I wanna talk about Madonna’s elegiac “What It Feels Like For A Girl.” At this post-Brett Kavanaugh juncture in American life, I think it’s a fine time to appreciate it.
“What It Feels Like For A Girl” was the low-key, musically understated third single from Madonna’s Music album.
Released in 2000, Music followed 1998’s ambitious, resplendent Ray Of Light. For Ray Of Light, Madonna selected William Orbit as a collaborator, which was at that time considered a left-field choice. Orbit was an eccentric, progressive composer and musician who was best-known for his own curious amalgam of classical and electronic music. Interesting stuff, but the dude definitely did not have any hits. Madonna adored his work and commissioned Orbit to produce, which was a nervy move. It paid off with a gorgeous masterpiece that, while not her greatest commercial success, certainly did sell well. Five million copies in the U.S. and 11 million globally.
When it came time to make a follow-up album, Madonna once again zigzagged. She chose yet another collaborative team, headed by French producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï. She didn’t rebuke Orbit—he was invited to participate in a minor, supporting role—but she did not attempt to duplicate the alchemy of Ray Of Light. When you’re a chart-topping artist like Madonna, there is a lot of incentive to play it safe: Last album worked out great! Let’s do that exact same thing again!
Madonna is known for her chameleonic fashion sense and her strong radio-pop instincts, but not many people credit her as a risk-taker. And not many people recognize that the only true throughline in Madonna’s work is Madonna herself. This is not to detract from William Orbit’s obvious brilliance—he’s clearly key to what makes Ray Of Light great—but … Ray Of Light is a Madonna album, not an Orbit album. If you read some original reviews of Ray Of Light, you might not pick up on this distinction.
If Ray Of Light was suffused with a sprawling, gauzy, backlit mysticism—reportedly inspired by Madonna’s new motherhood—Music was the more taut, confectionary, club-ready follow-up. Even the title seemed kind of no-nonsense and plain.
The opening “What It Feels Like For A Girl” unspools a spoken-word soliloquy. This dulcet sampled dialogue is Charlotte Gainsbourg in the 1993 film The Cement Garden. Pulsing, inviting textures envelop your ears as Gainsbourg intones “Secretly, you’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you? What it feels like for a girl…” The tone of this introduction is soothing enough to pass as seduction.
But this song is decidedly not erotica. This song is a treatise of feminist dissent.
Feminism is a spectrum. Madonna’s part of that spectrum is fraught with complexity. Because sexual allure is a part of her work, she wasn’t always recognized as a feminist. But this much is inarguable: She has been a consistent advocate of female agency and self-determination.
“What It Feels Like For A Girl” discusses that curious, disempowering practice of girls being indoctrinated to deliberately diminish their presence in order not to threaten the culture of patriarchy.
The verse is bifurcated. It begins with an admiring (or predatory?) objectification of an alluring young woman. External traits are listed: “Silky smooth, lips as sweet as candy/ Baby/ Tight blue jeans, skin that shows in patches…”
This dovetails with a darker portrait of what is happening internally, where there is distress and turmoil: “Strong inside, but you don’t know it/ Good little girls, they never show it…”
Which leads us to the bleak: “When you open up your mouth to speak/ could you be a little weak?”
The line stings like sarcasm, though it is not sarcastic at all. That is precisely the straightforward request society makes of women. A covenant of diminishment. Be weak.
From here she drops us into the chorus: “Do you know what it feels like for a girl?” The premise is stripped of any playful or erotic connotations. The question is plainly stated: Have you, dear listener, considered that women all over the world endure this abject course of debasement?
And if so, what are you gonna do about it? What are we gonna do about it?
The next verse repeats the pattern: a brief optical tour of external femme traits followed by a darker assessment of the internal spirit and cultural circumstance. “Hair that twirls on fingertips so gently…” eventually cedes to the tragic “Hurt that’s not supposed to show/ and tears that fall when no one knows…”
This is followed by the oppressive “When you’re trying hard to be your best/ could you be a little less?” Again, same social covenant: Be weak, baby. And once again, she poses the question nakedly: “Do you know what it feels like for a girl?”
It is worth noting that the repeated trope of the word “baby” inserted in the verses has dual interpretations. One of them is affection, but the other is infantilization.
There are certainly more blunt feminist songs. And there are certainly more complex and abstract feminist songs (the Joni Mitchell oeuvre, for example). But I posit that this exact blend of daring, concision, and accessibility is a Madonna specialty.
Though Music, the album, was produced by Ahmadzaï, “What It Feels Like For A Girl” is a special collaboration with Guy Sigsworth, primarily known for his work with Björk. He is credited as co-writer and producer. It’s reasonable to assume that some of the hybrid organic/synthetic textures in this song are his work. The song certainly seems to bear his aesthetic fingerprint. But, again, “What It Feels Like For A Girl” is a Madonna song, not a Guy Sigsworth song.
Still, reviewers tend to ascribe the savvy of her work to her male producers (the more sinister and inaccurate word is “handlers”). But it’s Madonna’s curatorial moxie that leads her to select these collaborators. That moxie is a huge part of her art. Dismissing that factor is ignorant. Madonna carved her own path. William Orbit is cool and all, but you know what’s cooler? Selecting someone as idiosyncratic as William Orbit to produce a radio pop album… and pulling it off!
It’s interesting that someone as powerful and enduring as Madonna (who turned 60 recently) still suffers the withering lacerations of sexism. Think about it: Despite more than 30 years of cunningly holding the world’s attention, there are those who still doubt her artistic acumen!
Being relentlessly charismatic and influential for decades—through multiple aesthetic phases—while being persistently dismissed as a lightweight?
I guess that’s what it feels like for a girl.
Read previous essays in Chad Clark’s One Song series:
Prince’s ‘Tamborine’Janet Jackson’s ‘Got ‘Til It’s Gone’Fugazi’s ‘Runaway Return’Gillian Welch’s ‘My Morphine’De La Soul’s ‘Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa’Elvis Costello’s ‘Beyond Belief’Harry Nilsson, ‘Everybody’s Talkin” and John Barry, ‘Midnight Cowboy Theme’Siouxsie and The Banshees’ ‘Christine’Rufus Wainwright’s ‘The Art Teacher’