When listening to a love song, we usually assume the object of the singer’s desire is of the opposite sex. However occasionally the singer is meant to be used as a vessel and not an autobiographical figure. There are ways to listen where we don’t picture the singer as the protagonist, necessarily. A deeper meaning can sometimes unfold itself when the idea of gender in a song is fuzzy. While not extremely common, there are plenty of songs that give the listener a concept that isn’t always 100% literal. For this week’s Mixtape Madness, we present a shortlist of songs use this style, many of which have different approaches and meanings.
White Town – “Your Woman”
White Town was the recording project of Jyoti Prakash Mishra, who scored a hit with the trendy art pop track, “Your Woman” in 1997. The quintessential track for this list, the song’s androgynous lyrics can be interpreted several different ways as Mishra has explained on the White Town FAQ — “Although it’s written in the first person, the character behind that viewpoint isn’t necessarily what the casual listener would expect.” He goes on to hypothisize the different perspectives one could possibly interpret — “being a straight guy in love with a lesbian; being a gay guy in love with a straight man; being a straight girl in love with a lying, two-timing, fake-ass Marxist [or] the hypocrisy that results when love and lust get mixed up with highbrow ideals.”
Of Montreal – “Tim I Wish You Were Born a Girl”
Of Montreal‘s Kevin Barnes has made a hobby of blurring the line between gender and sexuality for years. The album “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?” for instance is a concept album about the transformation of Barnes as a chemically dependent introvert that transforms into Georgie Fruit, a flamboyant, sexually ambiguous rock star. “Tim I Wish You Were Born a Girl” dates back to their Elephant 6 days — a cute love song from one friend to another concerning the difficulties in finding a girlfriend.
12 Rods – “I Wish You Were a Girl”
The ’90s were an age of great proliferation in terms of indie rock, so much so that bands that were even extremely well received by critics at the time have faded into obscurity in the years since their dissolution. It’s crazy to think of a band like Modest Mouse being forgotten if they broke up after “The Moon & Antarctica,” but that’s more or less what happened to 12 Rods, a band that never rose to crossover success. One of the handful of bands to receive a 10.0 from Pitchfork on a record (there’s being the “Gay?” EP no less), “I Wish You Were a Girl” is off their “Split Personalities” LP. It’s a fairly heartbreaking song about the protagonist’s desire to feel normal when he discovers he’s attracted to a man, and has a pretty interesting standpoint on the matter.
The Magnetic Fields – “When My Boy Walks Down the Street”
Stephin Merritt is the master of blurring gender lines through song. He once said in an interview with The New Gay, “I don’t usually write songs with a gendered protagonist…I like to mix up the genders, but it’s hardly ever the case the I’m assigning a gender to the protagonist.” Swapped gender roles are a common occurrence in Magnetic Fields songs. One of the most obscured gender assignments in their catalog is on “When My Boy Walks Down the Street,” where Merritt sings the lead vocal, which features the line, “…blue eyes blazing, and he’s going to be my wife.” While most likely intended to be Merritt having his usual fun with gender roles in lyrics, it can also be interpreted as a deconstruction of the meanings behind gendered terms like “husband” and “wife.”
Blur – “Girls & Boys”
Blur had hits before “Girls & Boys,” but it was with “Parklife”‘s leading single that they shook off the last of their naysayers. They would need that confidence to do battle with the shit-talking Gallagher brothers, who had just released their first single with Oasis, “Supersonic,” a month later in April of 1994. “Girls & Boys” optimized the Britpop movement, and contained the infectiously carefree chorus, “girls who are boys, who like boys to be girls, who do boys like they’re girls, who do girls like they’re boys” — a string of gender fusion that still ignites dance floors today.
Pearl Jam – “Hail Hail”
“No Code” is an album that found Pearl Jam at their most open and experimental. Not only expanding into garage and eastern musical themes, but it was also a period where Eddie Vedder ventured into some great lyrical concepts. On the reflective “Off He Goes,” he examines his own fleeting behavior through the eyes of his close friends, and on “Hail Hail,” where he makes a reference to female masculinity where he sings in the bridge, “are you woman enough to be my man?/ bandaged hand in hand.” Having emerged from a mostly male dominated Seattle scene, both Vedder and his grunge rival so to speak, Kurt Cobain, were great examples of straight male rockers who were not afraid of femininity, and recognized it as an essential part to being both male and female.
Antony and the Johnsons – “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy”
There have been many interpretations of Antony and the Johnsons‘ heart rendering ballad, “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy,” one of which being an allegory for the AIDS virus. Antony finds himself falling in love with a beautiful boy/girl who is already marked for death at the start of the song. The true emotional lament of the song is best experienced when listening to it performed alongside an orchestral arrangement, like in this clip where Antony sings the song backed by the Metropole Orkest.
Prince – “If I Was Your Girlfriend”
In the wake of the dissolution of his backing band, the Revolution, Prince embarked on a project known as “Camille,” where he was to take on the role of the female version of himself. While the album was abandoned, many of the songs intended for the record ended up on the seminal double album, “Sign O’ The Times.” “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is the crux of the “Camille” project — Prince, pretending to be a woman, knowing he’s a man, wishing he could a girl’s best friend, so that he can ease the frustrations of the original male persona.
Cyndi Lauper – “When You Were Mine”
Prince also gave plenty of other artists opportunities to find new meaning in his lyrics. When Sinéad O’Connor covered “Nothing Compares 2 U,” she refocused the song on the strained relationship with her mother. Cyndi Lauper’s version of “When You Were Mine,” retains Prince’s original pronouns, which opens up a few doors as to who she is singing to. Is she singing the songs as a lesbian? A straight woman whose former lover is bi-sexual? a man? It doesn’t really matter so much as she’s toying with the concepts of what we expect a singer to sing in a song which is a challenge many artists don’t pose enough.