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Alex Blaze

Straight-washing music and changing gender pronouns for easier listening

Filed By Alex Blaze | February 28, 2010 2:30 PM | comments

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This past week I bought French cabaret star's Barbara's version of "Ne me quitte pas," which I found lacked the weight of the Jacques Brel and Nina Simone versions I was familiar with, but, more importantly when it comes to LGBTQ politics, changed a single line. The original Jacques Brel line:

Je ferai un domaine I'll make a land
Où l'amour sera roi Where love is king
Où l'amour sera loi Where love is the law
Où tu seras reine Where you're the queen

became:

Je ferai un domaine I'll make a land
Où l'amour sera roi Where love is king
Où l'amour sera loi Where love is the law
Où je serai reine Where I'm the queen

It was a song written and originally interpreted by a straight man, but that's the only mention of gender throughout the song. When a straight woman redid it in 1962, that single mention of gender was changed so that she wouldn't sound like a lesbian.

Is that right? Maybe in the pre-Stonewall days we could make excuses, but today?

This is something that's chapped my hide for a long while now. I love cover versions of songs, since interpretation is an art in and of itself. There are lots of covers that are better or worse than the original, and quite a few more that I simply rather not compare - they're just different.

Singers may change the pace, the mood, the instrumentation, and the structure of a previously-produced song, but usually the content of the lyrics stays the same. But why is it that gender is the area that singers are more than excited to change to match their sexual orientation (or, more accurately, willing to change to keep the lyrics heterosexual)?

I had this discussion a few years ago and a smart lesbian I knew said that she thought it was because these are songs that the singer might be singing to someone, and they'd like to make it relevant. If that's the case, though, why stop there? Why not change more of the lyrics so that they're relevant to a specific situation in the singer's past, if the goal is simply relevance? Even though the singer's gender and sexual orientation aren't important in "The Crickets Sing for Anamaria," I find it hard to believe that Emma Bunton, Marcos Valle, and Astrud Gilberto all knew someone named Maria whose family really wanted her to go to bed.

"Ne me quitte pas" is an interesting example, and not only because it's one of the best French chansons ever written. The cover Americans are probably most familiar with is Nina Simone's French version, which actually kept the original "You're the queen" line, effectively making the speaker lesbian.

Of course, that's just one line that Barbara changed. Notice the complete change from "She" to "He" throughout Sheryl Crow's cover of Guns 'n Roses' "Sweet Child 'O Mine."

And it goes the other way. Here's Joni Mitchell's environmentalist anthem "Big Yellow Taxi," which ends with "and a big yellow taxi took away my old man." Counting Crows couldn't give anyone an inkling of homosexuality, and they changed it to "and a big yellow taxi took my girl away."

There are examples throughout the pop idiom. Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee," about how she let "him," Bobby, slip away, was originally Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," about how he let "her," Bobby, slip away. Sinead O'Connor's brilliant cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares to You" changed the line about the singer wanting to put her "arms around every girl I see." And the Beach Boys sang the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me," switching around not just gender pronouns, but sentence subject and object to keep the same gender in the passive and active roles in "Then I Kissed Her." You know, just in case someone would go the extra mile and think that they're not just gay, but also bottoms.

There are some refreshing examples of the opposite. Bryan Ferry's cover of Leslie Gore's "It's my Party" was still about a singer pining away for Johnny, although it seems to be more about getting a laugh than artistic integrity. Both the La's and Sixpence None the Richer sang "There She Goes." And plenty independent and experimental musical acts maintain the original gender in songs they cover, like the Ciconne Youth's version of Madonna's "Into the Groove" and Sliimy's cover of "Womanizer."

Is it just me? Considering how many times I've seen LGB artists switch around the gender of a song, it seems to have less to do with expressing the singer's own sexual orientation and more to do with straight-washing a product to make it more marketable. Are these people really so afraid that someone might hear a song sung as it was written (or originally produced) and assume that the singer is queer?

That's part of the reason I try to feature LGBTQ artists here on TBP as much as I can - the way the music industry has been afraid of any of their artists coming off as LGBTQ makes it seem like there's something spectacular to being a musician and queer at the same time.


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I was playing Beatles Rock Band with my aunt the other day and she kept straight-washing all the lyrics to the songs. ("He's got a ticket to ride,
But he don't care." Really!?) In the game multiple people can sing at the same time, so I took to the microphone with her and made a point to emphasize all the "girls" and "shes" there were.

First time I notices the gender thing in songs was way back when Cher sang You Better Sit Down. She sang the song (probably as originally written) as the father explaining to children about the divorce of him and their mother.

Granted, Sonny & Cher were a pretty well-known hetero couple at the time, and the concept of gay marriage (& divorce) didn't exist, but for anyone who noticed it, it was still something to think about.

