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Ten Gender-Swapped Cover Songs That Altered the Meaning
Gender-swapped cover songs generally go out of their way to avoid challenging gender norms. Pronouns get changed—”oh boy,” becomes “oh girl,” or vice-versa, to avoid anything too disruptive. But gender is such a powerful construct that frequently simply swapping the gender perspective gives a song an entirely new meaning.
This list looks at ten songs with gender-swapped lyrics or perspectives that created a different meaning—and maybe even a better version.
10 “Respect” by Aretha Franklin
Originally by Otis Redding
It might be impossible to overstate the cultural influence Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” has had. In 2003, it was number five on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time, and it had moved to number one on the 2021 version of the list. It was an era-defining anthem for both the civil rights and feminist movements. After Aretha’s version, all Otis Redding could do was brag that she was a friend of his.
“Respect” is a fine example of how just a gender switch can completely change a song’s perspective, even without the song’s content being changed that much. Otis Redding’s version lacks many of the elements that made Respect iconic, such as the word “respect” being spelled out and that iconic sax solo, but the demand the song makes is exactly the same. What is it for a man to demand respect from his partner? It’s certainly not a statement of wide societal significance.
The track is also a fine example of how some songs demand a response. Redding is singing about a cynically transactional relationship; he brings in the money, and all he asks for in return is “respect” (I think we all know what respect means here). But Aretha does not need any such arrangement. She has her own money (just as sweet as your kisses); to her, respect is a relationship that’s equal, not transactional. Where one song is about a woman knowing her place in a transaction, the other is about one who knows her worth as an equal.
9 “Tumbling Dice” by Linda Rondstadt
Originally by The Rolling Stones
The lyrics to “Tumbling Dice” were an afterthought for The Rolling Stones. Keith Richards said that the song was written without vocals. “A lot of times when ideas come that quick, we don’t put down lyrics—we do what we call ‘vowel movement.’ You just bellow over the top of it to get the right sounds for the track.”
Anyway, the lyrics, when they did come, were a product of Mick Jagger talking to his housekeeper about her love of playing dice. Thus “Tumbling Dice” is a story song about a womanizing gambler that has no personal connection to the legendary writing team behind it.
Linda Rondstadt’s band played the song during rehearsals, but none of them knew the words until Mick Jagger wrote them out for her (oh, the world before the Internet!). She changed the opening line from “Women think I’m tasty /but they’re always tryin’ to waste me” to “People try to rape me/always think I’m crazy.” The song’s alluring groovy rhythm makes that confrontational line all the more shocking.
Ronstadt explained in 2017 that it was a comment on fame: “When you’re exposed to a wide segment of the public, somebody’s trying to violate you in some way, but it was nothing like it is now with Internet trolls.” A song with little meaning beyond being a cool story was transformed into a feminist statement that has only grown more relevant.
8 “Fire” by The Pointer Sisters
Originally by Bruce Springsteen
“Fire” is one of a trio of Bruce Springsteen songs that were Top 20 hits for other artists before Springsteen ever scored his own Top 20 hit. (The other two are “Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and “Because the Night” by Patti Smith). Springsteen was reportedly upset by the Pointer Sisters’ success with Fire. Though it’s hard to say why “Fire,” in particular, got his goat. Unlike other rockers of his generation, Springsteen would not have seen a disco cover of one of his songs as an insult. Springsteen was never on the “disco sucks” bandwagon, recording with Donna Summer and Chaka Khan to prove it.
Whatever the reason, the Pointer Sisters did Springsteen a huge favor—and not just for the royalty checks. They transformed “Fire” into something we don’t have to listen to with a cringe, probably saving the song from harsh reevaluation and cancellation. “I’m pulling you close/You just say no/You say you don’t like it/But girl, I know you’re a liar” becomes “You’re pullin’ me close/I just say no/I say I don’t like it/But you know I’m a liar.” One or two different words and the whole meaning is changed: predatory becomes coyness.
While plenty of the songs on this list are changed by the different perspective, the complete 180-degree change in direction here, from violent to innocent, is bracing. “Fire” needed the Pointer Sisters’ version.
7 “Tonight’s the Night” by Janet Jackson
Originally by Rod Stewart
If any member of the Jackson family was able to shake off the associations of their infamous family, it was Janet. And sexual liberation was the tool she used to forge that independent identity. Jackson’s musical explorations of identity came to a head on 1997’s The Velvet Rope, which also wove in explorations of her battles with depression and her affinity with the LGBTQIA+ community. The album is also exceptionally forward-looking, danceable, and hugely ambitious in scope.
Rod Stewart can’t really take any credit for Janet’s “Tonight’s the Night”; his original is painfully generic, a frame of a song that could be fleshed out to describe any variety of sexual encounters. And Janet could’ve selected any “getting it on” song to subvert. It speaks to the bare-bones versatility of the song that, with just a few pronoun changes, the song’s message becomes quite ambiguous. She alternates the verses between addressing a man and addressing a woman (“Cause I love you, boy” to “Cause I love you, girl”).
