Why don’t men write and sing songs from women’s perspectives? In most other mediums, from novels to films, artists have no qualms with composing the point of view of the opposite sex. Dialogue would be pretty nonexistent if they didn’t. Yet in music, men openly singing songs as women are rarer than genuinely interesting middle eights.
There are two sides to every tale, and flipping the narrative is a well-worn tactic for making an old story new. So why don’t songwriters pondering how it must feel on the other side of the fence hop over the damn thing and sing it from there?
Listening to the new Gaslight Anthem album, the third track didn’t stand out immediately. ‘Here Comes My Man’ is a stompingly enjoyable love song – so far, so much like most other Gaslight songs (no bad thing). On second listen though, it hits home that frontman Brian Fallon has abandoned the male gaze to visit the girl’s vista.
All my life I never had a chance/Don’t you think I knew about all your pretty girlfriends?/But I waited for you, gave you time to decide/But you never saw it from anybody else’s side.
Fallon chooses to see this particular doomed romance from the brokenhearted lady’s outlook (as opposed to Pixies’ similarly titled classic), a pretty brave step for a band who deal in macho American dreams, Springsteen scenery and blue collar nostalgia.
The exceptional nature of this is hammered home by the other ten songs on ‘Handwritten’ – they all see Brian back in manly mode. This is a band who address about half of their songs to Mary, and the remaining ones to Mae and Marie. There’s nothing wrong with that; the Jersey boys do it as well as anybody and in Fallon have one of rock’s most engaging frontmen. But ‘Here Comes My Man’ joins a select group of songs trialling the unusual storytelling role-reversal.
Another notable member – from the songwriting angle – is ‘The Winner Takes It All’ by ABBA, as Steve Coogan eulogised in The Trip. With excruciatingly brilliant self-awareness, it was written by Bjorn Ulvaeus about his break-up with Agnetha Fältskogand… and sung by his wife. Elsewhere, Billy Bragg is reliably moving when singing ‘Valentine’s Day Is Over’ from the viewpoint of a female domestic abuse victim.
However, for male singers taking on the female voice, covers are more fertile ground. Jack White feels no need to edit the lyrics when he belts out Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ (“I’m begging of you please don’t take my man”.) Bob Dylan’s early ‘House of the Rising Sun’ cover details the decline of “many a poor girl”, yet The Animals were uncomfortable enough with singing a women’s tale to insist it was the “poor boys” finding ruin in the famous New Orleans abode.
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Nevertheless, the pickings are incredibly slim. It is likely more difficult to pen a great song when not dipping directly into your personal experiences. It could also be argued male singers are concerned they would be seen as feminine or – oh, the humanity! – homosexual, if they addressed their lyrics to men. Music remains a patriarchal business. Presumably, most singers don’t think about the issue at all. There is a gaping hole in the musical canon where songs sung by men from the point of view of women should be. Isn’t it time our singers filled it?