Country music is often said to have a gender problem. Despite its prodigious history of songwriters and singers, country radio is dominated by Bro Country. Just last year a consultant to the industry suggested radio never play “two females” in a row, calling them “the tomatoes in the salad.”
Keith Urban is not part of the Bro Country movement, but he has injected himself into the debate in an interesting way. Urban just released a song in response to the Harvey Weinstein assault allegations. “Female” was written by hitmakers Shane McAnally, Nicolle Galyon and Ross Copperman. Urban said he heard the song in mid-October and fell instantly in love with the song.
“Female” contains a chorus that describes women as “Sister, shoulder, daughter, lover … secret keeper, fortune teller, Virgin Mary, scarlet letter.” The reaction was decidedly mixed. While some saw the song as mansplaining, others thought it was game changing, particularly in the hyper-masculine world of country music. Urban performed the song during the Country Music Awards on Wednesday night.
The slow ballad is dedicated to women and their struggles in the world. The lyrics are undeniably cloying and on-the-nose. The same could be said about an anthem from another era, Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch,” but at least “Bitch” was written and sung by a woman, and it aimed to be celebratory rather than maudlin. For an anthem allegedly about empowerment comes off as a rather meek and depressing.
The most direct indictment of the culture that leads to harassment and assult is “When somebody laughs and implies that she asked for it/Just cause she was wearing a skirt, Oh is that how that works?”
The song is not part of an upcoming album. Urban stopped working on his new album in order to record “Female.” He sees it as a stand alone song released to galvanize country music in support of women. Despite the clunkiness of the ballad, it’s still a big moment for country music. Unlike its heroes of yore, today’s country music is unabashedly corporate, with most of its musicians afraid to express a political opinion. The CMA Awards took heat last week for trying to impose a gag rule on journalists, preventing them from asking country music stars about gun violence. The CMA revoked its gag order after outrage, including from many country stars themselves.
Urban’s song feints at Beyonce in the line, “When you hear somebody say somebody hits like a girl, how does that hit you? Is that such a bad thing? When you hear a song that they play saying you run the world, do you believe it? Will you live to see it?”
Nicole Kidman, who is married to Urban, worked with the Weinstein Company on several films. Kidman praised the women who came forward with their stories. The songwriters said the news prompted them to write “Female” to explore the abuse of power. While Kidman did not walk the red carpet at the CMA’s, her influence is certainly evident on Urban’s performance.