Story of a Song: of Montreal, “it’s different for girls”

Of Montreal
Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal. Photo by Chad Kamenshine

From the moment that Kevin Barnes—frontman of of Montreal—and I began chatting, an elephant appeared in the room: what was a 40-year-old dude doing writing “it’s different for girls,” a song about Barnes’ imaginations about what it’s like to be a woman in 2016? (Though Barnes has cross-dressed his way across many a stage, as many a drag queen or gender theorist will inform you, women’s clothes do not a woman make.) Sparing his interlocutor some awkwardness, Barnes brought up the topic on his own, confirming that I wasn’t the only one raising an eyebrow. In fact, he told me, he’d gotten a fair amount of criticism, from people he knows personally, about the song. What proved to be far more surprising than the criticism itself was the fact that Barnes seemed a bit taken aback by it. Because in his eyes, “it’s different for girls” isn’t a feminist anthem, an objective declaration, or even much of an analysis. To him, the song is simply a series of observations and ruminations, delivered with his standard blend of snark, cynicism, and humor. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not personal.

Barnes wrote “it’s different for girls,” along with much of Innocent Reaches, the group’s 14th album, during a two-week stint in Paris, where he stayed in a friend’s studio near the famed Père Lachaise cemetery. The studio was in an apartment complex where he couldn’t play loudly at night. In lieu of blaring guitars and crashing drums, Barnes began fooling around with the vast array of vintage analog synthesizers that filled the space. “Whenever you get in front of a keyboard that does a specific thing and nothing else,” he says, “it’s a fun challenge… to [use] the character of that keyboard to inspire something new.”

His open-ended fiddling quickly triggered an unexpected result. “I was looking for some new spark and rekindling that interest set me off in this new direction.” The next song he wrote was “it’s different for girls,” which was intended to capture the feel of the Brazilian electronic dance group CSS’s 2005 hit “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death From Above.” Yet while that song’s mission statement can be summed up in its title, Barnes wanted to go a bit deeper. “It’s fun to mess with the structure or the form or the clichés of [electronic dance music],” he points out. “You could have a song that’s pretty intellectual, but if you put that drop in, everyone forgets what you’ve just said.”

Of Montreal
Of Montreal. Photo by Ben Rouse

The song’s lyrics, also written in Paris, establish a sense of distance between the narrator and what he’s describing (Barnes told me upfront that he wanted to discuss this particular track because, “a lot of the other ones are very personal”). The themes of “it’s different for girls” are loosely divided into two verses: the first lays out a series of “academic” observations (“they’re depersonalized / aggressively objectified”) while the second takes a more whimsical approach, riddled with silly inaccuracies. As we talk, however, it becomes clear that these armchair observations were in fact shaped by personal, and often frightening, experiences.

Barnes’ voice picks up when he begins talking about his 11-year old daughter, Alabee. As she grows older, he finds himself considering her safety differently than if she was a boy—a thought that “made me realize how fucked up the world is.” Barnes  says he struggles between encouraging Alabee to be independent and keeping her safe, the same struggle that informs so much of our society’s discussion around rape culture (who does the onus of responsibility for street safety fall on?) Barnes’ memories of walking the streets of Paris with female friends came to the surface, too, as he reflected. “[Men] will be so disgustingly hostile to them…. misogyny in Paris is off the charts.”

For Kevin Barnes, “it’s different for girls” isn’t trying to be the last word on the subject. The song is intended to be a spark, a way to contribute to the larger conversation about societal norms, double standards and safety. Whether you have something to add to the conversation, he says, “you won’t know until you open your mouth.”

—Max Savage Levenson

One Comment

  1. claraefrona
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    aw dang, i thought it was going to be a Joe Jackson cover… but it’s still a good message.

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