Friday, March 14, 2014

Gender Songs

I've always liked a good cover song, but it's hard to say what it is that makes a cover good. On the one hand, it should bring something new to the song, but sometimes if it strays too far from the original it doesn't work at all. It doesn't really matter if it's a well known song or a completely obscure one, and in many cases, the cover has lead me to discover the original. But one constant that always intrigues me about covers is gender. It's safe to say that at least 99% of the time, if an artist is covering a song that was written in the voice of the opposite gender, they will change lyrics to fit their own. Girls change to boys, men change to women, etc, and vice versa. But way more interesting is when the cover artist doesn't change a thing. When a woman sings a song entirely from a man's point of view or a man from a woman's, it opens the whole thing up in a way that's not easily explained. In some cases, it's not even about the singer's gender at all and more about the gender of the person being sung about or to. A known gay artist singing an originally heterosexual themed song isn't necessary mind blowing, though it still fits in with what I'm talking about. More exciting to me, musically and lyrically, is when the cover artist is known to be heterosexual, yet secure enough to sing the song as originally written. That's where the magic can happen. The clearest example I can think of is The White Stripes doing Dolly Parton's "Jolene." There's no self consciousness there when Jack White begs Jolene "please don't take my man." It doesn't come off as campy and instead makes the raw emotion of the song stand out even more to me.


One reason I think "Jolene" works so well is that it's a great song to begin with and Jack taps into the soul of the story within it. The pain of an insecure woman pleading with another woman, who is clearly more confident and attractive, not to destroy her home is undeniable. That a man is singing it really makes you pay attention to the fact that it would be unlikely, in our culture, for this exchange to happen between two men and makes the entire situation that much more powerful. My dad used to play the original Dolly Parton version when I was growing up, and I never thought twice about it, but now I hear the original, after hearing this version, and I can't help but think of the fact that both Jolene and the singer are living in this misogynist world where they are reduced to fighting over a man who is clearly using them both. And beyond that, the fact their society has them at odds against each other based on the value put on Jolene's looks. And that idea takes me to the fact that in my search for this type of cover, it's so much rarer to find a man singing from a woman's perspective than the other way around. It seems like it's less acceptable for a man to give up his identity to a song than it is for a woman (Maybe. I might be stretching here.). So it's interesting that the next song that comes to mind is also by Jack White.

In September of 2006, I saw the Raconteurs play during their first tour. It was the first time I'd see Jack live during a time that I rarely even listened to anyone else, so I was excited. But by far, the best part of the show, and to this day, one of the greatest moments I've ever had at any show, was when they went into a song and I immediately knew what it was, even though I'd never heard them play it. I recognized the guitar riff and had chills because ever since I first heard the song, having heard "Jolene," I thought Jack should cover it, and here he was, doing just that. And the song was "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" which I only much later learned was originally by Cher, but the version most people know and I absolutely love is by Nancy Sinatra, which I first heard in Kill Bill.


Ever since then, I've found dozens of covers of this song, including Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra, but they all change the gender. While the song is just as cool, either way, I just find that if sung from a female perspective it works much better (though Sinatra's version does make it feel like it's right out of a film Noir musical). There's something about that "I was 5 and he was 6" line coupled with that twang that just sets a scene in a way that "she was 6" just doesn't do. I can't even explain why.

Anyway, there are tons of covers by women fitting this mode, from Cyndi Lauper covering Prince's "When You Were Mine" to Amy Winehouse doing "Valerie" by The Zutons. There are songs I'd like to hear done by guys, unironically, like Heart's "Magic Man" or "Precious Things" by Tori Amos. It's the type of thing I would do if I were a singer. In the meantime, I've started a Spotify playlist with every cover I can find on there that fits. Here it is. Subscribe to it because I hope to add more as I find them and if you know of any, please send them my way.

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