Gender & the “voice” of a Song – Part 1

I had a strange realization a few days ago. Ok, maybe it wasn’t a strange “ah ha!” moment, but it was one that made more sense now that I am now older, wiser, hipper, (ha!) and have plenty of knowledge (and experience) regarding gender and music.

In case you don’t know, I had my own all-female rock and roll band in high school. We were just like the Runaways, the Y2K version anyway, and tore it up as best we could mingling our teenage angst with the mold in my mom’s basement. Plus, I am sure the fumes from our artfully spray-painted cinder block walls helped to fuel our hormonal  creativity.

This band was my dream band, and  since it’s end, I have never been able to quite match the fun and friendship we had. Even though it didn’t end the best note, (musical pun) I have plenty of fond memories, and isn’t that really all you can ask for?

Anyways, back to my realization. Even though were were an all-female band, we mostly covered songs by male artists/bands. We belted out the best of Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Tom Petty, and Bryan Adams. However we did rock out to a few tunes such as “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways, “Manic Monday” by the Bangles, and “Papa Don’t Preach” (Kelly Osbourne style) by Madonna.

My “ohh” moment came a few days ago. I was listening to  some of our old tracks, and I realized that when we covered certain man-band songs, we changed the gendered pronouns.  Now, that doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface right? Since we were an all-girl band, it made sense to change the pronouns that all-male bands used.

But now I realize, it was more than that.

We weren’t just switching them because we were a “chic band,” but we were changing them to maintain a heterosexual song script.  The “voice” of the song in this case was the gendered narrative, not necessarily the physical voice of the singer(s). We didn’t do this for every song of course, only the ones about relationships and/or sexual scenarios.  If we didn’t change the “shes” and “hers” in the song, (sometimes “baby” and “darlin'” too) the song’s meaning changed. What is the result of this switch?  The underlying heteronormativity of the song remained intact. What’s that you say? It’s a term that means that the “default” or “assumed” sexual orientation is heterosexual, and it is made to appear normal, natural, and desired. Leaving the pronouns the way they were would have signaled a different sexual story (to some of these highly sexual songs) and that disrupts the status quo, if you will.

I didn’t realize it then, but that’s what we were doing…maintaining a heterosexual script. We could have easily just left the pronouns the way they were, but I think  we were a little afraid that we would then be lesbian baited (put into situations where your sexual orientation is questioned, therefore you are “baited” to reveal it) every-time we gigged. And it was hard enough being a teenage all-female rock band as it was. I am sure plenty of people assumed many things about our sex lives. (Or they really wanted to.)

So, why is this pronoun thing something I am blogging about? Well for one thing, LBGTQIA musicians (Melissa Etheridge for example) have often been told to “make neutral” their song lyrics and use the generic “you” to describe another person on their songs. Therefore, their music’s real meaning was “kept in the closet.” But more importantly their entire identity and who they were was forced to remain silent. Don’t sing, don’t tell?

But, what happens when a female singer covers a heterosexually male voiced song and doesn’t  change the pronouns?  When Joan Jett covered songs like “Crimson & Clover” she kept the original pronouns. By doing this (I do not know if it was intentional, artistic, or what) she challenged the default gender & sexual meaning of that song. When Joan sings it as is, you notice it, and hopefully stop and think why you were waiting for her to say “him” and “he” when she says “I don’t hardly know her, but I think I can love her.”

Even if songs do use the generic, un-gendered “you,”  we often default to a heterosexual, hence that’s the  “normative” part of “heteronormative.” This obviously can be different if we previously know the singer’s orientation or gender identity, but honestly, no one should have to front that information, or have it assumed about them either. I know sometimes we cannot help it, but at least we should be aware of much emphasis we put on knowing it and maintaining it.

With this in mind, we can use our gender “voices” or more precisely, the gendered narrative in songs to not only construct specific meanings, but ambiguous meanings, as well as, meanings that challenge the norm. After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a song has to be worth at least that many.

In sum, I guess what I realized is yet another layer of gendered meaning to musical life.  It doesn’t surprise me about the heteronormative scripts to which my band and I defaulted to. Was it a bad thing to do? Not really. It keep the sexual script of the song consistent with the original band/artist who played the tune. And that in some ways is respecting their artistry and realizing that it is just as valid a story line as any other. Yet, it was that feeling of unease that went along with not changing the pronouns that sparked these thoughts. The idea that some artists may not feel like they can express those story-lines, or that their stories never get validated/exposure they deserve is where the problem lies.

I’ll have more thoughts on gender and the “voice” of a song coming up in Part 2. What do all female tribute bands do? How about some gender-bending karaoke? What do you do as a lyricist who wants to tap into the universal human experience? What if you want to get specific about an experience? Stay Tuned!

Photo via eschipul.

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Posted on November 11, 2010, in Pick Guards - Music Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hmmm..I have rocked some karaoke, and I am quite confident that IF I did a song typically song by a male for a female, I would have certainly changed the lyric to be geared toward my sexuality (hetero). Not sure if I was so much worried about the lesbian aspect (because guys think that’s hot *eyeroll*) but moreso because I usually had someone in mind when I chose the song….

  2. There are other instances in which female singers cover originally male-vocalized het love songs and do not change the pronouns (“Romeo and Juliet” by Indigo Girls, “There She Goes” by Sixpence None the Richer).

    Very rarely (if ever) will you see a non-gay-identified male singer cover an originally female-vocalized het love song and keep the addressee’s gender male.

    • Oo, very good point! I didn’t think of that. It makes sense though because men do not have as much flexibility taking on more “feminine” songs/voiced songs over women doing the opposite. I guess it could have to do with not coming off as “manly” in the process.

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