Song Review: Keith Urban, “Female”

While I applaud the sentiment behind this song, I can’t help but feel like whoever wrote this thing either got bored or ran out of ideas halfway through it.

Country music has a long tradition of artists addressing current events in their songs (see Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” or Maren Morris’s “Dear Hate” earlier this year), and Keith Urban joined that group last week when he debuted his new single “Female,” at the 2017 Country Music Awards. The song is billed as a reaction to the recent series of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein and a number of other powerful men, and it serves as a repudiation of the toxic environments that women face in today’s society. It’s the sort of pointed topical discussion that I wish happened a lot more in country music, and Urban and the songwriters deserve credit for putting this out there, but this track honestly feels half-baked to me, alternating moments of brilliance with inexplicable laziness.

The production is purposefully low-key and restrained here, setting the proper mood for the song without getting in the way of its message. The melody is split between a spacious electric guitar and piano, and the percussion is a quiet mix of real and synthetic sounds. The riffs are simple and basic here, but I’m okay with that: I’ve criticized some of Urban’s songs in the past for not giving one of the best guitarists in the genre room to shine, but showing off his guitar wizardry here would feel a bit hollow and detract from the song’s theme. Similarly, there are minor chords sprinkled throughout the song, but they serve to demand our attention and underline the seriousness of the topic. In short, the mix sets a proper tone for the writing, and that’s pretty much all you can ask for.

Urban has never been known for tackling serious issues through his music, but he does a nice job bringing the required amounts of earnestness and gravitas on “Female.” The song is more demanding emotionally than technically (neither Urban’s range nor flow is tested), and Urban has both the chops and the career longevity to give an authoritative take on this subject. I never got the feeling that he was trying to “mansplain” the subject to his listeners, although the song seems to jump between addressing men and women during the verses. There aren’t a lot of singers in country music who could do this song justice, but thankfully Urban demonstrates that he’s one of them.

My big issue with “Female” stems from the lyrics, which take listeners on a rollercoaster of thought-provoking questions and mind-numbing laundry lists. The direct questions on the verses (Should “throw like a girl” be an insult? Do women really “ask for it” because of their fashion choices?) are actually pretty powerful (even though they’re posed rhetorically), and lead people to think about their attitudes towards women and the subtle ways they express bias in their daily lives. It’s all great…until the chorus comes along and slaps the listener with a long, drawn-out laundry list of random nouns. Some of these are labels commonly given to women (sister, daughter, mother, baby girl), some are occupations that don’t seem to have any gender connotation (secret keeper, fortune teller), and some are just random words that make absolutely no sense in context (Fire? Suit of armor? “Technicolor, river wild?”). The song goes from asking tough questions to spouting gibberish in an instant, giving the listener sonic whiplash and leaving them feeling confused about the song in the end. Despite the best efforts of Urban and the production, it’s this confusion that leaves the biggest impression.

“Female” makes some solid points and was written with good intentions, and I really want to like it. In the end, however, it’s defined by its inconsistent writing, and I’m left feeling ambivalent about the song when it’s over. Keith Urban and his producers show here that they have the skills to tackle a topic like misogyny, but they need to find songs that do a better job getting their message across.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth hearing once or twice, but you’ll likely forget about it soon afterwards.