Monday, September 14, 2009


Several lifetimes ago I taught a class called the Sociology of Women. As an earnest graduate teaching assistant, I presented evidence indicating that women and men might not be as diametrically opposed as people think they are. Even if there are biological factors that lead to gender differences in personality, interests, and so on, culture leads us to perceive more and greater contrasts than actually exist.

I believed that. I still do.

Years after dropping out of grad school, I came across a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" on XM radio. Cinder Bridge (my band) also covers "Miss You," so I was curious as to this singer's interpretation. The woman belted out:
I've been waitin' in the hall
Been waitin' on your call
But when the phone rings
It's just some friends of mine who say, hey
Whatsamatter, man?
We gonna come around at twelve
With some Puerto Rican guys that's just dyyyyyyin' to meetchoo
Wait. Puerto Rican guys?

That's just wrong.

* * *

My gut response, strong and immediate, may strike you as hypocritical. Didn't you just say women and men are more alike than we think? I hear you cry. Didn't you just write a whole essay on why gender neutrality is a good thing to strive for in songwriting?

Yes and yes. But even if certain gender differences are solely a product of culture, they still exist, and sometimes the songwriter has to acknowledge them.

For instance, I broke my no-gender rule for the first time in a song called "Nice Guys." The lyrics tell the sad tale of a character (male) who is interested in a person (female) who rejects him in favor of some jerk (male). The rejected nice character is completely oblivious to the fact that the narrator (female) has the hots for him.

From the chorus:
Talking 'bout the good girls, the good girls
Who only want the bad boys, the bad boys
It's enough to shake your faith and tear your fragile soul apart
And they say nice guys never win
But they're the ones who always break my heart
There's no way to make this song gender-neutral. None. Don't believe me? Think about how many guys you've encountered who complain that women only want jerks and not nice guys (like them)? Have you ever heard the same lament from women about men -- or, for that matter, from women about women or men about men?

Me neither.

In part, I wrote the song to point out how we're all the same in some ways. Pining after people who are only interested in other types of people is a human trait. Neither men nor women have a monopoly on it. But I couldn't get to the message about sameness without digging into the differences -- or perceived differences, anyway.

Back to the Rolling Stones, and "Miss You." Most of the lyrics really are universal. Male or female, gay or straight, we've all obsessed about someone who dumped us. The part about the Puerto Rican girls, though ... that doesn't translate so well. I'm not sure I can put my finger on why. Maybe it's because I've noticed guys fetishizing foreign women more than women fetishizing foreign guys. Maybe it's because a woman's friends are less likely to try to get her out of a rejection funk by encouraging her to sleep around. Whatever the reason, substituting "guys" for "girls" just didn't work for me.

In retrospect, it's entirely possible that the singer was aware of all these issues and made a conscious decision to turn a gender stereotype on its head. See, women can treat men as sex objects too! Women can be sexually liberated too! If that was her intention, then I take back everything I said about the girls/guys switch.

But if she simply assumed she had to change that word to "guys" 'cause she was a chick, then I stand by my initial reaction.

* * *

On a tangential note, I have now spent far more time analyzing that one line than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ever spent writing it. Such is the fate of a wannabe sociologist turned songwriter.

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