplications of theories of punishment in country songs.” LOL

    I just want to add two things to this discussion. First, how does “These Boot Are Made for Walking” fit into your theory? Second, is there any way to get Tammy Wynette to knock some sense into Carrie Underwood?

    (The proprietor of one of our local coffee/donut shops plays old tracks from the 60’s and 70’s. One of the songs you can often hear there is Stand By Your Man. Somehow I seem to manage to get something in my eye whenever I hear it.)

  12. Judy says:

    You wouldn’t be the first person to analyze this song from a legal standpoint…


  13. Kaimi says:

    I’ve been happy with the comments this post ended up drawing. I’ve learned about a lot of music that deals with punishment theory. Now if only I wrote in criminal law. (I was thinking about your recent article as I wrote this post, Laura!)

    I think now I’m going to forward this thread to Anders Kaye. Either that, or I can try to come up with some way to use it in Business Associations. “Okay, now suppose your shareholder got really mad at the Board member, and took a baseball bat to his car . . .”