Creepy Exes and Colonialism: Hamilton’s “You’ll Be Back”

Hamilton album cover
Content note: domestic abuse, imperialist oppression, mild Hamilton spoilers

It’s such a catchy, peppy tune. A classic in the “sad spurned ex-lover” genre, in the sub-genre of “denial about the romance being over.” The character singing the song has no self-awareness about this, but the songwriter clearly does, and the song is written with a wink to the audience. How funny and clever — to frame King George III reacting to the American colonies’ independence as if he were a bitter ex-lover, certain that his ex will miss him terribly, and determined to get them back.

Then it gets to the line about “I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.” And everything comes into sharp focus — through a completely different lens.

If you haven’t been evangelized yet by frenetic fans: Hamilton is the enormously successful, critically-acclaimed, totally-fucking-brilliant Broadway musical, mostly in hip-hop, rap, and R&B, about the life and death of Alexander Hamilton. “You’ll Be Back” is sung by King George III in response to the colonies’ increasing shows of independence: it’s one of the few songs that’s sung by a white actor, and it’s in a different musical genre — the genre of British Invasion pop. (Lyrics; audio.)

Here’s the genius thing about “You’ll Be Back” (well, one of the genius things): It uses the pop-song trope of the creepy ex-lover as an analogy for colonialism. It uses colonialism as an analogy for creepy ex-lovers. And it uses both to critique the entire trope, to take down pop songs that show lovers or ex-lovers being creepy, controlling, patronizing, unwilling to accept breakups, stalkerish, even threatening or violent — and that present all of it as romantic.

The song frames George III as a jilted ex who won’t let go, who derides and patronizes his exes even as he moons over them, who’s convinced that the people who’ve left him don’t know their own best interests — and who’s willing to enforce this conviction with violence. In doing so, it spells out just how fucked-up it is to control people who don’t want to be controlled and haven’t consented to be controlled; to deny people’s ability to decide for themselves who and what they want in their life — and to force your relationships on them with violence. It’s fucked-up in international politics, and it’s fucked-up in romantic relationships. The line about sending an armed battalion is echoed at the end of the song, more blatantly and disturbingly, drawing this parallel in a way that’s impossible to ignore: “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”

And the upbeat, sing-along, slightly sad but optimistic melody hammers in another point: This song isn’t just about domestic abuse or colonialism. It’s about the pop-song trope that celebrates abuse as romantic. It’s about every other sad-but-chipper pop song about hopeful exes who won’t let go. You’re singing along and swinging along, singing “Da da da dat da” along with the chorus, feeling a bit sorry for poor old George and winking with the songwriter about how foolish he is — and then the song smacks you across the face with armed battalions and murdered families, reminding you of the violence, overt or implicit, that all too often lies behind this attitude.

It’s super genius. It’s pop-culture intersectionality at its finest. And it’s not even the best song in the show. Wait until I tell you about “Yorktown”

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Creepy Exes and Colonialism: Hamilton’s “You’ll Be Back”
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6 thoughts on “Creepy Exes and Colonialism: Hamilton’s “You’ll Be Back”

  1. 2

    The songs linked are gone from YouTube.

    SciamⒶnna @ #1: ? I just checked the links to YouTube, and the songs are still there. (They’re on the official Warner Music Group channel.) Maybe it’s a browser or interface problem?

  2. 4

    Excellent commentary, as always.

    For me, the song was especially sharp in its commentary because the fact that the actor playing George III is one of the few white actors reminds me of the gross white-conquest thing white men try to do with women of color.

  3. 6

    Not only do I look forward to the Yorktown post, but I’d love to see a GC analysis of *every* show in Hamilton. (They’re all kinda tied for my favorite…)

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