Rhiannon Parkinson reflects on the ways in which gender alters meaning and perception in pop songwriting.
I generally believe that the gender of a songwriter should not matter. Women write songs which are sung by men, men write songs sung by women, with themes and sentiments often appearing to be universal, or at least gender non-specific; ideas like love, heartbreak, betrayal and the necessity to party.
But when the gender of the singer, or indeed the songwriter, alters the intent and impact of the song on popular culture it makes me question the music industry’s role in shaping attitudes towards women in society. All of which is pretty heavy stuff to cover in three minutes and a catchy chorus.
My favourite thing about ’60s girl groups like e Supremes, The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, The Chiffons and The Shirelles was their ability to narrate almost every moment of your life, especially the romantic interludes. It’s all covered: from your first date with the guy of your dreams ( The Chiffons’ ‘I Have a Boyfriend’), to the boy you met in a sweet shop getting killed in a motorcycle accident ( The Shangri-Las ‘Leader of the Pack’), and just about everything in between. And although there were fantastic and prolific female songwriters, including Carole King and Ellie Greenwich, the majority of these girl group songs were written by men: Phil Spector, Jeff Barry, Burt Bacharach and Hal David et al.
Some people may believe this doesn’t matter. These songs were just a three- minute excuse to dance or sob yourself into oblivion, with some tight harmonies on the side. But the interesting part to consider is whether this is what male songwriters thought women wanted to say, what they thought women wanted to hear, or what male songwriters wanted women to say to the world.
If we look at the context of the USA in the mid 1960s, when many of these songs were written, the women’s movement was becoming more vocal and more demanding of equal status, and in many ways succeeding. But, while the independent female voice was being heard more clearly, it was still predominantly men who were putting the words into female singers’ mouths.
This issue is exacerbated when music that is widely used as a celebration of independent womanhood is written by a man, or from a male perspective.
‘Respect’, famously sung by Aretha Franklin, is the perfect example. Franklin’s version, released in 1968 at the height of feminism’s Second Wave in America, was greatly celebrated as an anthem for strong, independent women (and still is at many a hen party), yet was written by Otis Redding for his road manager Speedo Sims and his band The Singing Demons to sing, resolutely from a male perspective.
The difference between men and women asking for ‘respect’ is also one of contention: for women it’s the vocalisation of independence, but from Redding’s voice it seems domineering, and could even be read as a demand for subservience. Does its masculine provenance alter, or even undermine the song as one of female empowerment? Maybe not directly, but the fact that the song can be read so differently, even today, depending on which gender is singing the words, shows how far sexual equality has yet to go.
The issue doesn’t stop with the 1960s. While the 21st century’s biggest female stars include those who write their own songs and have a strong hand in their image management, there are still many cases of misogynistic messages penetrating modern pop music.
Britney Spears is perhaps not an icon of women’s liberation in the modern era, but there was a period in the early 2000s when she held a presence as a strong female in the media (if not for the content of her music then at least by her high earning potential and ‘star power’). But almost all of her music was written by men, and o en contained an overtly sexual message. For all the talk about the re-appropriation of female sexuality for powerful sexualised women, can you really imagine a woman writing ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’? (It was actually penned by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo; sample lyric: “Baby, don’t you wanna, dance upon me/Leaving behind my name and age?”)
Does the gender of a songwriter matter? Most of the time, no: there are plenty of songs where the gender of either the singer or the songwriter is irrelevant ( The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’, or Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’…). But when a song or a singer becomes a symbol of female empowerment, or the embodiment of popular culture’s idea of a ‘strong woman’, then it starts to get messy. In these circumstances it helps to be familiar with the intent, as well as the context, of the message. The important question to ask is whether a gendered pronoun changes the impact or meaning of the song, and, if so, why?
This problem can be turned on its head. When a song like ‘Respect’, about keeping your woman in check, is re-appropriated as a feminist anthem, it surely puts the power back with the message rather than with the intent. And when the gender of the singer completely changes the meaning of a song, we surely have evidence that gender inequality still exists in society.
Of course, while it is valuable to acknowledge intent and societal demands alluded to by the stereotyping of the music industry, sometimes a pop song is just a pop song. And sometimes it’s simply fun to play at being one of Aretha’s backing singers.