One interpretation could be a threesome, and another could be an ode to bisexuality. Either way, it’s an overt call out to the LGBTQIA+ community, as is another of the album’s statement songs, “Free Xone.” In 2001, Jackson told Ebony magazine that “I don’t mind people thinking that I’m gay or calling me gay. People are going to believe whatever they want. Yes, I hang out at gay clubs, but other clubs too. I go where the music is good. I love people regardless of sexual preference, regardless of race.”
6 “Gloria” by Patti Smith
Originally by Van Morrison
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” is the greatest opening line to any album ever. “My sins are my own; they belong to me,” the lyrics continue as the heavy, slow-burning piano swells to become the unmistakable bassline of “Gloria,” a song that is not so much a primordial classic rock song as it is primordial classic rock incarnate.
Patti Smith’s version is so lyrically different that the changed perspective, and the subversiveness that it implies, are absolutely overt. In fact, this track is so transformative that it pushes the definition of a cover. Where Van Morrison’s version was the essence of simplicity, Smith’s is an epic proto-punk manifesto.
Smith’s track treats the original as a skeleton, with her own poetry grafted on, mostly from a piece called “Oath,” written years before as a kiss-off to her Jehovah’s witness upbringing. This accounts for the wildly different lyrics. But when the original lyrics resurface, the lustiness directed toward the titular woman remains intact. For all the lyrical changes, the simplicity of “Gloria” means that its indelible identity shines through, regardless of what else may be laid over it.
5 “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse
Originally by The Zutons
Amy Winehouse made her version of “Valerie” iconic, turning it into one of the latest in a line of covers to completely eclipse the original. The original was by the Britpop band The Zutons, who never had much of a profile apart from this one song. Possibly the reason for the success of the cover is because it’s such a beguiling mystery why Amy Winehouse is singing what’s clearly a love song to a woman. The answer is, unfortunately, quite anticlimactic.
It’s because the song was recorded for a side-project by producer Mark Ronson, which involved self-consciously weird covers. This included a cover of Brittany Spears’s “Toxic” featuring Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard and a big band, funk-soul version of Coldplay’s cold and glassy ballad “God Put a Smile on Your Face.” The “Valerie” cover is actually credited to Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse, but come on! Amy Winehouse chose the song and proved Ronson wrong when he said he could not hear it in her voice.
As for those strangely specific lyrics, The Zutons’ frontman Dave McCabe was in a long-distance relationship with NYC-based celebrity makeup artist Valerie Star. She could not move to Liverpool to be with him due to an outstanding arrest warrant in the States for speeding, driving without a license, evading arrest, and assaulting a police officer. At least the answer to that question is a wild ride, worthy of the mystery that the song represents.
4 “Under My Thumb” by Tina Turner
Originally by The Rolling Stones
Tina Turner is a master of covers, from turning CCR’s sludge rock number “Proud Mary” into sultry raucous R&B to adding a touch of old school class to Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy” and right through to her solo debut by a country covers album called Tina Turns the Country On (think about it!). Of course, most of her covers were originally by male artists, so it’s hard to pick the one that makes the most of the gender switch. “Under My Thumb,” however, is a song so loaded with meaning that it’s hard to overlook.
“Under my Thumb” may very well be the song that ended the ’60s, beginning a darker era in pop culture. On December 6, 1969, the Rolling Stones played their infamous free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California. The show descended into chaos, resulting in five deaths, including the murder of concertgoer Meredith Hunter, who was stabbed as the Stones played “Under my Thumb.” Chillingly, in the live recording, when you hear Mick Jagger stop the song from telling the crowd to “be cool,” you hear his reaction to a man being murdered nearby. At that moment, the song’s Taming of the Shrew narrative curdled into something far less innocent.
And much less superficial… Let’s face it, it’s a song in which a man brags about subjugating a woman that’s only made less nauseating by the tongue-in-cheek tone. That redeeming cheekiness fades into insignificance when it becomes the song a guy has been murdered to, heralding the loss of innocence for an entire generation. In that context, Turner’s tale of female domination was a downright essential response to the original. Turner’s “Under My Thumb” is a statement that had to be made.
3 “Black Steel” by Tricky feat. Martina Topley-Bird
Originally by Public Enemy
“The most bizarre record I’ve ever worked on… Think of how to make a record, then forget everything you’ve learned and start completely backward and upside down” is how producer Mark Saunders described British rapper Tricky’s solo debut Maxinquaye. Tricky’s idiosyncratic style led to some strange decisions, including a cover of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” with vocalist Martina Topley-Bird, resulting in a track in which Topley-Bird repeatedly refers to herself as a black man, much to Beavis and Butthead’s confusion.
It soon becomes clear that the gender-bending is an intentional choice, as “Black Steel” ends on that statement of identity rather than covering the whole song (hence the title being shortened from “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”). In the original, the line “They could never understand that I am a black man, and could never be a veteran” is simply a line in the first verse, but Topley-Bird, with her looping, evocative delivery, lands it as a narrative crescendo, like a story with a twist ending. The feeling of disorientation created by that line is aided by industrial rock act FTV and a sample from Bollywood producer A.R. Rahman, making it a Bollywood/trip-hop/industrial rock mash-up.
