I’m a big fan of The Who. In fact, when I saw them back in 2002, despite the fact that half the original band was dead, it was one of the best concerts I have ever been to (wish I could say the same about Robert Plant’s embarrassing opening performance—I cringed through the whole thing). Roger Daltrey’s voice was still on point, as was Pete Townsend’s charming falsetto and his guitar playing, Zak Starkey seems to have taken his drumming cue from Keith Moon and not his dad, Ringo Starr, which was fantastic—Pino Palladino was playing bass for them, and he was more than solid.
I first really got into The Who around 1989, leading up to their 25th anniversary reunion tour (uh, which I guess means their 50th anniversary is this year!), when MTV was constantly playing The Kids are Alright and VH1 played the film versions of Tommy and Quadrophenia quite a few times. I already liked Tommy (and I’ve written about it before), but that was kind of an anomaly. I didn’t own any other records of theirs until I got Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, probably in January of 1989 and I fell in love with their early power pop, even as I loved their intricate operatic pretensions. In fact, I think The Who is a band that can lay claim to influencing both punk rock and prog rock, which common sense would likely deem impossible.
Among the songs on that collection is “I’m a Boy” which certainly captures that power pop sound, (though perhaps not as well as “Substitute,” which is my favorite of the era) and encapsulates both the sneering rejection of social pressures that would later energize punk, but emerges from a project to put rock music into conversation with the narratives of classical forms of music. Recorded in 1966, “I’m a Boy” was originally meant to be part of a rock Opera called “Quads,” set in a future where parents could choose the sex of their children. The assumption then, is that the song’s narrative is most directly about a couple who order four girls—“One girl was called Jean Marie / Another little girl was called Felicity /Another little girl was Sally Joy”—but as the song’s speaker informs us, “The other was me, and I’m a boy.” However, these days I read the song as a commenting on the social construction of sex and gender, and their over-determined nature.
As a teenager I identified with the song because of my sense that my mother’s over-protectiveness and penchant to dote on me (when she wasn’t severely critiquing my choices and desires) was feminizing me. The song’s earnest refrain “I’m a boy! I’m a boy, but my Ma won’t admit it” was to me at the time all about asserting a right to masculine freedom and power and rejecting what the women who had the most influence over me (my mother, my sister, my grandmother, my teachers) would have me do and act, especially out of fear of my hurting myself. I bristled at all this, but it was mostly adolescent bullshit of the type I grew out of, which is a good thing or else I might have ended up one of these MRA douchebags. Truth is, those adolescent conflicts had a lot more to do with class and culture and typical growing pains in exploring social boundaries than any attempt to quash my performance of a masculine identity. At that time I equated manhood with being allowed to do whatever I wanted and womanhood with having things done to you or having to do things for the sake of others. Anything that denied me the former and pushed me towards the latter was something to reject as “girlie” and “weak.” It is a message that most boys internalize, either through unfettered access to their male privilege or through imagining any obstacle to that privilege as a form of unjust emasculation. In that version of the story of gender, we are the victims.
Nowadays, the song is a lot more powerful for me if I imagine the singer to be a transgender person—someone who was “supposed to be” a girl, but knows themselves to be a boy. Beyond that, the song also points out the limitations of how gender is defined through its inclusion of an authoritative voice telling the assumed four girls how to perform their gender: “Put your frock on Jean Marie / Plait your hair, Felicity / Paint your nails, little Sally Joy / Put this wig on, little boy.” So, while the wig clearly suggests that “Bill” as he calls himself, is required to don the accoutrements of femininity to fit the role he has been assigned, the behaviors being dictated to Jean Marie and the rest are no different. We do not get to know how they feel about the activities they’ve been given to perform. As such, as listeners we should really reject all of these activities as indicative of a specific gender identity. Painting your nails or plaiting your hair does not make you a girl any more than having to put on a wig makes you a boy.
