This is the 98th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Singer-songwriter BC Jean was 17 when she moved from San Diego to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music in the mid-2000s. Through MySpace, she met producer Toby Gad. He invited her to come to New York City, where he was living at the time. Over a week or so, they wrote several songs together.
On a break from writing, they went to Times Square. Jean smelled some pizza, which caused her to say, “I wish I were a boy.” Gad, confused, asked her to elaborate. Jean said that she really wanted some pizza, but because she was trying to not eat carbs, she didn’t think she should. But if she were a boy, she said, she could just eat the pizza without caring.
Gad, who had his tape recorder with him, asked Jean what else she would do if she were a boy. She listed a few things she would do, and because she was heartbroken from a recent breakup, she said, “I’d be a better man than my ex.” The two returned to the studio, where they used the dialogue from that recorded conversation to write some lyrics. Within 30 minutes, they had written “If I Were A Boy.” Gad told Jean, “We just wrote a smash.”
It was a smash, just not for Jean. Her label turned it down. But within a few months of writing it, as Gad told Songwriter Universe, he wrote some songs with Beyoncé. He played “If I Were A Boy” for her, and an enthusiastic Beyoncé recorded the song the same day. A few months later, Gad learned that Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy” would be on her next album, “I Am… Sasha Fierce.” A video for the song had already been shot.
Released in 2008, both “I Am… Sasha Fierce” and Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy” were international hits. She even recorded a Spanish version, called “Si Yo Fuera Un Chico”:
Si yo fuera un chico
Solo por una vez
Yo me vestiría como quiero, con lo que vea primero
Y me voy
Saldría a buscar chicas por montón
Mis amigos que son leales
Siempre van a acompañarme hasta el fin
Cada noche a vivir
Si yo fuera un chico
Sé que podría saber
Comprender mucho mejor lo que es amar a una mujer
Pues conozco el dolor
De perder a quien se quiere porque ignoras lo que tienes
Y quedas sin saber qué pasó
But for all the good that this song brought Beyoncé, there were a few hiccups. For starters, Jean knew nothing about Beyoncé knowing about the song (let alone recording it) until Gad called to tell her. As she told The Hartford Courant:
At first I was confused, because I never thought of myself as writing songs for other people. I had always written for myself and was trying to get signed and do the whole artist thing as well. It’s an amazing compliment, but I was like, “That’s great, but it’s going to be on my album!” And it can be on my album, too, I just didn’t realize how it worked. This was my first cut ever; I’ve never written for anybody else. It was not my initial intention, but it’s opened so many doors, it’s amazing.
In November 2008, Beyoncé performed “If I Were A Boy” on “The Today Show.” In early 2009, a computer art student from Connecticut named Matthew Zeghibe uploaded a video of what he claimed was the real soundboard recording, before any editing or pitch correction had been applied to the performance. The cringeworthy, off-key video went viral after Howard Stern played it on his show. Beyoncé’s father and manager Matthew Knowles dismissed the video as “obviously altered,” and Beyoncé herself called it “ridiculous.” Turned out they were right; indeed, Zeghibe had used pitch-correction software on the video. As he told Rolling Stone:
I was just trying to make a point. I wanted to show people how easy it is to manipulate someone’s voice. If I can do it with a clip I pulled off of TV, imagine what they are doing on records and during live performances. The entire industry has been so manipulated, because there’s such an emphasis on perfection, so when something like this happens, it causes such a stir.
The “stir,” of course, was short-lived. Zeghibe’s video didn’t have any negative impact on Beyoncé, nor did the initial dust-up with Jean over “If I Were A Boy.” Her solo career had only grown since “Crazy In Love,” and in the last 10 years, she’s only become more influential as an artist.
As such, no artist has been able to record a version of “If I Were A Boy” that has been more successful — be it commercially or critically — than hers. And yet, the song has been recorded by a few more artists while becoming a staple for singing competitions.
Keiko’s “If I Were A Boy,” also from 2008, struck a balance between Jean’s production and and Beyoncé’s phrasing. It was more faithful to the Bey version, but felt lighter and less forceful.
Singer Althea Hewitt recast “If I Were A Boy” as a reggae song, and with that bouncy background, the song no longer had the sad seriousness of the previous versions.
On a series of EPs called “Gender Studies,” The Sunset Takeover performed emo-tinged rock covers of Top 40 radio hits originally performed by female vocalists. Released in March 2009, “Gender Studies, Vol. 3” included “I Kissed a Girl” and “If I Were A Boy,” the latter of which would sound like pop punk if it was only sped up.
