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Courtesy of Polyvinyl Records

September 6, 2016

GUEST ROOM | It’s Different (Worse) for Girls

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There’s something almost incestuous about the way song titles are reduced, reused and recycled. When Lupe Fiasco sings about a rapper who is coping with his newly acquired fame and The Carpenters sing about a groupie who falls in unrequited love with a musician, and both of these tunes are called “Superstar,” it throws you off kilter. And yet, “Superstar” as a song title is far from the most hackneyed option. The corresponding Wikipedia page lists over 200 songs entitled “Hold On” featuring a sundry of artists, from the Jonas Brothers to Alabama Shakes to The Beekeepers. “Changes,” “Beautiful,” “Breathe” and — of course — “Love” are used just as often.

These repetitive titles surely speak to the digestible, commercial nature of pop, and perhaps music in general. Just as we judge books by their covers — despite being repeatedly advised not to — we judge singles by their titles and their likelihood to fit our current mood. A difficult task emerges, then: How to condense a four minute song into one word or phrase that would entice listeners browsing Spotify to stop and click on that song. Every aspect of a song’s production revolves around marketing, and pithy (and cliché) song titles are no exception.

While many songs with the same title doesn’t differ in content all that much from their counterparts, “It’s Different For Girls” and its song title variants have had an interesting evolution. In 1979, Joe Jackson released a version of “It’s Different for Girls” on his album I’m the Man. This edition is about a woman who wants to have sex, while the man wants love — or at least that’s what it appears like from first listen. Jackson reverses the gender roles in an attempt to address the age-old stereotype that men are “all the same” and are looking for “one thing.” When he croons “Mama always said save yourself/Take a little time and find the right girl,” an uncanny feeling overcomes the listener. The juxtaposition between his overtly male identity and the lyrics’ message in this melancholy song is brilliant, if a little too nuanced. An article published on The Muse misidentifies the song’s meaning as a man vilifying a girl for only wanting sex, when he wants love, when Joe Jackson himself has explicitly said this is not the case.

The next relevant song in the series is Gavin DeGraw’s “It’s Different for Girls,” off his 2013 album, Make a Move. Unlike Joe Jackson’s version, this one is most definitely about a man who just wants to hook up with a woman and who doesn’t understand why this woman is spending “too much time thinking what [he] mean[s] to [her].” He sings, “There’s just no way I’m going to hear a word you say,” and that “Boys don’t cry/Why you get hung up on every other guy.” The song, though earnest and melodic, does its part in perpetuating gender conventions and in not only invalidating the woman’s feelings, but depersonalizing the woman. “You don’t have to speak” he goes on before repeating the line that he’s not listening to her any way. Boys don’t cry, so girls shouldn’t cry. I don’t know your name — another line in the song — but stop being so uptight, let loose and have sex with me.

In the beginning of the summer, yet another version of “It’s Different For Girls” was released — this time from country king Dierks Bentley and America’s not-so-sweet-heart Elle King. The song speaks directly to the disparities between how men and women handle breakups, or rather, the completely stereotypical differences between how they handle heartbreak. The girls in this song aren’t numbed by their breakup; they are enslaved by their emotions. They don’t go out to drink, they stay home, crying to their friends constantly about their heartbreak. And they definitely don’t look to get “laid,” or “scroll through their phones looking for a Band-Aid” like men do. However, while the song fails to go beyond banalities in many respects, we cannot simply write it off as it does showcase the expectations for men to always be emotionally solid, even in times of duress. Bentley sings “Fast forward through the pain, pushing back when the tears come on/When the going gets tough, yeah the guys they can just act tough/So tough.” It’s a perspective rarely examined in life and in music, especially country music — a genre with a deep commitment to the gender binary: Men are not altogether stolid; they can and are emotionally vulnerable, even though they are expected not to be.

While each of these aforementioned versions of “It’s Different for Girls” has its own merits and shortcomings, the latest variant by of Montreal is arguably the most superior, and the only one that adds something new to the discussion of what it means to be a “girl.” Whereas past songs have focused on how men and women differ in sexual and emotional relationships, of Montreal’s version recognizes women as their own entities, separated from men, not only in the way they handle relationships, but in the way they are marginalized at every turn of their lives.

