In country music, the lack of female representation on the radio is often a palpable undertone, particularly during otherwise celebratory occasions like the CMA Awards – but today, Keith Urban showed how he’s not afraid to tackle that elephant head-on with his new song, “Female.” A tender ballad he’ll be performing during the awards telecast, “Female” is dedicated not just to the women in Urban’s life but also to the power they inherently hold yet are so often denied – and the hardships they encounter just by virtue of their gender.
If “Female,” written by Shane McAnally, Nicolle Galyon and Ross Copperman and co-produced by Urban with Copperman and Dann Huff, feels particularly topical in timing, that’s because it is: Urban heard the song for the first time three weeks ago, and it clearly resonated at a moment when so many women – including his own wife, Nicole Kidman – are speaking out about the epidemic of abuse, harassment and assault in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Officially released today, “Female” explores consent, gender roles and even hints at a Beyoncé track: “When you hear a song that they play sayin’ you run the world, do you believe it?”
“The writers wrote this song on October 10th and I heard it the next day,” Urban tells Rolling Stone Country. Notably, that date is less than a week from when the original exposé on Weinstein was published by The New York Times. “I got to hear it fresh out of the oven, and it was instant love for me. I know all three of [the writers] and I think obviously the tone of times right now was weighing on all of them, and compelled them to write this song. It affected me not just as a husband but also as a father of two young girls, and a son. I had a heart reaction – my first thought was that it was a gospel soul prayer mantra, all rolled into one.”
One of Urban’s favorite lines is also the song’s most cutting moment, which directly addresses the culture of consent. “When somebody laughs and implies that she asked for it/Just cause she was wearing a skirt,” he sings, “Oh is that how that works?” “It’s extraordinary songwriting,” Urban says about that lyric. “It’s tricky to not just be out on a soap box.” Still, in a climate where the first female presidential nominee lost the election to a man accused of sexual assault, the pay gap prevails and women barely make a dent at country radio, “Female” is as much of a social statement as it is a personal celebration.
— CMA Country Music (@CountryMusic) November 9, 2017
Urban is also not the only man in the genre trying to redirect the lyrical course of country music when it comes to his gender: Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl” addresses rape culture and Luke Bryan, in his new release “Most People are Good,” delivers a show of support for the LGBTQ community. “I believe you love who you love, ain’t nothin’ you should ever be ashamed of,” Bryan sings.
Urban had previously teased “Female” on social media with one very subtle hint: a picture of a microphone with the date “11.8.17.” And though Urban has been working furiously on new music of late, “Female” isn’t necessarily an indication of what’s to come: Urban sees it as a standalone “pure reaction” that he felt compelled to make.
“I’ve been in the studio all this year, a long way into a new album,” Urban says, “but I don’t even think of this song as a first single. It’s a single standalone piece that felt really strong to me.” He’s also reluctant to name the woman – or women – who provide the ethereal background vocals on “Female.” “They are a blend of a couple people. Just a sense of female,” he says.
Urban, who will be a featured speaker at 2018’s South by Southwest conference, will next appear as part of Country Rising on November 12th, a benefit concert to support victims of the Las Vegas shooting as well as those in need of hurricane relief in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. Nominated in five categories at tonight’s CMA Awards, Urban is also up for the evening’s biggest prize: Entertainer of the Year.