That same year, the song was remade with another male vocalist when English singer-songwriter Jamie T’s “If I Were A Boy” appeared on the compilation, “Radio 1’s Live Lounge, Vol. 4.” Whereas The Sunset Takeover added layers of rock to its version, Jamie T simplified the song, playing it softer than it had been performed in previous versions.
Perhaps it’s because both of those covers came out within a year of the Beyoncé version, but it was hard to think of the Sunset Takeover version or the Jamie T version in any way other than as a tribute to her version. Both covers took a few liberties with the lyrics, but only slightly, so it can be confusing to hear male voices sing about what would happen if they were a boy. Because ostensibly, a cis white male like Jamie T would already be enjoying the privileges he says he would be enjoying, right?
Reba McEntire performed “If I Were A Boy” in 2010 for CMT’s Unplugged Sessions. Before that show, though, she hadn’t known the song. As she said in a 2010 interview:
When I got the song and the lyrics, I thought it was an incredible song… And, to me, it turned out to be a country song, when we got our instrumentation on it and everything. And some people go, “Well, why in the world would you do a pop song?” I just think music is music. You’ve got good and you’ve got bad, and I try to stay on the good side.
On the strength of that Unplugged Sessions, McEntire released a covers album later that year. The album, called “All the Women I Am,” included a countryfied studio version of “If I Were A Boy.” But in her hands, the song was a different kind of country song than the one Jean had performed. Whereas Jean had belted it out, McEntire sounded more reflective.
Singer Skylar Stecker developed a following releasing songs on social media, particularly on YouTube. In 2014, before she was even a teenager, she released an impassioned cover of “If I Were A Boy.” As of this writing, her cover has been viewed more than 979,000 times.
In addition to these covers, “If I Were A Boy” has been performed on several music-based TV shows, including a “Glee” episode in 2013…
..and an episode of “Smash” that same year.
But the TV shows where “If I Were A Boy” has appeared the most have been the singing competition series. Contestants have used it on “The Sing-Off”…
…on “The Voice”…
…on “The Voice Kids”…
…on “The X-Factor”…
…and on “Britain’s Got Talent,” just to name a few.
These are just a few of the performances that appeared on singing competition shows, but they show how the song resonated with a wide range of people, regardless of race, nationality, or even age. The version from Portugal didn’t edit out some of less-than-appropriate-for-kids lyrics, but hey, at least it wasn’t as eyebrow-raising as the kids singing “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off.”
Despite all the versions of “If I Were A Boy” recorded in the last decade, the version by Beyoncé is the best known. And it makes sense. But we’re confronted with a question that we saw when reviewing other songs: Is Beyoncé’s version a cover?
At first blush, it would seem yes: she did not write the song, and the songwriter recorded a version of the song before she did. But the Beyoncé version of “If I Were A Boy” was the first version released to the public. That was the first version they could hear on the radio, could see in a video, could buy and own for themselves. So, how do we refer to her version? And if BC Jean were to release a single of her version, what would we call that? It would not be the original, per se, but it wouldn’t be a cover, either.
This is not the first time that Cover Songs Uncovered asked these nitpicking, hairsplitting questions. Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald co-wrote “What A Fool Believes,” and though McDonald’s band The Doobie Brothers has been associated with the song, Loggins technically released his version first. Whose version is the original? Both? Neither? Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” was written by Robert Hazard. He recorded a demo, but it was Lauper’s version that mass audiences could first hear on the radio and could buy as a single. It’s not her original song, of course, but the original version could not be purchased. Little Eva first recorded “The Loco-Motion,” and years later, Carole King included her own version on an album. Mickey Newbury’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” was made famous by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, as that group released a version before Newbury. Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” is obviously a cover, but the harder question is how to regard the versions by the song’s writers, Anne Preven and Scott Cutler. They released a version before Imbruglia, and yet after Danish singer Lis Sørensen released it as “Braendt.”
With all those cases, I found it hard to come up with a hard-and-fast rule as to what was a cover and what was an original. In this case, I would say that if we called the Beyoncé version a cover, we would have to do so with an asterisk.
In the case of “If I Were A Boy” and many of the aforementioned songs, the song has become more famous than the person who wrote it. Some of the writers we’ve previously discussed have embraced that, whereas others have resented it. For her part, Jean seems to have accepted it. As she told The Hartford Courant:
I’m sure I’ll be writing for other people. There’s been people already trying to get songs I’ve written, and after the Beyonce one, I was like, “OK, I don’t want to sell any other songs to other artists. I want to keep these for my album.” At first when I got this, people didn’t know that I was an artist, so it was, like, “Oh, this songwriter BC.” I am a songwriter, yes, but I’m an artist first – though I guess technically I am a songwriter first now.
There are worse associations to have. If your career is defined by one song, “If I Were A Boy” is not a bad one. Some of our previously mentioned artists are not as lucky.