Two weeks ago, country singer Kalie Shorr had an unexpectedly emotional reaction when she heard Keith Urban’s new song “Female,” a ballad that urges respect for women. Watching Urban perform it at the CMA Awards, Shorr and her friends talked about how the message hit home (“When you hear a song that they play saying you run the world, do you believe it? Will you live to see it?”), especially coming from an influential artist in country music, where there’s a noticeable lack of women played on the radio or signed to record labels.
“All of us in some way have been slighted by the Nashville music industry, just by being women,” said Shorr, 23. “I’ve walked into offices on Music Row and had someone look me in the eye and say, ‘I think you’re a superstar and you’d be amazing at this, but you’re a woman and we just can’t take on another one right now.’ ”
So Shorr and her singer-songwriter friends enlisted several other members of the Song Suffragettes, a weekly all-women concert series, to record a cover of “Female” that now has 55,000 views on YouTube and was just released to iTunes. The Nashville artists’ excitement about Urban’s song (which flew into the top 30 on country radio) parallels a similar sentiment from country fans – and the polar opposite reaction from some outside Nashville.
Since the song’s release, some on social media declared that the ballad is “terrible” or “mansplaining.” Publications such as Elle, the Verge and the Pool were not fans of the chorus, in which Urban lists descriptors of women: “Sister, shoulder, daughter, lover … secret keeper, fortune teller, Virgin Mary, scarlet letter.” CBS’s “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” devoted a segment to mocking the ballad. Colbert called it “the first song ever written by dumping out a bin full of inspirational throw pillows” and sang a parody called “She-Person.”
“Ladies of the world, you got a raw deal. Too many times, your voices have been silenced,” Colbert intoned. “Well, I want to let you know, I hear you. Now be quiet while I explain you to you.”
The ridicule doesn’t make sense to those involved with the song, who have started to push back against the criticism – especially the negativity about Urban delivering the song, which also includes lines such as “When somebody laughs and implies that she asked for it, just cause she was wearing a skirt, is that how that works?”
“I don’t consider myself to be a watered-down feminist at all. I’m pretty hardcore about it. So I kind of feel like, ‘Oh wow, are y’all really looking at this [song] like it’s a bad thing?’” Shorr said, adding that it will “take men to help us overcome” the gender imbalance in country music. “Keith Urban is the vessel, but the message and song is from one of the most powerful women in Nashville.”
Shorr is referring to Nicolle Galyon, who wrote the track with fellow hit songwriters Shane McAnally and Ross Copperman in October. McAnally brought the idea of the title “Female” — he’s still not sure how he came up with it — and explains that, despite initial reports, the song is not really centered around Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct allegations, which were revealed a few days before they sat down to write.
“We were talking about Harvey Weinstein, that was in the news, but that led to a much greater conversation. He had nothing to do with the story,” McAnally said. The trio didn’t write the song with a particular artist in mind, but were thrilled when Urban was interested — and wondered if it might make more of an impact for a male artist singing about women’s equality.
“When Shane said ‘Female,’ I didn’t think instantly about everything that was going on in the world. I was thinking for me about the women that I knew, and the woman that I am, and the one I’m trying to raise,” said Galyon, who has a young daughter. “I was thinking, ‘How would I want someone to describe me as a female?’ ”
Colbert in particular made fun of the list of words in the chorus (his version: “Lady-woman, vagina-owner, lipstick, bangs, organ donor”) although he emphasized that he’s a big fan of Urban. “I think his heart is in the right place,” Colbert said. “His lyrics, not as much.”
To Galyon, Colbert missed the point of why the song is a positive development for country music, which is inundated with male singers crooning, “Hey, girl, what’s up?” songs, as Galyon put it; she has helped write many of them. So that’s why it’s critical to include a different viewpoint, she said, and one that “celebrates women.”
“To be honest, I felt like the Stephen Colbert thing was unnecessary,” Galyon said. “It felt unaware of our genre. Because if you’re going to pick a song to criticize on this topic, this is the last song that you should pick.”