Instead, the way the song depicts the authenticity of felt gender identity is through the desire Bill expresses, “I wanna play cricket on the green / Ride my bike across the street / Cut myself and see my blood / I wanna come home all covered in mud.” None of these expressed ideas are, of course, essentially masculine. There is nothing keeping a girl from having these desires that are most often socially marked as “boyish,” rather it is the agency denoted by and through these desires that accentuates Bill’s options regarding how to perform and assert a gender. In other words, the only way young Bill has of expressing his gender is through these limited so-called masculine activities, regardless of his actual physiology. As such, it does not matter if the song’s speaker is a “boy” or a “girl” in terms of how our society has constructed the meanings of genital organs. For all we know, Jean Marie or Sally Joy want to do the same things, but are also happy to be “girls.”
It would be easy to blame this kind of limited gender language on 1966, when to even write a song about a figure bullied into performing a gender represents its own kind of transgressive quality, but that kind of contextualizing nearly always serves the purpose of turning the critical eye away from the way our society still recapitulates that kind of rhetorical trickery, wherein certain, words, behaviors and attitudes are still associated with particular genders, and evidence to the contrary is easily dismissed as an exception or momentarily acknowledged until one can return to uncritically using gendered language in that way. Lest I accidentally overlook it, it bears mentioning that when Bill identifies himself by name in The Who’s “I’m a Boy,” he says “My name is Bill and I’m a headcase,” which is troubling language, but it doesn’t help to indicate the usual physiological determinates of gender. Whether you are a “boy” being forced to perform as a “girl,” or a “girl” who is being forced to perform as a “girl,” (damn, that’s a lot of scare quotes), that coercion can be damaging—any form of resulting gender confusion might lead to one feeling “crazy,” and that “craziness” is reinforced by the trauma of corrective violence, both physical and psychological. As he sings “If I say [I’m a boy], I get it,”—violence awaits his assertion of gender identity.
The truth is that gender is a confused mess and all desire is queer. All categories of gender and sexuality are a form of shorthand that can be very convenient in generalized social relations, but also very restrictive when our affect and/or desires veer from them. When it comes down to it, gender identity is over-determined. There is no way to establish all the myriad influences, biological, social and psychological that lead a person to occupy a particular identity—to feel their belonging to that identity. So rather than doubt them, a just world would take everyone’s assertion at face value, as we have no reason to do otherwise. Generally speaking, we take the gender identities of those we interpret as presenting gender in so-called “traditional” ways for granted with no way of ultimately knowing the particularities for sure without their articulation of it—it should be no different for transgender and genderqueer people.
In The Who’s song we believe Bill when he says, “I’m a Boy!” But we have no real indication of what he looks like, what kinds of sexual desires he may or may not have, or what other activities he may or may not enjoy. All we know about is his desire to be able to assert an identity and the violence he risks when he does so. As listeners we award him his desired identity based on that—seems like a reasonable request to grant anyone.
There are a couple of different versions of The Who’s “I’m a Boy” that are worth listening to, and I have a hard time picking favorite. There is the slower version that I am used to (also embedded immediately above) from Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy that features John Entwhistle on French horn and has a longer instrumental interlude leading to an additional verse: “Help me wash up Jean Marie / You can dry Felicity / Stack them dishes Sally Joy / Behind those scrubbed floors, I’m a boy.” Not sure the additional verse really adds anything to the song, except to equate more domestic chores to femininity. I am at a loss for interpreting what “behind those scrubbed floors” means. However, I do like the inclusion of the horn and the tension it adds to the build towards the song’s conclusion.
The faster version (at the top of this post) released as a single has more of punk feel in its energy, since the rhythm guitar scratches out the pomp-poomps that the French horn toots out in the slower version. Clocking in at two and a half minutes also helps give it that feel that it could be a Ramones song (if Ramones songs were actually good). There is a version on Live at Leeds, that except for a few flourishes, I don’t like nearly as much. It just lacks energy. The version from the BBC sessions, on the other hand, is very close the faster studio version, Keith Moon’s cymbals are like a wash of static, and Daltrey’s elocution on the verse expressing those masculine desires has just the right snark.