Taking Sides: “If I Were a Boy” vs. “Like a Boy”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 15, 2008
2008: I think it’s time we switched role-switching songs
“If I Were a Boy,” the first single off Beyonce’s new album I Am…Sasha Fierce, is no doubt one of the more interesting hit songs out there right now. In her solo work as well as her Destiny’s Child discography, Ms. Knowles has certainly been no stranger to the angry chick song–I think between “No, No, No,” “Bug-a-Boo,” “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Say My Name,” “Girl,””Me, Myself and I” and “Ring the Alarm,” there’s enough scrubs, liars, cheaters and thugs to fill Waiting to Exhales two through seven (B even kills a dude in the “Me, Myself and I” vid). There’s something markedly different about “If I Were a Boy,” though–a greater thoughtfulness, maybe, definitely a greater maturity in emotion and songwriting. It’s not as affirming as “Girl,” not as self-righteous as “Bills, Bills, Bills” and certainly not nearly as furious as “Ring the Alarm,” but it feels a little deeper, more experienced. It’s a good song, and a pretty good video, too, despite the hokey intro. Just one problem: they already did it last year.
Ciara’s “Like a Boy” was one of the more underrated singles of 2007. It felt sort of unlikely coming from CC, whose previous hits were ultra lightweight (albeit supremely catchy) fare like “Goodies” and “1,2 Step,” none of which pointed towards the grittiness, attitude and originality of “Like a Boy.” But even in her crossover hits, Ciara always seemed a little bit less polished than some of her megastar counterparts, a little closer to street-level, which is why she could also get away with grimier, sultrier sounding hits like “Oh” and “Promise,” and why her sappy, super-sentimental hits like “Can’t Leave ‘Em Alone” and “And I” never really took off (I’m probably one of only ten people in the world who remembers the latter). In retrospect it probably shouldn’t have been so surprising a career evolution, but I doubt I ever would’ve expected her to take it as far as she did.
Both “If I Were a Boy” and “Like a Boy,” obviously, follow the same premise–in implied response to a deceitful, inconsiderate lover or two, the ladies pontificate on what life would be like if they happened to have penises. Naturally, the assumptions are not terribly complimentary–both seem to envision malehood as a non-stop hot mess of slobbing around, hanging out with your bros, and most importantly, cheating on your better half. Aside from having remarkably similar lyrics and titles, the songs also share several video motifs, both being in black and white, and both being based around the singer acting out their fantasy of conscienceless male sollipsism. Not to say the songs are carbon copies, though–they’re actually fairly different for two songs with so many superficial similarities. And while neither is without its merits, I think Ciara sort of nailed the way this song should be done the first time.
“If I Were a Boy” is about as textbook an example of a Take Me Seriously song as exists in pop music. Most major pop icons eventually get tired of all the frivolity and come up with one of these somewhere between five and ten years into their pop career–a song that shows that they’ve gone to the next level as a singer and icon, that they’re beginning their transformation from star to artist (major examples throughout pop music include Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and Janet Jackson’s “Again”). The song is amped up to maximum drama, complete with show-stopping emotional climax (“If you thought that I would wait for you / YOU THOUGHT WROOONG!!!“), and every element of Beyonce’s vocal is masterful in its control and dynamics (the way she barely ekes out the final “…but you’re just a boy” is impressively affecting). No doubt Beyonce had Grammys in her eyes when she first heard the final product.
However, the song’s a little wallowing for my tastes. Any song with a “oh to be male and an asshole” subject matter is bound to be at least a little sexist, but the anger and sort of vengeful slant on display in “Like a Boy” at least feels mildly self-aware in its irrationality. There’s no real self-pity in “Like a Boy,” just a whole lot of spite and frustration. If “Like a Boy” is a girl ranting to her friends at a bar, then “If I Were a Boy” is a girl crying to herself at home, trying to write a letter to her ex explaining exactly how she feels. Both are real situational emotions, no doubt, but Ciara’s irate sexism is at least explicable due to her impulsive and temporary fury, whereas Beyonce’s feels like a lifetime’s worth of pain coming out in a catharsis of misguided bitterness. And musically, “Like a Boy” just feels more appropriate–anger about differences in gender expectations doesn’t really seem like a subject worthy of the grandiose treatment of “If I Were a Boy,” but Ciara’s gravelly minor groove sounds about right.
It’s a surprising subject to get two hit songs written about it in as many years, and I’m definitely all about unconventional content in my pop music. It’s just a shame that “If I Were a Boy,” and its fast track to Record of the Year honors, seems destined to be the one that people will remember. Anything that washes the “Before He Cheats” taste out of our nation’s collective mouth is good news, though.