David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 196: They Might Be Giants (How Can I Sing Like A Girl?)

October 30, 2022

It's deja vu all over again.

"How Can I Sing Like A Girl?" They Might Be Giants famously ask on their 1996 CD, Factory Showroom.

One is tempted to see the song like (or maybe as if) the kind of cute gimmick that TMBG often couldn't escape from, a song in the category or "aren't they so clever" ("I Palindrome I") or "aren't they so esoteric" ("Ana Ng") or even "aren't they so kid-friendly instructional" ("Why Does The Sun Shine?").

Interestingly, the song may be about as autobiographical as anything TMBG have ever done, capturing John Flansburgh's challenge in achieving a falsetto delivery to reproduce "She Was A Hotel Detective" (in the "aren't they so eccentric" TMBG category) live. For whatever the reason, it is one of the band's catchier songs, an ear-worm chorus that won't let up in your head when you hear it. With a killer guitar solo (rare for the Giants) to boot.

However, the chorus to "How Can I Sing Like A Girl?" presents two problematic factors in answering the title question:

How can I sing like a girl/

And not be stigmatized/

By the rest of the world?/

Tell me, how can I sing like a girl/

And not be objectified/

As if I was a girl?/

Male singers with high voices run the range of abuse from the misogynistic of the world, seen as emasculated men, as Castrati. That stigmatization can also be found, a tad more devastatingly, in Justin Currie's  "Falsetto," where Currie laments that he "never liked your dad 'cause he never loved the fact/that you were you and liked to sing falsetto/which real men shouldn't do." So, yeah, John Flansburgh, be ready to be "stigmatized by the rest of the world." He is well aware of the fate.

However, make no mistake, there's a whole bunch of women hearing that line "and not be objectified as I were a girl," and going "uh-huh, sister." I can think of 24 just from my last blog. All those magnificent, powerful women contributing to Annie Lennox's "Sing?" I am sure each has a story about being objectified (Lennox left The Tourists to form the Eurythmics with Dave Stewart in part because they felt The Tourists was ultimately attracting too much ogling). Go down that roster of those 24 from Madonna to Anastacia, and there must be hundreds of stories of being objectified.

Here's the thing: I can't help wondering if "How Can I Sing Like A Girl?" could have become "aren't they so kid-friendly instructional." With the title itself a simile, "a girl" in the title is already a requisite object, as "like" has to lead into a noun serving as an object in the sentence. Yet, in the second half of that chorus, when Flansburgh sings "and not be objectified," he doesn't say "Like a girl," which would be the objectification he is not looking for. Interestingly, the simile is centered on a verbal phrase, "as if I were a girl." In the most basic sense, men cannot be "objectified" similarly (similely?) to women. We can only experience that from a transformative moment of actually being the girl, the necessary action inherent in verbal phrases.

Pretty clever, Giants. Or, pretty English-majory, Dave.

If it's any solace, I have no idea what to make of the bridge in light of this sensitivity I see in the chorus:

I want to raise my freak flag/higher and higher/

I want to raise my freak flag/and never be alone.

But then again, these are They Might Be Giants. Befuddling is their thing. Who else has a song about themselves ("They Might Be Giants") as well as a song claiming they are someone else: "We're The Replacements"?

They Might Be Giants. "How Can I Sing Like A Girl?" Factory Showroom. Elektra, 1996. Link here.

Day 195: Annie Lennox "Sing"

Day 197: Chicago "No Tell Lover"

See complete list here.