#98 – “How Can I Sing Like A Girl?” (1996)

Factory Showroom

L.K.: Man, I am listening to the demo of this song right now and I forgot how low it is.

A.S.: You mean they key?  I’m giving the studio version a re-listen first.
L.K.: Yeah, key-wise I think it’s continually moved up, from the demo to the studio version to the live version.
A.S.: Which of course isn’t unusual for TMBG.
L.K.: Oh, of course not, but it’s just amusing in the context of this song, given the subject matter.
A.S.: True, although never do they really need to actually sing like a girl for this one.
L.K.: Yep. Linnell of all people is the one singing the higher harmony part for this live. The original idea for the song came from an incident of actual singing-like-a-girl though.
A.S.: Yep, Linnell needing to sing like a girl for “She Was A Hotel Detective” off the Back To Skull EP.
L.K.: Well, Flansburgh needing to sing like a girl, rather, since Linnell wasn’t capable of it outside of the studio.
A.S.: Oh, for live performances.
L.K.: Yep. On the studio version of that song, the “girl” part is just Linnell sped up.
A.S.: But back to “How Can I Sing Like A Girl?” and Linnell’s harmonies – I just noticed Linnell’s additional harmonies at the end of the studio version, singing “How-ow-ow-ow” in the background.  It’s a cool extra layer!
L.K.: I just noticed all sorts of things in that upon re-listening. Like the tympani!
A.S.: Yes! For a band that likes to explore both minimalist and maximalist textures in pop songs, this certainly leans heavily on the maximalist side of things.
L.K.: Which makes it interesting that now they’ve completely swung back around the other way on this song.
A.S.: It’s why it’s so strange to hear them perform it live as a duo.
L.K.: Flansburgh seems to feel the duo setting is more true to the intentions of the song, compared to the full-band treatment. There are billions of videos of this online from the last tour, if you care to watch. Flans was not just allowing people to film it, but was explicitly telling people to film live performances of this song in particular. I am unsure if he was trying to crowdsource a video from it or what, but nothing further seems to have come of it. I for one really enjoy the chance to see them perform as a duo again after all these years, because I know within the last couple years or so, I was actually doubting their ability to do so.
A.S.: I do too, I just wish they’d do more songs or maybe vary the selection, instead of it just being “How Can I Sing Like A Girl?” Although we were very lucky to have seen “Cage and Aquarium” and “Kiss Me, Son of God” done in that fashion last November.
L.K.: “KMSOG” especially, because that is a song I never thought I would see performed live ever.
A.S.: As sweet as the live duo performances are though, I do miss the maximalist wall of sound of the studio version live. My favorite part of the song is when it switches into the parallel minor for the guitar solo.  It just adds this dark, dramatic edge to it, elevating the song from good to great (however I can qualify those terms, exactly.) And then those two enormous drum hits that launch back into the chorus – it’s a pretty exciting moment. That gets lost when just the Johns perform it.
L.K.: It does perhaps feel a little overdramatic and inappropriate in the context of the song though, given the apprehensive yet still determined desire of the narrator to express himself however he feels appropriate. It’s not an inherently bombastic piece, more like a personal meditation on freedom of expression.
A.S.: It’s an interesting juxtaposition to say the least. Strange how it’s also one of the longest songs in the catalogue too, at over four and a half minutes long, which of course is par for the course for most bands, but for TMBG it’s a relative eternity.
L.K.: Well, it is from Factory Showroom, the album of few-but-long songs.
A.S.: Even then, only three songs from that album hit the four-minute mark!
L.K.: Well, this is still TMBG we’re talking about here.
A.S.: Yeah, I guess it’s the only album where that happens. It’s weird how song structures can just pre-determine lengths, since there’s nothing particularly extraneous about the song.  I don’t think it overstays its welcome.  Live it manages to hover around 3 minutes or so, but they’ve chopped out the whole solo section.
L.K.: The demo is also about 3 minutes long, again, without the solo section or lengthy fadeout.
A.S.: Maybe it’s my prog-rock upbringing that desires more complexity.
L.K.: Hm, this song is another example of Flans being all Mr. Feminist, but with mixed results. I mean, even if you sing like a girl, people will make fun of you, but they probably aren’t going to objectify you.
A.S.: The person who objectifies Russell Mael the most is probably Russell Mael.
L.K.: I think I’ve seen more people objectifying Ron Mael on the internet. I know that particular line could be intended as tongue-in-cheek, but Flansburgh has always seemed pretty humorless about women’s issues, so it’s hard to tell.
A.S.: I’m trying to think of alto male singers being objectified vs. baritone/bass singers and I dunno, I think you can argue that the Hanson brothers have been objectified as much as Barry White in the long run.
L.K.: Yeah, I think people just make fun of high-voiced men, which is sexist in a different way.
A.S.: Yeah, poking fun is a totally different issue that Flansburgh didn’t bring up here.
L.K.: I think looking like a girl is more of the issue than sounding like one.
A.S.: Oh, absolutely.
L.K.: Neither of which are things TMBG has ever had a problem with anyway.
A.S.: Looking like a girl is infinitely easier than singing like a girl, too.
L.K.: Which isn’t to say that throngs of fangirls aren’t objectifying them in other ways…
[Oh hey, it’s Sarah Vowell and Eugene Mirman!]

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