Martina Topley-Bird features on the Maxinquaye album from which “Black Steel” originates more often than Tricky does. Tricky told The Guardian in 2012 that “it’s my mum speaking through me; a lot of my lyrics are written from a woman’s point of view.” It’s been a theme throughout his career, employing various female singers. His image also involves extreme gender-bending, appearing on the cover for the “Black Steel” single in full makeup. The video for Tricky’s “Christiansands” also features Martina Topley-Bird.
2 “He’s Funny That Way” by Bob Dylan
Though 2018’s Universal Love is a whole compilation EP of classic love songs reimagined as queer anthems, I am singling out Bob Dylan’s take on Billie Holiday’s “He’s Funny That Way.” This is because it’s hard to state how wonderfully out of place Bob Dylan is among the five other artists, all millennials, who contributed, including Kesha, St. Vincent, and Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke.
Bob Dylan’s name is synonymous with activism, but for whatever reason, he’s been cagey about his beliefs since the ’80s. I suspect that’s just a consequence of very rarely making public statements at all now. So it’s great to see him take a stand. Apparently, he did it enthusiastically too.
Producer Robert Kaplan told The New York Times that he got a very quick yes. “And it wasn’t just ‘yes, I’ll do this,’” he said. “It was ‘hey, I have an idea for a song.’” Dylan’s modern-day hermit-like silence means that, in addition to not knowing much about his politics, we have very little sense of his personality either. So it’s refreshing to see him make such a clever, cheeky (and slightly lame) choice with this song since “funny that way” is a dad-joke euphemism for gay. As in…
“Georgie Porgy pudding and pie
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play
He kissed them too, because he’s funny that way.”
1 Tori Amos’s Strange Little Girls Album
Originally by various artists
Tori Amos is one of the most inventive cover artists we have because of the way she uses covers to explore identity. In her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” she keeps the last line intact, “sincerely L. Cohen,” as if she’s embodying Leonard Cohen to play the song.
To that end, her covers’ album Strange Little Girls is a grand artistic statement. Each song was originally by a man. The perspective of the songs is transformed thoroughly and completely simply by being sung in a female voice, despite lyrically remaining exactly the same. For instance, the track that got the most attention was Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” in which Em graphically fantasizes about murdering the mother of his daughter and disposing of her body with his young daughter in tow. A woman’s voice forces us to consider the victim; she’s no longer just a cipher in someone else’s violent fantasy.
Meanwhile, The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun” becomes a 10-minute psychedelic meditation on gun violence. If you think that’s too literal or wonder what a woman’s perspective might bring to the song, say its title out loud while dropping the “H,” as someone with a Liverpudlian accent would. And Joe Jackson’s “Real Men” goes from being droll satire to searingly, righteously indignant.
Further exploring identity, Amos came up with an alter-ego for each song, but there’s no rhyme, reason, or explanation given for any of them. Are they the subjects of the songs or the people singing them? Why is The Velvet Underground’s “New Age” represented by a foxy librarian type with a sharp Mary Tyler Moore bob and cat’s-eye glasses? Why is Slayer’s “Raining Blood” represented by a glamorous French WW2 resistance fighter with a Gauloises cigarette and a beret?
Even Tori Amos doesn’t know, telling Rolling Stone in 2001, “As I began to deconstruct each male song, a different woman seemed to have access to me. There was a trade; there was an exchange. If I were going to take this on board and deconstruct it and get into these men and hang in their heads, then a woman had access to me, and that really surprised me.” Great art poses more questions than it answers.
+ “Nothing Compares 2U” by Sinead O’Connor
Originally by Prince
Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2U” is a fantastic song, possibly one of the greatest ever recorded. But despite it being gender-swapped, it doesn’t warrant a spot on the list proper, as it doesn’t really challenge gender norms in any way. But bear with me… Prince’s version was barely remembered, barely released filler for a failed side-project, and it never charted until O’Connor made it a hit in 1990. In 1993, Prince re-recorded “Nothing Compares 2U” as a duet with backing singer Rosie Gaines, retconning his own version to the female perspective, seemingly to match O’Connor’s. There are plenty of great covers out there; few are so great that they change the original.
++ “Where the Wild Roses Grow” by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds feat. Blixa Bargeld
Originally by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Kylie Minogue
It saddens me to know that the unlikely pairing of the prince of darkness, Nick Cave, and sunny pop princess Kylie Minogue was a whole generation ago, meaning there may well be full-grown adults walking among us who have never heard it. “Where the Wild Roses Grow” is a darkly intimate torch song from Cave’s 1995 album Murder Ballads.
However, Minogue and Cave have such disparate careers that they are, of course, not going to be in the same place at the same time very often. So when Cave is on tour, Blixa Bargeld, frontman for German noise rock outfit Einstürzende Neubauten, fills in. Cave and Bargeld play up the homoeroticism, accentuating the line “Her lips were the color of the roses/That grew down the river, all bloody and wild” with a tender embrace. You can also find the Blixa Bargeld version of “Where the Wild Roses Grow” on Cave’s 2005 B-Sides and Rarities compilation.