April 30, 2005

Songs transformed with the sex of the singer.

What songs well-known as girl songs would take on intriguing meaning sung by a guy? Tori Amos comes up with a list of 20 songs, but I find her list uninspiring. Do you have any better ideas?

There's also the reverse: what boy songs could be transformed if sung by a female? The obvious actual example of this is Aretha Franklin singing Otis Redding's "Respect."
In Redding's reading, a brawny march powered by Booker T. and the MG's and the Memphis Horns, he called for equal favor with volcanic force. Franklin wasn't asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority. In short, if you want some, you will earn it.

"For Otis, respect had the traditional connotation, the more abstract meaning of esteem," Franklin's producer, Jerry Wexler, said in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. "The fervor in Aretha's voice demanded that respect; and more respect also involved sexual attention of the highest order."
The trouble with a man singing that song is that it's a bit ugly: I make the money, so you owe me. It's the conventional arrangement. The lyrics are a bit awkward in the female re-sing. Why was Aretha giving this guy "all my money"? But we ignored that. It was the remnant of the Otis version. She sang through that and pulled out the better, female meaning through sheer force.

UPDATE: The classic example of a man singing a woman's song is Frank Sinatra singing Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me." He's forced to sacrifice the most beautiful couplet -- "Although he may not be the man some/girls think of as handsome" -- but singing words that are an entirely conventional woman's dream, Sinatra lets us see a shocking, haunting vulnerability.


Eric said...

I've always wondered if any female artist could possibly sing Bill Withers's "Use Me" and not sound like an abused woman in denial.

Eric Berlin

Uncle Jimbo said...

I have sung "Unbreak my heart" by Toni Braxton to good reviews, which requires some high notes but most is in a low enough range for a tenor.


Uncle J

Military Matters

Ann Althouse said...

Eric: interesting. It sounds like Withers began with the idea that it would be cool for a man to sing something that seems more like something a woman would sing.

Marty Lederman said...

Sally Timms (of the Mekons) recently released a "concept" album of sorts -- "In the World of Him" -- devoted entirely to an exploration of this very question. See


I highly recommend it, but it's not for everyone -- not even for all those who (like me) adore Sally's last (country-tinged) record, "Cowboy Sally’s Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos."

Ann Althouse said...

Marty: Tori Amos did it too, with "Strange Little Girls," which includes a cover of an Eminem song, "[t]he first-person story of a man dumping his lover's dead body takes on an ugly sickness and brutality with Amos's almost-whispered narration."

Head of Royal Intelligence said...

"Fast Car," by Tracy Chapman, I've always thought would be a better song if sung by a guy. (In fact, with Chapman's low voice, the first few times I heard the song I thought it was sung by a man.) Sung from a woman's perspective, the song makes the singer sound needy and dependent and oppressed by the underachieving men in her life, and I want to knock some sense into her and tell her to stop supporting her alcoholic father and slacker boyfriend and go buy her own fast car to drive away in. But sung from a man's perspective, giving up one's own dreams to care for others seems more touchingly noble and does less to rub my feminist sensibilities the wrong way, because it's not playing into modern gender stereotypes in the same way.

Wade Garrett said...

I like almost all of the songs on "Strange Little Girls" very much. My only complaint with it was that the entire album consisted of those covers, and after the first half-dozen songs or so, the pleasant surprise of hearing those songs covered by a woman wore off a little bit.

I really love the idea of a male singer covering "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." It might be a particularly apt choice for an Emo group to record.

Sometimes, these covers can go disasterously wrong. The Counting Crows' cover of "Big Yellow Taxi" is one of the dumbest records I've ever heard. In fairness, I don't know what male group could have done a very good job of covering that song, but even so, the Counting Crows' version struck me as astoundingly bad. Not only did those words sound strange coming out of a man's mouth in the first place, they changed the song's best couplet, and for less sensical reasons than Sinatra did with "Someone to Watch Over Me." "And a big yellow taxi took away my old man" suddenly became "And a big yellow taxi took my girl away." I wanted to slap my forehead in disgust every time I heard that song!

XWL said...

Regarding Eric's comments of the Bill Withers' song 'Use Me', Me'Shell NdegeOcello did a scorching cover of his song 'Who is He (and What is He to You)?' on her Peace Beyond Passion album.

She didn't change any of the lyrics, and as she is bisexual, didn't really need to.

The interesting thing is that while Withers' version has a touch of whine to it, hers comes across with a bit more malice and menace.

Eric said...

Oh! I think I've heard that version of "Who is He..." and never knew who it was I was listening to. Now I gotta go find that and listen to it again. I don't know if it's fair to say Withers was whining, for God's sake, but I do agree this other singer brought an extra bit of darkness to the lyrics.

Eric Berlin

Stephen said...

With regards to #8 on Tori Amos's list: I Will Survive - Gloria Gaynor, Cake did a terrific cover of the song. I'm not sure that the gender mattered much, though.

More important was Cake putting their unique rhythm on it. It transforms the song from being focused on the strong emotions, to making you listen closely to the lyrics. Cake's version isn't as good, but it is interesting.

Brian J. said...

"The Girl from Ipanema".

When sung by a man, it's obvious the narrator is yearning for the girl from Ipanema.

However, I've heard a more haunting version by a woman, where it's altered slightly and indicate that the narrator yearns for the man who yearns for the girl from Ipanema. It's somehow sadder that way.

