When we are listening to the words of a song being sung by a musician, does the gender of the musician matter? I think it really comes down to the subject matter of the music itself. There are songs that are completely gender neutral and there are many songs which imply some sort of gender from the very subject of the song itself.


The first time I heard The Girl from Ipanema, it was sung by a woman — Astrud Gilberto. I thought it was a lovely song about a woman that described her in poetic terms. A few years later I heard the same song sung by Frank Sinatra and suddenly I felt as though I was listening to an entirely different song. The song was no longer just a simple description of a person but the expression of desire for said person. Even though the words were exactly the same, the tone seemed to come across to me as that of a person who felt some kind of want for the subject matter of the song — said girl from Ipanema.

I felt the same way when I heard a different version of the same song performed by Ella Fitzgerald, with the song lyrics being altered to being about a boy from Ipanema instead of a girl. A slight modification in words makes for a world of difference in intent. I have yet to hear a recording of the song where the gender of the singer matched the gender of the person from Ipanema and it sounded nearly as romantic as those recordings where the genders were opposite.

The next song I would like you to hear is one by The Racounteurs called Many Shades of Black. At first when I was listening to the song I thought it was clearly a song describing a man who is displeased with his relationship with his girlfriend — and is calling an end to said relationship. This was before I heard the recording of brilliant female singer Adele singing the same song and I realized that it wasn’t necessarily about a man singing to a woman or vice versa — we as the audience had the choice to make in determining the subjects were in the song.

Everybody sees
and everyone agrees
that you and I are wrong
and it’s been that way too long

Not a man singing about a woman or a woman singing about a man — just one person singing to another person about a relationship that is clearly broken. It makes for a more interactive listening experience when you are able to create your own meaning within the context of the song.

Some other examples of gender in lyrics include “let me be your man” in the Beatles song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and even the classic lyrics to songs sung by the students of the West Point Military Academy which were revised to become gender neutral — and therefore honor the more than three thousand female graduates of the school. What are some of your favorite songs that are gender-influenced?

4 Comments

  1. I feel pretty strongly that songs should be clear and lyrics remain untouched. A lyric that can be “interpreted” as gender neutral when it comes to a topic of love, obsession or passion is not a lyric that had definition or a point.
    I am also against changing a lyric to suit the passing moment of the gender of the singer. Why ruin a song? Sing the song as is or don’t sing it at all.
    Lady Gaga’s “Speechless” is very specific. A man singing it would ruin the song and changing the lyric so a man could sing it would ruin it entirely forever and become a joke. However, when Elton John sang that song with her on the Grammy awards, it was right on point and delicious because, as a Gay man, it fit him just as it fit her.
    I wonder if this article topic is more about public sexual identity than lyric gender assignment?
    The great thing about The Beatles is they were always singing about loving a woman. That was what made them and that was how they found such astounding success.
    As for neutering the West Point anthem — the much better course would have been to write a whole new song to honor the blending of the genders and the new mission of the school. Their solution desecrated the original and made the “more better” version mean absolutely nothing at all.

  2. Funnily enough, I love singing along to Speechless. 🙂
    I agree with you about the West Point rewrite.
    I suppose it is more about public sexual identity. It seemed so much more about lyrics in gender when I was writing it! 🙂

  3. I, too, sing along to “Speechless” and I don’t change one word of the lyric! Does that make us Gay like Elton — or are we above the fracas of sexual identity because we are honoring the integrity of the intent of the song lyric?

    I can’t believe how you looked at me
    With your James Dean glossy eyes
    In your tight jeans with your long hair
    And your cigarette stained lies

    Could we fix you if you broke?
    And is your punch line just a joke?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.