Nashville songwriter Shane McAnally believes music is open to interpretation.
But following the release of Keith Urban’s “Female,” co-written by McAnally, Nicolle Galyon and Ross Copperman — and performed by Urban on the CMA Awards last week — the Texas native wanted to add some clarity to the conversation.
After all, McAnally has written more than 30 No. 1 songs and numerous other acclaimed tracks for artists from Sam Hunt to Kacey Musgraves. But few have elicited the immediate, polarizing reaction of “Female.”
Some folks hailed it as “empowering” and others derided it as “mansplaining.” It even inspired a snarky bit on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
Sample lyric: “When somebody laughs and implies that she asked for it / Just cause she was wearing a skirt / Oh, is that how that works?” The chorus comes with a litany of descriptors: “Sister… shoulder... daughter...lover...Virgin Mary... scarlet letter.”
Ahead of Urban’s CMA Awards performance, it was reported that the song had been written in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, but, says McAnally, it’s not that simple.
“It was not a rebuttal to that,” he says via phone from Nashville. “It was part of the conversation that led us to what is going on” with women in the wider world.
From the Weinstein scandal to Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election to the gender pay gap to victim blaming in sexual assault scandals to the seemingly impenetrable wall built by country radio blocking out female artists, McAnally says, “It feels like we've gone backwards. We felt like women continue doing equal work in every regard, but getting less credit."
So the trio sat down and thought about the women in their lives and tried to imbue “Female” with all their concerns, fears, hopes and dreams.
For McAnally, a songwriting session is a little like the beginning of a talk show.
“What happens when you walk into a writing room a lot of times is just daily topics. It's like ‘The View’ or something,” he says of the process of “getting into the rhythm of the room.”
In early October, McAnally and fellow songwriters Galyon and Copperman couldn’t have picked a hotter topic when they gathered for a session.
“It was like ‘Oh, my God, can you believe all this stuff that's going on?’” McAnally recalls of the Weinstein sexual misconduct allegations that just days earlier had been reported by the New York Times. He mentioned that he had been toying with the title “Female” for some time.
The talk turned to their daughters — each songwriter has one; they’re all around the same age and they play together. McAnally also readily acknowledges that the “as the parent of a daughter” line is an irritating and ubiquitous cliche, but confesses, “that’s where we were at” that morning.
The conversation led to Halloween costumes. “They all want to be superheroes,” he says. “They believe they can save the world at this age. Sometimes you write songs, and there's a lot of laughs in it. This song, we felt a responsibility to them: What do we want them to expect? Look, I'll get very honest, the Hillary Clinton thing, I was really hit by that when she lost.
“And then, she's still on trial from the public, and from our president. So, I'm only speaking about her, from me, because I don't want to put words in anybody else's mouth. But I mean, you have so many things pointing to ‘Can a woman run the world?’ We keep saying it, but will that happen?"
The tune alludes to those thoughts. Sings Urban, “When you hear a song that they play sayin’ you run the world / Do you believe it? / Will you live to see it?”
McAnally’s political forthrightness is somewhat out of step with mainstream country.
“We stay out of politics in country music,” he says. “But I don't think it would be any surprise that somebody who is married, and gay and went through a surrogacy and an adoption is a Democrat,” he says with a chuckle.
Although on some level the songwriters had to know that “Female” would be parsed politically, McAnally contends it wasn’t a conscious choice they were making.
“We’re listing off what women have meant to us,” he says. “It really was just trying to cover the gamut of the good and the bad. The scarlet letter thing really is the part of the lyric that hit me the hardest in that list because that's what's going on with women being condemned when all these allegations come out. You're getting the eye roll when it comes up, people are like, ‘How many people are going to come out?’ And I'm like, ‘Well, as many people as it happened to, I hope.’"
The trio wrestled with the idea of which artist, and of what gender, should sing the song. But when Urban immediately expressed interest, they believed that if it were to be sung by a man, he was the one to do it.
Everything that happened after — the lightning fast recording, the CMA performance, the response — has left McAnally in awe and glad that people are engaging with the song, regardless of their responses.
“We don't want to be so heavy-handed. We really want someone to be able to draw their own conclusion.” he says. “This is why I do music.”
He adds, “Even if at times the reaction might be negative, it still feels like, at least somebody's having a reaction.”