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The Madonna Timeline: Song #71 – ‘What It Feels Like For a Girl’ – Late Winter 2001

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

Girls can wear jeans, cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, cause it’s okay to look like a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly, you’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you? What it feels like for a girl…

So quotes Madonna in the intro for her 2001 single ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’, from the autumnal ‘Music’ album. It’s an excerpt from ‘The Cement Garden’ and it’s brilliant, throwing a defiantly-feminist slant into the whole equation, and investing the proceedings with more than a dollop of serious intent.

Silky smooth
Lips as sweet as candy, baby
Tight blue jeans
Skin that shows in patches
Strong inside but you don’t know it
Good little girls they never show it
When you open up your mouth to speak
Could you be a little weak?
Do you know what it feels like for a girl?
Do you know what it feels like in this world, for a girl?

Above gently-percolating beats, and the fluid, musical techno-wizardry of Guy Sigsworth, the melody is a loose and light one, almost at odds with the rage boiling just under the surface of the words at play. It is a plaintive cry for understanding, coupled with the realization that there may never be understanding – the conundrum of being a girl in today’s world – and, perhaps, yesterday’s world – expressed through the words and music of a woman who’s been every girl: Material Girl, Bad Girl, Mer Girl, and Girl Gone Wild.

The way Madonna conveys that ache and yearning is the hallmark of what makes her so amazing, not just as a woman, but as an artist. Within this song is both an admittance of vulnerability and a beacon of self-sufficiency – the power and the weakness of being a girl.

Hair that twirls on finger tips so gently, baby
Hands that rest on jutting hips repenting…
Hurt that’s not supposed to show
And tears that fall when no one knows
When you’re trying hard to be your best
Could you be a little less?
Do you know what it feels like for a girl?
Do you know what it feels like in this world
What it feels like for a girl?

She has said she wrote it while pregnant with her first son and thinking of her first daughter, wondering how it must be for a girl growing up in this world ~ how hard, how beautiful, how sad. As she matures into her mid-fifties, no one knows that difficult journey better than Madonna. Now, as attacks come based solely on her age, and the fact that she’s a female (how else to explain the cruelty of jabs about her arms, her body, her refusal to go away?) the song has an even deeper meaning. This is one of the great, and often over-looked, strengths of a Madonna song – they evolve through the years, taking on different meanings, and revealing nuances that grow and bloom as time unfurls.

To controversially accompany the song, Madonna filmed a gritty Guy Ritchie-directed video, set rather sorely to a harder-edged remix, which works in one way, but might have been much more powerful with the gorgeousness of the original track as its backing. Juxtaposed with all the intense imagery, the beats become the focus, and the lyrics are shamefully lost. Still, it’s a wild, entertaining ride, with numerous little dirty winks at the audience, and it demands repeat viewings to get it all in.

Strong inside but you don’t know it
Good little girls they never show it
When you open up your mouth to speak
Could you be a little weak?

The song was released in the late winter of 2001, just before Madonna was set to embark on her first tour in eight years, ‘The Drowned World Tour’. In that pocket of time just before spring arrives, heartache resonates a little more, and the hopeless/hopeful push and pull of this song, and its shuffling undertones of melancholy, may be more deeply felt.

Do you know what it feels like for a girl?
Do you know what it feels like in this world… for a girl?

Song #71 – ‘What It Feels Like For a Girl’ – Late Winter 2001
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