A gender-bent song cover is one in which the cover artist’s gender differs from that of the original
artist. When covering songs, singers often disregard the original artist’s gender. However, there are
instances in which the artist’s gender is highly relevant to the message of the song. These instances
are made especially apparent from lyrics reflecting gendered language about personal or romantic
experiences. Some cover artists approaching these songs choose to change the lyrics to better
connect with them, while others, whether subconsciously or intentionally, leave the lyrics untouched.
In this article, I showcase 10 song covers in which gender-bent solos were intentionally used to
question and defy modern cultural stereotypes about sex and gender.

#1 “Man’s World” o.p.b. James Brown, covered by Louisa Johnson


In the semi-final episode of the UK’s X Factor, Louisa Johnson is asked to cover James Brown’s hit
“Man’s World” in the style of Christina Aguilera. The song’s lyrics acknowledge the patriarchal state
of society and the historical events which have led it there (e.g. the manufacturing of trains, the
invention of electricity). The last line of the chorus pays respect to the women who made this
progress possible, either by supporting their partners or birthing and raising the future generation.
“The way I’ve interpreted it is girl power,” says Johnson. After the first verse, she nods while angrily
belting “But [the world] wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl.” By slaying a traditionally
male solo, Johnson claims the song, and the world, as her own.

#2 “My Heart Will Go On” o.p.b. Celine Dion, covered by Nick Pitera


Youtube celebrity Nick Pitera is known for his gender-bent covers and unique voice. “My Heart Will
Go On” showcases Nick’s high vocal range and buttery tone. Nick’s voice cannot be restricted to
male “parts” (e.g. tenor, baritone, bass), and his falsetto can easily pass as a girl’s head-voice.
By covering a traditionally female solo, Nick displays the diversity of the male voice while defying
stereotypes about what it should and could sound like.

#3 “Respect” o.p.b. Ottis Redding, covered by Aretha Franklin


(source: http://www.npr.org/2017/02/14/515183747/respect-wasnt-a-feminist- anthem-until-
aretha-franklin- made-it-one)
Ottis Redding’s version of “Respect” was written from the perspective of a man who demanded
appreciation for his contributions (that is, bringing home the bacon). It was only when Aretha Franklin
released a cover of this song in 1967 that it became an anthem for women’s rights and specifically
black women’s rights. By singing this male solo from a female’s perspective, Franklin completely
changed the modern interpretation of the song.

#4 “Home” o.p.b. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, covered by Charlie Peck


This cover, which Charlie Peck openly dedicated to the transgender community, reflects Charlie’s
sex transition over the course of a year. In the original version, the verse is split between a female
and male soloist, who later sing the chorus in unison. Charlie records the “female” part after the first
day of testosterone treatment and the “male” part after nine months of treatment. While the two
voices in the cover sound completely different, they both belong to the same artist and are equally
showcased by the track. By merging recordings of his voice before and after hormonal treatment,
Charlie highlights that gender is just as fluid and non-binary as the voice.

#5 Hotline Bling o.p.b. Drake, covered by Mallika Rangan (Harvard College ‘17/’18)


According to Rangan, making a feminist cover of Drake’s wildly popular “Hotline Bling” was an
intentional response to the song’s lyrics. “I wanted to challenge the normalization of men who feel
ownership over their female significant others or exes,” she says. Rangan replaces the song’s original
lyrics (e.g. “you started wearin’ less and going out more”), which cast judgment on any actions
deviating from home-boundedness and male dependency, with feminist, empowering lyrics (e.g.
“You stop telling women how you think they should be dressing… it’s not to your discretion”). By
singing this song through a feminist lens, Rangan rejects the “toxic gender roles” promoted by
Drake’s original lyrics.

#6 “Pretty Hurts” o.p.b. Beyoncé, covered by Sam Tsui and Jason Pitts


The lyrics of “Pretty Hurts” reflect common cultural pressures placed on women to look a certain
way (e.g “Blonde hair, flat chest”) and maintain a certain body shape while acknowledging that
perfection is contradictory (e.g. “Bigger is better… thinner is better”) and thus, unattainable. By
creating a male cover of this female-targeted song without changing its lyrics, Sam Tsui and Jason
Pitts show recognition for the social stresses put on females’ bodies while illustrating that men and
non-women can also relate to the song’s message through their own cultural expectations and body
image struggles.

#7 “TNT” o.p.b. AC/DC, covered by Shoot to Thrill


Queen, The Beatles, Metallica, Pink Floyd, Nirvana, The Rolling Stones. What do all of these rock
bands have in common? They are universally considered to be the most iconic bands of their time.
Oh yeah, and each one of them is an all-male band. Shoot to Thrill, an all-female rock band known
for covering AC/DC hits, proves that women vocalists and instrumentalists can put on a damn
good rock concert all on their own. By covering a male band in a male-dominated genre, Shoot to
Thrill rejects barriers on the style of music women can create and perform.

#8 “Let It Go” o.p.b. James Bay, covered by Arden Cho


The gender-bending in this breathy, simplified cover, while intentional, is almost unnoticeable.
Although Cho has never openly identified herself as gay, she didn’t feel the need to change the
gender pronouns in this song to reflect her experience or emotionally convey the meaning of the
song. It’s rare that a song captures a listener’s exact experience, and gender is just one aspect which
can enhance this relationship.

#9 “Valerie” o.p.b. Amy Winehouse covered by Bruno Mars


I’ll start with a disclaimer: this cover is not technically gender-bending. The original song was written
and performed by The Zutons, an all-male band, in 2006 before Amy Winehouse’s cover
popularized it. However, in this performance, Bruno Mars sang the song in commemoration of its
most famous cover artist, Amy Winehouse, after she passed away in 2011. As can be discerned from
the lyrics, The Zutons intended “Valerie” to be a love song in which the male soloist yearns for his
girlfriend, Valerie. Still, Amy Winehouse’s cover of this song has rarely been interpreted in a
gendered way. Bruno Mars’s commemoration of Amy Winehouse through her cover of this song
indicates that the gendered message of a song can be overshadowed by the way it was performed
and the artist that made it so memorable.

#10 “Dangerous Woman” o.p.b. Ariana Grande, covered by Travis Garland


Any Ariana Grande song covering three vocal octaves (that is, every Ariana Grande song) could scare
a trained soprano from attempting a cover, but that didn’t stop Travis Garland from making a riff-
licious, hard-hitting version of “Dangerous Woman.” As a male soloist, Garland changes the
chorus’s lyrics to reflect the partner’s perspective in the relationship (“Something about me makes
you feel like a dangerous woman”) without taking away the control and power that Ariana gives to
the woman in the song. Through his cover, Garland demonstrates that it’s possible to sing a
gendered solo while respecting the gendered message of the song. In this case, a male can show off
his crazy belts and runs in this traditionally female solo while supporting the female empowerment
generated by the original version.

Harvard Rock Review