Lynn Melnick became a fan of Dolly Parton’s music after hearing “Islands in the Stream,” a duet with Kenny Rogers, while checking into rehab as a teen in the late 1980s. Parton was already decades into her successful country music career, with songs like this one also finding a home on pop charts. But she was a joke to the people in Melnick’s Los Angeles circles. “Islands in the Stream” was the first Parton song Melnick had heard start to finish, and it became her gateway into a life of fandom.
In I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive, poet Melnick analyzes the 22-track Dolly Parton playlist that she’s listened to for the past decade. As she examines Parton’s work, Melnick excavates her own past and shares what this music has meant to her over the years. Parton is a symbol of femininity and goodness, and Melnick has been inspired by Parton’s triumphs as she’s faced numerous traumas and struggles: The cocaine and whiskey Melnick used to mask the memory of being raped at 9 years old. The abusive boyfriend who kept popping up years after she left him. Deaths of family and friends. The retraumatizing effects of living as a survivor in rape culture.
While each chapter is personal, Melnick also brings outside analysis to her narrative, weaving together cultural criticism and academic research to place these songs in a broader context. And though Melnick describes herself as a die-hard Parton fan, she’s also willing to critique her hero. She examines some of the singer’s less admirable choices, such as naming a dinner show “The Dixie Stampede” or referring to the sex worker who inspired Parton’s look as “trash” and a “trollop.” In general, Parton has a knack for political neutrality, which can frustrate fans like Melnick. But Melnick also praises her idol’s charitable giving, her readiness to defend queer rights and the ways she has modeled what it looks like for a woman to make her own way in the world.
I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is more than an artful memoir; it is thought-provoking cultural analysis of a beloved icon whose relevance endures.