Home > Essays > Essay: Does Keith Urban’s ‘Female’ empower or fall flat?

Essay: Does Keith Urban’s ‘Female’ empower or fall flat?

A month ago, Keith Urban released his woman-empowered new single “Female,” a glossy pop-country tune addressing society’s infatuation with toxic masculinity and unsettling denial of sexual assault ⎯⎯ “when somebody laughs and implies that she asked for it, just cause she was wearing a skirt / now is that how it works?” he reprimands on the second verse. Co-written by Nicolle Galyon (Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney), Shane McAnally (Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt) and Ross Copperman (Brett Eldredge, Jake Owen), the plucky ode, which was reportedly written the day news broke of sexual assault claims against Harvey Weinstein, then indexes a long sequence of signifiers on the chorus. “Sister, shoulder, daughter, lover, healer, broken halo, Mother Nature, fire, suit of armor, soul survivor, Holy Water, secret keeper, fortune teller, Virgin Mary, scarlet letter, technicolor river wild, baby girl, woman, child,” Urban sings. Galyon and actress Nicole Kidman can be heard prominently in the background, offering a counterbalance of womanly spirit and support for one of the riskiest singles in today’s country.

On the surface, “Female” is a bold offering, especially given Urban’s track record of hits spanning 20 years and the general misogynistic tone of the airwaves. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s “Speak to a Girl” followed a similar template, that of genuine respect for women and commitment to correcting the narrative. The deplorable bro-country phase only died out a short two years ago, and in its place, we have sticky faux-sentimentalism and breezy laundry-list anthems about reliving youth, ala The Chainsmokers. “Female” works on principal alone, and Urban, a straight white male, is the most appropriate vehicle for it’s timely, necessary, long-overdue message. But it is still not without its problems.

“It aspires to a greater message and impact than the writing accomplishes,” Country Universe writer Jonathan Keefe tells B-Sides & Badlands in an email exchange on the matter. The verses are written as rhetorical prompts, so the narrator, in this case, Urban himself, isn’t looking for an answer. “It is always a questionable approach for a song in the way that it both limits the audience of people who are supposed to respond to those questions and strikes a tone that the person asking the question already knows the answer,” he stresses.

The Trouble with Lists is…

Then, the chorus is devoid of bite, piecing together hollow representations of women, particularly their “relationships to other people.” The songwriting is a scan for discernible depth (exhibited with such attributes as “holy water” and “Mother Nature”) without actually saying anything. “That’s endemic of the larger problem with Keith’s work of late. He’s gone hook, line and sinker for these nebulously-constructed list songs,” singer-songwriter and Belmont University student Sean McGibany reminds us. “‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16’ was exactly the same, as was (to a lesser extent) ‘Wasted Time.’ I’ll be the first to say that I like ‘Raise ‘Em Up,’ but it suffers from the same problem.” Notably, McAnally had a hand in writing “John Cougar,” which features this clunky, convoluted batch of lyrics: “I’m a 45 spinning on an old Victrola / I’m a two strike swinger, I’m a Pepsi Cola / I’m a blue jean quarterback saying ‘I love you’ to the prom queen in a Chevy / I’m John Wayne, Superman, California / I’m a Kris Kristofferson Sunday morning / I’m a mom and daddy singing along to Don McLean at the levee.”

McGibany continues, “Keith casts his net far too wide and just grabs all the images falling under a big category like ‘Americana’ and ‘female empowerment’ without any sense of story or statement to tie them together. It does the absolute least amount of work it needs to jump on the issue of gender inequality and pretend to make a statement about it.”

Jessica Bray, founder of Kentucky Country Music, hops into the conversation with another glaring worry. “It is literally a list of cliches of what a woman should be. What gets me is that they use the words ‘mother’ and ‘sister.’ What about the woman who either has no siblings or is unable to become a mother? Are they less of a woman for not being that complete picture painted in the chorus?” Writer Liz Austin counter-argues, “Keith shows he wants to join the conversation.” With that said, “he doesn’t seem willing to dig deeper than just asking a few questions and celebrating women with a few label words,” Austin adds. “I do think the song could be better ⎯⎯ in that it could go deeper into the issues faced by women, and the chorus could have been used to drive the message home better, rather than just using the standard list formula…I believe it’s more of a conversation starter.”

Galyon’s Voice

Nicolle Galyon, known for penning such hits as Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic” and Kenny Chesney’s “All the Pretty Girls,” would seem to give the song a bit of substance and honesty. “Her involvement as a writer and performer gives some indication that men were listening to a woman at some point in the creation of the song and the single. It’s sad to think that counts as progress for contemporary country, but it probably does,” says Keefe. CM Chat writer Brittany Vance, voicing her admiration for Galyon, is quick to mention “two men also wrote the song. I think their heart was in the right place, but they just can’t relate to female issues.”

Gallon’s presence, however, does not inject enough intimate detail or raw nerve to elevate from the ho-hum floor boards. “Having a female songwriter on this project should [have] strengthened the song and made it more personal,” Austin muses. “When listening to the song, it feels very much like a male trying to understand and start a conversation with women, and not someone already in it, wanting to discuss it further.”

Another point of concern is framing the song’s purpose around Urban’s personal stakes. “As a husband and a father of two young girls, it affects me in a lot of ways. And as a son — my mother is alive. It just speaks to all of the females in my life, particularly,” he told Billboard. He’s not “alone in conceptualizing the problem in this way, and everyone has to start somewhere in terms of recognizing systems of abuse and oppression,” Keefe responds, “but men seriously need to stop doing this.”

On the other hand, Austin maintains women “need to give men who are trying to get into this conversation more grace. We need to let them in and help them, help them better understand and learn how to communicate within this conversation better. It’s so important to extend grace in every situation. If a man cares enough to try and get into the conversation, rather than denying it or staying completely out of it, then the absolute least we can do is extend grace, listen, teach, learn and help. We need to work together, not fight amongst ourselves.”

