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
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.