Cross-gender song covers, Romeo and Juliet

A little while ago, I had a Twitter conversation with Tracy Ruggles, Thomas Vanderwal, and Alan Lepofsky about gender and songwriting. One of the topics was how a song sounds different, depending on the gender of the singer.

Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls does an excellent cover version of Mark Knopfler’s Romeo and Juliet. As a lesbian, Amy Ray carries the passionate declaration of love for the female lover. In the live version in the link, she also makes a clever, subtle tweak in the chorus to change the power dynamics in the song’s story.

The “movie song” alluded to in Knopfler’s lyrics is “Somewhere” from West Side Story, in which Juliet expresses a plaintive hope that somewhere, there is a place and time for the star-crossed lovers.

Knopfler adapts the phrase for his Romeo, who’s been jilted by the Juliet in his song’s story: “When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong”. Knopfler’s phrasing comes across as arrogant and perhaps sexist – Romeo knows what the relationship means better than Juliet does.

Amy Ray sings the line differently in each of the three repetitions of the song’s chorus: “One day I’m gonna realize / One day you’re gonna realize / One day we’re gonna realize” … it was just that the time was wrong. In Ray’s version, the changed understanding would need to come from each and both of them.

She also does the same pronoun shift with the reference to West Side Story. Instead of giving Romeo sole ownership of insight that the lovers’ situation is “like the movie song”, Ray’s Romeo says “you know the movie song” and “we know the movie song” – Ray’s version is a plea for shared understanding of the situation.

p.s. Another strength of the cover is that Ray doesn’t just steal Knopfler’s phrasing which is definitive and hard to shake. Ray also takes advantage of her ability to sing more notes than Knopfler can. And she doesn’t try anything fancy on guitar which is just as well.

p.p.s. By contrast, the Killers’ cover clones Knopfler’s vocal phrasing, the National-like sound, and the guitar outro off the album. If you’re going to try and carbon copy why bother? And even Knopfler doesn’t copy himself – he does the ending solos different live instead of copying the album, here’s one or try some other live version from youtube.

p.p.p.s I was reminded to write this down after listening to a very very different take on Somewhere by Vijay Iyer’s jazz trio.

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