I was going to start on some with Cher here, since she's really a serial offender in this area.

In this case Cher did record the song as the father, rather than switching it to be the mother. An early,subtle pop culture gender bender. Old clip on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-MWOGG3eB4&feature=related

ah yes, one of my pet peeves.
I notice the most in
"I want candy" (The Strangeloves)
"some day I'll make 'her' mine"
"some day I'll make 'him' mine"

sometimes candy is a girls name
sometimes candy is just candy.

and it is another reason I can't stand drag shows, they will do it every time.

All politics aside, when a straight male singer changes "him" to "her" in a song, you have to respect the fact that he may be doing it because he really really likes singing about girls :) I like that and I think it's cute when they change the genders; I don't begrudge them to perform in a way that they enjoy. I'm sure plenty of singers have homophobic motivations sometimes, but I'd prefer to assume the best about someone until there's some particular evidence to the contrary.

Hmmmm... maybe a few. Although Sinead O'Connor's version of "Nothing compares to you" wouldn't count since she's openly bisexual....

But I like your attitude. :)

Let us not forget Shawn Colvin's complete mess with the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic." Seriously, if you have to change the title, pick a different song.

I was going to mention here Khaela Maricich aka The Blow's "Come on Petunia," which uses that line and keep the "she" even though a woman's singing it. Go her.

I don't know the Shawn Colvin version, but I didn't like that song much from the beginning. But I agree - if it's in the title and you really, really can't get over mentioning someone of the same sex, there are plenty of other songs out there to sing.

As a performer I have run into this issue a few times when people have expressed concern that I have not "straight washed" a lyric line. If I am covering a song originally about a particular gender I keep it that. As an example I will occasionally do a cover of Breath 2am as part of an acoustic section in a country act, I leave the parts about the guy the way they are. Once a goofball told me afterwards that I sang that song like I meant it, I thanked him and told him that I did mean it.
As a music teacher this issue has also come up a couple of times. Sometimes a student will want to change the gender specifics to be more comfortable with a song sometimes not. I have twice had a kid, once a teenager and once a tweenager, have this issues at odds with a parent. Once a teenage girl wanted to do a song about a girl and her mother thought that it was best to change the lyric and the girl was of the opinion that it should stay the same. I looked at the mom and said that it is only a song and the mom relaxed and left it alone. The boy was younger and it was a couple of years before he came out to his mom but I think that she subconsciously suspected that it was coming. Her concern was her ex-husband and his comfort level after another discussion the boy did the song the way it was written and the way that he truly meant it anyway. I support the position of the student in this issue.

I honestly have no issue with this either way, because we can just as easily "gay-wash" lyrics to fit our needs as well. But if you're going to change the lyrics, do it *intelligently* -- for example, there was a recent cover of the old 60s song "They Paved Paradise (And Put Up a Parking Lot)", in which the male singer did the *worst* job of rewriting the lyrics so he wouldnt have to deal with "they came away and took away my old man". It makes me cringe every time I hear it because it's so silly and unnecessary. I mean, hell, if you want to sing "my old lady" instead, God speed and God bless... but make it *work*. He didnt even try, and the song suffered for it.

That's a particularly egregious example, and the one I posted YouTube videos of above (the song is "Big Yellow Taxi"). The Counting Crows could have easily said "old man" and just thought "father" really hard.

I agree that we can gay-wash, although I don't think that the music industry will start a coordinated effort to encourage that in the future. We can always hope, though. :)

Now bi-washing... there you'll have to get creative.

Ack. Didnt even see the videos after the jump, sorry, Alex.

Yeah, truly, truly sad work.

But my favourite example of gay-washing: "Leave You" from FOLLIES, sung in one of the concerts not by an embittered middle-aged wife but an embittered verging-on-middle-aged male lover... without changing a single word, it gave the song such amazing potency. We do have our moments.

For the bi washing you will have to get creative true. But Joni Jett manages to do bi stuff and get away with it. I know for my performing, it is not really contained in one song but if you catch a whole set of my music you will most likely figure it out. A lot of my songs don't ever refer to gender in a direct way relative to my own dating and are a bit more ambiguous about it. Some of my songs are obviously not straight but I find that people respond to them with a view that suits them most effectively. So I will have a song about a bi girl and bi people read her that way while gay people read her as lesbian and straight people are often unsure of how to read her aside from experimenting a bit.

My favorite keep-the-original-gender-references-intact cross-gender cover is Suzi Quatro's version of "I Wanna Be Your Man."