Bee said...

Maxwell did a version of Kate Bush's This Woman's Work. Both male and female versions are equally stunning.

Kate Marie said...

Another great example of a classic girl-song sung by a guy is Lyle Lovett's version of "Stand by Your Man." He sings the exact same words as Tammy Wynette, but the fact that Lovett is singing it opens up all the ironic possibilities of the lyrics.

HaloJonesFan said...

How about Alice Cooper's "Feed My Frankenstein?"

Simon Kenton said...

Re Terrence's remark about "Will you still love me tomorrow," Pat Boone actually did cover it, on the Armed Forces Quarter Hour of the Air. It was (obviously) unforgettable. He put in all the pangs of lost (male) chastity and the tragedy of teen premarital intercourse. Eat your hearts out, Carole King and Shirelles.

Judith said...

I listen to a lot of traditional music, and at least in the Anglo/European tradition (and I suspect all folk cultures) men and women often sing songs where the viewpoint of the song is clearly of the other gender. It is understood that the singer is a vehicle for the story in the song, there isn't the same cult of personality as with pop song, so you don't get the same confusion.

lindsey said...

The indie singer Cat Power does an amazingly haunting as well as acoustic cover of the Rolling Stone's "Satisfaction". For the first time ever, I felt like the song had some depth other than a guy wanting to get his rocks off.

Simon Kenton said...

"Bobbie McGee" done by Joplin was (like most of her stuff) pure female sexuality - what a torch singer she was. Done by Kristofferson, it was a rasping and somewhat rednecked lament; god damn them women, you sluice one of 'em out a your heart and she jist don't stay gone.

This was one of the songs my children loved best as a lullaby.

Amandita said...

One of Tori's suggestions, "God Bless the Child" has also already been recorded by a male. David Clayton Thomas of Blood Sweat and Tears gives a harrowing version, and I love it in a completely different way from the original.

A song I thought would be cool to hear a man do is Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides" Anyone know of a male recording?

docweasel said...

In the early 90's when we were still playing heavy metal I used to sing Wendy O. Williams/Plasmatics song Come on Baby Put Your Love In Me which I figured attained kind of a spiritual meaning when sung by a guy (to a girl I hope).

Dwight said...

Someone may have done this, but I picture a woman covering something off of Springsteen's "Nebraska" would be like watching the movie "Monster."

One of my favorite covers is Annie Lennox's "Train in Vain," but it's more a stylistic thing. She turns a Clash pop song into an Al Green-esque soul ballad.

Elvis' cover of "Hound Dog" didn't transform the song so much as made it popular, but it did have a different edge and underlying meaning (at least to me) coming from him versus Big Momma Thorton.

I would love to hear a woman do a strong cover of "Strong Persuader."

IndyJones1967 said...

My boyfriend, a trained singer, has been going through a very difficult patch in his search for meaningful employment all while struggling with OCD, depression, and Type One diabetes. He has leaned on me as his rock these last few months, and last night, after a particulary blissful and stress-free Beltane weekend, we snuggled up in bed and he serenaded me with "Someone to Watch Over Me."

And the only change he made was:
"And though I may not be the man
Some girls think of as handsome
To my heart she carries the key..."

Of course, this is also the guy who's been known to sing me arias in parking lots! And yes, I did get all weepy.

Nic, Bupkis, and Nichevo

JackOfClubs said...

Every Little Thing She Does by the Police. When Sting sings the lyrics "I resolve to call her up a thousand times a day/And ask her if she’ll marry me in some old fashioned way" it makes perfect sense. But when Shawn Colvin sings the adapted lyrics it becomes problematic. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a woman asking a man to marry her. But it ceases to be old-fashioned in such a case.

docweasel said...

Shawn rules. In fact, most of the songs on that same album (Cover Girl) are "men's" songs: Dylan's _You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go_ takes a bit of a different meaning when Shawn sings it, also David Byrne's _Naive Melody_, as well as some of the old C&W standards she plays on that album. I do an acoustic duet thing part-time while the band isn't playing and we do 3 of her versions of covers from that album, _Every Little Thing_ (you mentioned), _You're Gonna Make Me_ and _Heart of Saturday Night_.

This is kind of interesting, speaking of Shawn, in the song she wrote (with J. Leventhal), _Climb On (A Back That's Strong) from the movie "As Good As It Gets" and her LP "Fat City") she sings the lryics:
If you could save me
A place in heaven
With a clean well-lighted room
I'll muscle up to Armageddon
And I'll wave to you darlin'
Be home soon
And if you could show me
The story of love
I would write it
Again and again
And then you could be
The woman you need
If you just let me be
The man that I am

As far as I know Shawn is straight, so is she speaking metaphorically here? Or just being weird?

Also, her LP "Whole New You" is one of my all-time fav albums. I've probably listened to it 1000x and it just keeps getting better.

John said...

I agree with Judith. Seems a failure of transcendence and imagination on pop's part. So much for pop's alleged 'transgression.'

gt said...

(late to the party, but)
My ex pointed out that "house of the rising sun" loses its meaning when sung by Elvis - it's a song about being a whore. Having lost its meaning, it can then be played on radio. - arbitrary aardvark

Unknown said...

As for #6, 'Girls Just Want to have fun', that was originally sung by a guy named Robert Hazard... XD