“it’s different for girls” furthermore doesn’t blame the girls for their differences or attribute them to girls being emotionally weak. Rather, it celebrates these differences. The ’80s inspired music video features of Montreal’s frontman, Kevin Barnes, in a curly blond wig, sparkly blue eyeshadow and orange lipstick, dancing wildly amid a room full of people wearing equally bright and funky clothes. There’s something a little disturbing and cultish about people jamming out while Barnes sings “It’s different for girls/They’ve built miles of defenses/They’re not numbed by oppression,” but the polarity between the gravity of the lyrics and the carefree nature of the video is hypnotizing. Girls are “mercurial creatures” he proclaims, but they’re not crazy for changing their mind. In fact, Barnes asserts the opposite: “Sometimes they act crazy, but that doesn’t define them.”

The first single off of their most recent album Innocence Reaches, “it’s different for girls” speaks directly to my soul. All my frustrations with being a women are revealed here from being viewed as a “masculine dissonance” to “sexual currency” and — while perhaps this is somewhat unfortunate — what makes this song all the more powerful is that it is sung by a man. “From when they are children they’re depersonalized/Aggressively objectified,” Barnes sings. This song might be one of the most candid endeavors by a male artist to understand and express the female condition.

At the end of the video, a young girl emerges from a pile of rainbow balloons and dances in the middle of a circle, with everyone surrounding her and commemorating her presence. Barnes, in turn, presents her with a huge trophy at the end, showing that though women “are not expected to fight/They’re expected to sit and take some lesser man’s shit/Though it don’t feel right,” they are strong, they will fight and they will prevail.

It is facile to talk about progress, to talk about how much better the females of my generation have it. Type in “wage gap” on Google, and the second suggested search is “wage gap myth.” Yes, the gap is closing, and yes, the statistics that show women make less than men are somewhat warped, given that more women choose lower-paying jobs, but the gap still exists. It is easy to feel comfortable with women’s achievements given Hillary Clinton is the first female nominee of a major U.S. party and will be our next president, but beyond gender-based inconsistencies within careers — which are very much still evident — this world is simply less safe for women than it is for men.

Three young female joggers were killed within a week of each other last month. Two of these women, Vanessa Marcotte and Karina Vetrano, were sexually assaulted before being murdered (Marcotte was also burned). Both of these women — not that it should even matter — were jogging in the afternoon at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., respectively, yet the fact that it was broad daylight did not deter their assailants. The third jogger, Ally Brueger, was shot to death during her run. These women were denied a basic human right: The right to exercise. What should have been a healing and cathartic activity instead proved to be perilous.

In Baltimore, where racial tensions and police brutality already run rampant, black women face greater plights than men. A 163 page report released in August documenting police misconduct revealed perturbing details about the treatment of black women, specifically victims of sexual assault. In 2010, the Baltimore Sun reported that the number of rape cases “dismissed as false or baseless was higher in Baltimore than in any other city in the country.” A New York Times article provides testimonies from women who are scared to come forward with their assaults, at the risk of being assaulted further by the police. The article also revealed that in exchange for avoiding arrest, many sex workers were forced to perform sexual acts on the officers themselves.

Even on our own campus, there are major safety concerns for women. This past week, multiple girls were harassed by a couple in a white van. The van not only attempted to scare the girls into thinking it was going to hit them, but followed these girls around and tried to convince them to get inside the van by claiming to be a cab. Every member of my sorority received an email, instructing them to avoid walking alone and to be vigilant about their surroundings.

Given these frightening circumstances, and other dehumanizing experiences women face on a daily basis, it is highly important for us to keep discussing gender differences and avoid trivializing their existence. It’s different for us. We live in fear of being attacked — even though a number of us have already been attacked — and that is not an exaggeration. We know what it’s like to have our judgement and intellect questioned. We know what it’s like to be harassed, to be badgered with uncomfortable comments. We know what it’s like feel like a prop, to know that every time we leave our houses, we are on display, whether we want to be or not.

“it’s different for girls” then is a necessary anthem, a song I feel profound gratitude for. Thank you, of Montreal, for acknowledging the nonsense we go through and for showing the men listening to this single that we need them to work with us to combat this gender-based violence and discrimination. It’s different for us, it’s worse for us, but your version of “it’s different for girls” does something to make it a little better.

Gwen Aviles is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gaviles@cornellsun.com. 

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