Brady Millett | March 1, 2010 12:03 PM

Here in Australia, rock legend (and straight man) Jimmy Barnes did a version of the classic "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman", stating that it was simply a great song for a singer to perform. He had no problem with the gender reference of the song, and in my mind (a gay man) he gained my respect. I've heard of some openly gay artists, like Melissa Etheridge and Elton John, now make their songs non-gender specific. Listen to their lyrics, and see if you can identify exactly who they are singing to.

There is an album called "Art Deco: Can't Help Lovin' That Man", a compilation of old 20's and 30's songs written for female singers, but performed by men. I think it is out of print now, but Amazon still lists it in the marketplace. According to the liner notes (working from memory here, I am at work) the publishers (or who ever held the rights to the songs) were a lot stricter then, and you simply weren't allowed to change the words. But if it was a popular song, you wanted to cover it because the audience wanted it, so you sang it straight. Some of the songs:

Can't Help Lovin Dat Man
The Right Kind Of Man
He's My Kind Of A Man
He's So Unusual
The Man I Love
Gay Love
Am I Blue?
He's A Good Man To Have Around
I Got Rhythm
What Wouldn't I Do For That Man!
He's My Secret Passion
Love For Sale
Can't Do Without His Love
Come Up And See Me Sometime
Beach Boy

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3Ti4OmaNeI

Here's an example of someone NOT straight-washing a song. Luther Vandross performs "Killing Me Softly".

Alex just going out on a limb here and guessing Adam Duritz changed the line because he really is heterosexual.

Rhetorically speaking, if you were to cover a song would you not change any pronouns so they reflected your personal sentiments via the song?

I hate straightwashing when I feel that it really IS straightwashing - i.e., that it's done intentionally out of a desire to remove all queer-ish references from the public sphere. But I think the changes to song lyrics don't often fall into that category. IMHO, the above argument/example about personal relevance dismisses it too quickly, doesn't really address the singer's probable motivation for making the change.

Every singer ~knows~ that s/he is essentially playing a character when s/he sings, unless doing original material that comes from his/her own life. So it's not that every singer needs to personally know a Maria in that same situation (which I agree would be ridiculous). Rather, it's that the singer feels a need to be able to mentally and emotionally place him/herself into the song, to enter into the feelings of this fictional character who sings about Maria (or whoever). The singer might feel unable to identify personally with the original lyrics because of what s/he perceives as a gender disjunction between the singer's own sense of self and the character's sense of self. It may simply be too hard for, say, the everyday straight male singer to place himself into the role of "loving him". He can't grasp what that would feel like. It's too much of a stretch. He's either not up to the challenge, or doesn't see a need to challenge himself in that way, or both. He might not mind if someone else pulled a gender-bender with the song, but he would personally be embarrassed or uncomfortable to try it. Just as some straight actors would willingly take on the role of a gay character, and others wouldn't, some singers can make the stretch and some can't.

And let's face it, chances are that the singer has ~already~ done this translation in his/her mind anyway while listening to the song, or s/he wouldn't have liked it enough to want to sing it. We all translate the things we hear and see into our own worlds every waking minute, don't we?

So I tend to ignore gender changes in the lyrics as long as they're simple ones, he for she or vice-versa, and not injurious to the song. I figure that people just want to sing what feels "normal" to them. It makes me sad that more people aren't willing to stretch out of their comfort zone, but I don't suspect them of anything worse than that.

However, that doesn't mean that lyric-changing isn't a complicated and problematic issue. For instance:

One interesting aspect of this that no one's brought up yet (unless I missed it) is that because our society is so mired in gender-related assumptions and prescriptions concerning personality, behavior, etc., changing the gender of a song also subtly changes its subtext. This bothers me, often quite a lot.

For instance, I'm fond of an old bluegrass tune called "Eight More Miles To Louisville" in which the straight male singer says he is on his way back home to a girl "to win her heart and hand". The analogous version of this lyric, for a straight female singer, would be "to give my heart and hand". Active changes to passive, proactive to submissive... a very different subtext. And both of those phrases belong to a world in which young men are expected to roam (and even sow a few wild oats) while young women are supposed to wait demurely at home - so why was she roaming in the first place? Well, thank heaven she's finally come to her sense and re-entered her proper sphere, eh? ;) Changing that one line changes the frame of the whole story.

Personally, I've come full-circle on this. As a kid, playing my guitar and singing, it never occurred to me that lyrics "needed" to be adapted for my sex. Later, I realized that I was probably expected to change them, which I hated (largely because of that shift in subtext, which I was uncomfortably aware of even as a child). Now I resent the fact that the world made me feel I had to change them, and I think it's good to get discussions like this out in the public and raise awareness. But I still think most people who change lyrics do it out of a desire for comfort, not a conscious desire to publicly suppress gender-heretical material... and the more we talk about it and expose it, the fewer kids will grow up worrying about stuff like this.