She adds, “I have no problem with Keith or his team using the fact that he has daughters in order to edge into this conversation. I think it’s sad that they feel the need to do so, but I don’t have an issue with it, maybe because I don’t believe that’s the only reason he is speaking out.”

Jason Isbell & the looming “White Man’s World”

Earlier this summer, Jason Isbell addressed his white privilege in a song titled “White Man’s World” (off his new album The Nashville Sound with The 400 Unit). He not only recognizes the burden people of color carry but also his role in perpetuating racism — “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes / Wishing I’d never been one of the guys / Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke,” he reveals on verse four, situating the song as an honest attempt at change. The song was not met with nearly as much outrage or criticism, and stands in stark contrast to “Female,” which wields only surface-level worries that cut much deeper.

“White Man’s World” is filtered through Isbell’s experiences and not as byproducts of having a daughter. “He speaks through a father’s viewpoint at certain points in the song, but he also speaks as a man living in this world,” says Austin. “He owns up to his privilege and mistakes, doesn’t pretend to understand what the minorities are going through or feeling, and he makes no bones about how he feels [regarding] the current state of humanity.”

Not all endeavors have been quite as successful. In 2013, superstar Brad Paisley attempted to move the needle with “Accidental Racist,” a collaboration with LL Cool J, from Paisley’s album Wheelhouse. In it, he sings, transparently, “I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland / Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be / I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done.” Lauded as some transcendent and profound statement, it was met with torches and pitchforks, and rightfully so. The end result was a disaster. But Keefe makes quick to remind us that “as much as ‘Accidental Racist’ was appalling, Brad was making a legitimate attempt to engage with his own social privileges and to learn more about them, even though he expressed it in ways that undermined his intent,” he says. “I think the intent of the songwriters of ‘Female’ and Urban is very much the same. Not everyone is born woke. It’s a process, and I think it’s important to reinforce the effort and the intent while shaping the execution and content.”

Late-night TV host Stephen Colbert promptly stepped into that role to highlight “Female”s faults and to play his own hilariously on-point parody on his show. “Last night, at the Country Music Awards, Urban debuted his new Harvey Weinstein-inspired female country empowerment anthem. That is a word salad I never thought I would say,” he joked. “Now, before I play you this song, I just want to be clear. I am a fan of Mr Urban’s, and I think his heart is in the right place. His lyrics? Not as much.”

For Bray, it’ll take much more than recording a hit single and performing it on country’s biggest stage to strike measurable social change. “Keith has the ‘All for the Hall’ benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He should use his position to point out women that should be honored,” she says. “He should have more tourmates that are females. He has the power and ability to showcase women in a more powerful way than singing a song.”

Radio & the Move Toward Change

If they really want to prove country music cares about females, start playing them on the radio, instead of a male artist singing about them,” Vance admonishes, referring to another distressing, infuriating concern. “I think a man singing about a woman or women’s rights isn’t problematic but it isn’t fixing anything within country music, just another man being played on country radio. Maybe they should have let a female sing it.”

The Song Suffragettes’ flipped-perspective version (below) does carry significantly more weight and understanding. When they sing, you truly believe them — because they’ve lived it every damn day of their lives. “When I heard [‘Female’] I immediately connected to it,” singer-songwriter Kalie Shorr, who is joined by Lacy Cavalier, Lena Stone and others, explained. “I’ve always loved Keith Urban but his decision to record this song and use his platform to stand in solidarity with women made me admire him even more. I chatted with the Song Suffragettes girls and we thought it would be really cool and special to put our voices on it.”

When comparing to the most recent chart hits, from Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” to Luke Bryan’s “Light It Up,” “Female” quenches programmers’ unsinkable thirst for “fairy tale fantasies,” rather than accurate or even relatable stories about “what females are truly going through,” Bray affirms, citing songs like Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” and “The Pill,” Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” and Sunny Sweeney’s “Bottle By My Bed” as apt portrayals of very honest, often heartbreaking, matters women face. There is no excuse that Lee Ann Womack, Angaleena Presley and many others cannot get airplay for the simple fact they sing real life songs.”

On Mediabase/Country Aircheck, “Female” entered the Top 20 this week (Dec. 4), residing at No. 19. Meanwhile, Maren Morris’ “I Could Use a Love Song” sits at No. 7, Kelsea Ballerini’s “Legends” at No. 13, Miranda Lambert’s “Tin Man” at No. 23, Lauren Alaina’s “Doin’ Fine” at No. 43, Danielle Bradbery’s “Sway” at No. 48. Additionally, Faith Hill shows up in collaboration with Tim McGraw on “Rest of Our Life” at No. 29 and pop singer Tori Kelly teams up with Chris Lane on “Take Back Home Girl” at No. 36, and woman-featuring bands such as Little Big Town (“When Someone Stops Loving You,” No. 37), Lady Antebellum (“Heart Break,” No. 38) and Runaway June (“Wild West,” No. 45) are peppered throughout the bottom half of the leaderboard. That is 10 out of 50. 20 percent.

“I think it’s just time for a recalibrating of the past, you know? Things have been a certain way for a long, long time, and I think you’re seeing a turning of the tide for that,” Urban told reporters at the BMI Awards ahead of his water cooler performance at the CMA Awards, which featured sparse staging and only Urban on guitar. For all its problems, “Female” is as bold as we can probably expect in contemporary country, which says less about Urban himself and a helluva lot more about how far we, as a society and country community, still need to push. It’s at least getting us talking, listening and attempting to work towards solutions, instead of standing still.

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Jason Scott

Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake--and she doesn't like you very much.