What It Feels Like for a Girl

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"What It Feels Like for a Girl"
Madonna - What it Feels Like for a Girl (single).png
Single by Madonna
from the album Music
B-side "Lo Que Siente La Mujer"
Released April 17, 2001
Recorded 2000
Length 4:43
Madonna singles chronology
"Don't Tell Me"
"What It Feels Like for a Girl"
"Die Another Day"
"Don't Tell Me"
"What It Feels Like for a Girl"
"Die Another Day"
Music video
"What It Feels Like for a Girl" on YouTube

"What It Feels Like for a Girl" is a song by American singer-songwriter Madonna recorded for her eighth studio album Music (2000). It was released as the third single from the album on April 17, 2001 by Maverick Records, with two other versions being also released: a dance-remix produced by Above & Beyond and a Spanish version titled "Lo Que Siente La Mujer". It was written by Madonna, Guy Sigsworth and David Torn, while production was done by Madonna, Sigsworth and Mark Stent. "What It Feels Like For a Girl" is a mid-tempo electronic and synth-pop song, with filtered bass licks, tidal keys and pads as part of its instrumentation. Lyrically, it conveys society's double standard toward women, addressing hurtful myths about female inferiority. To emphasize the message, the song opens with a spoken word sample of Charlotte Gainsbourg from the 1993 film The Cement Garden.

The song received acclaim from most music critics, who agreed it was a highlight from the album, while also remarking that the song was one of the most mature musical ventures of her career. Commercially, "What It Feels Like for a Girl" was successful in most music charts around the world, peaking inside the top ten in over ten countries, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan and the United Kingdom. In the United States, though it was a more low peak on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at number 23, it managed to achieve success on the US Hot Dance Club Play chart, reaching the number-one spot.

An accompanying music video for the song was filmed by Madonna's then-husband Guy Ritchie and premiered on March 22, 2001. It features Madonna in a blonde bob wig as she was portraying a reckless woman on a crime spree. The video was criticized for its depiction of violence and abuse, which caused MTV to ban it before 9pm. The single was also released on DVD and VHS containing the music video, which sold 6,200 copies in its first week and earning a place in the Guinness World Record. The song was used as a video interlude and was performed in Spanish on the Drowned World Tour. The song was also covered by the Fox TV series Glee, which was commercially featured on the episode "The Power of Madonna", as well as the following EP.

Background and recording[edit]

In September 1999, it was announced that Madonna had reteamed with producer William Orbit for a possible follow-up to her Grammy-winning, multiplatinum 1998 album Ray of Light, according to the singer's spokesperson. Madonna was also signed to be on the film The Next Best Thing, also contributing to its soundtrack.[1] In January 2000, Madonna announced that she was going to experiment with electronica on her then-upcoming album and was said to be venturing into the popular European dance style known as trance.[2] The next month, Madonna released a cover of Don McLean's "American Pie" as a single to the soundtrack of The Next Best Thing,[3] while in April 2000, it was announced that French musician Mirwais Ahmadzaï was creating a melding of dance and pop songs with a disco feel for the album.[4] Later, it was also announced that she added Guy Sigsworth to work with her on the album.[5]

Sigsworth created a demo backing track that was "finished enough to impress, but not so finished as to restrict Madonna's freedom to write over the top of it." According to him, "'What It Feels Like For a Girl' was done very quickly. 'I sent her a backing track, and she wrote a top line to it, we put it together and four days later we had a record. And what was kind of good for me was that we decided on day one that we liked all the noises I'd already used on the demo, and it was more a matter of repositioning them in the arrangement around M's top line. So the whole job, apart from recording the voice, was moving things around in Pro Tools", he claimed.[6] He remarked that he sent her two sketches and that she chose the more unusual one. "And at the start of it, I put this sample from a movie of the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. I just knew that M would fall in love with that, and she did", he declared.[6]

Composition and music[edit]

"What It Feels Like For a Girl" was written by Madonna and Guy Sigsworth, while production was done by Madonna, Sigsworth, and Mark "Spike" Stent. David Torn was included as an additional composer to the track, after Madonna found out Sigsworth had sampled Torn's 'Cloud About Mercury' album.[8] The song is set in the key of Eb major, with Madonna's vocals spanning from the lower octave of G3 to the higher note of Bb4 note.[9] Jose F. Promis considers the song a "semi-ballad".[10] It is an electronic and synth-pop song,[11][12][13][14] starting with a synth line, which later builds from a groovy verse section, driven by a "cool beat" and filtered bass licks, towards a dreamy chorus washed over by tidal keys and pads, as noted by Edward Cheung of PopMatters.[14] The beginning of the song opens with a dialogue from the 1993 British film, The Cement Garden, directed by Andrew Birkin and starring his niece, Charlotte Gainsbourg. In the dialogue, Gainsbourg says:

"Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots. 'Cause it's OK to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading. 'Cause you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly you'd love to know what it's like... Wouldn't you? What it feels like for a girl."[15]

Lyrically, "What It Feels Like for a Girl" condemns male chauvinism by addressing hurtful myths about female inferiority,[16] with Madonna commenting on female role-playing in society.[5] During the pre-chorus, Madonna sings: "Strong inside but you don't know it / Good little girls they never show it / When you open up your mouth to speak / Could you be a little weak?", she sings.[7] The Village Voice's Phil Dellio found the song "the perfect answer record to The Virgin Suicides (where boys indeed stand on the side of the street looking uncomprehendingly on girls), thanks in no small part to the gossamer-like synthesizer percolating in the background.[17] Jon Pareles of The New York Times called it "Madonna's quasi-feminist statement,"[12] while Eamon Sweeney of Hot Press noted that the song "is similar in tone and texture to the Natalie Imbruglia smash ‘Smoke’."[18]

Release and remixes[edit]

Above & Beyond produced the official remix of the track.

Planned to be the album's second single,[5] "What It Feels Like For a Girl" was eventually released as the album's third single on April 17, 2001.[19] Two new versions of the song were released to further promote the track. The first was a Spanish version of the song, titled Lo Que Siente la Mujer, especially recorded for inclusion on the single as its B-side[19] and eventually released as a promo-only single in Europe. Later it was added to the two-disc Tour Edition of Music[20] and the Bonus Track edition of the album in some territories.[21][22] The second was a trance version created by Above & Beyond, which was also dubbed as the single's version, as well as being featured in its music video and the song's CD single. The CD single also features a remix produced by British DJ Paul Oakenfold, which transformed the song into "a massive, deep arena club stomper," as noted by Allmusic's Jose F. Promis.[10]

Thunderpuss controversy[edit]

The acclaimed remixing duo Thunderpuss was hired to do a remix of "What It Feels Like for a Girl". However, when they were almost finishing the mix, it was rejected because someone renamed an amateur remix of the song as "Thunderpuss Mix" and spread it on the internet. The label thought the remix was leaked from Thunderpuss studio, after an employee claimed that he saw the Thunderpuss remix in rotation on the internet already.[23] Barry Harris of Thunderpuss claimed in an interview for About.com that the situation "started this fire within the record company and Madonna, and we were like 'no, it's not our mix', we have not done anything. They just cancelled our entire mix, period, and that was it, the end of story."[23]

Critical reception[edit]

Madonna performing "Lo Que Siente la Mujer", the Spanish version of "What It Feels Like for a Girl", during her Drowned World Tour in 2001.

"What It Feels Like for a Girl" received acclaim from most music critics. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, in his review for AllMusic, picked the song as one of the album's highlights, calling it a "terrific midtempo cut",[24] while Larry Flick of Billboard considered the song "a hook-laden midtempo jam."[5] In a separate review, Chuck Taylor also of Billboard named the song "one of the more substantive - and mature - musical ventures of her career," while panning its remix version for "reduc[ing] the song to a mindless trickle of beats without any hints of the verses.[11] Sal Cinquemani of Slant Magazine observed that on the track Madonna exposes her soul,[25] while Barry Walters of Rolling Stone wrote that the song is "as musically gentle as it is lyrically barbed."[26] Garry Crossing of Dot labeled it a "tender, sensitive, flirtatious, sexy and oddly vulnerable-feeling ode to the female perspective."[27] Regis D'Angiolini of CD Now praised the track, calling it "one of Madonna's best songs in recent years, thanks to a catchy refrain, keyboard hook, and clever lyrics."[7]

While naming it "a big, warm, soulful jacuzzi of a song," Danny Eccleston of Q picked the song as a standout track and claimed that the song has "the vaguest melodic echo of Basement Jaxx’s terrific 'On & On'."[28] Cynthia Funchs of PopMatters picked the song as her favorite on the album, calling it "outstanding" with "sweet, enchanted beats."[15] David Browne of Entertainment Weekly noted that the song is "an older, wiser "Into the Groove," and it's a beautiful keeper," but went on to call the track "a muted sparkler with a softly padding beat and genuinely empathetic lyrics about teenagers."[29] While reviewing her compilation GHV2, Sal Cinquemani of Slant perceived that the track was "largely lost amid the conventional sonics of Music's final single," writing that it "is GHV2's least dynamic offering," grading the song "C-".[30] However, Charlotte Robinson of PopMatters' disagreed, claiming that the inclusion of the song, along with "Don't Tell Me", represented nicely that 'Music' was another triumph.[31]


In 2013, Scott Kearnan of Boston.com included the track at number twenty-six on his list of "30 Ultimate Madonna Singles." In his review of the song, Kearnan claimed that "Madonna’s covered plenty of ground about how women are treated in the world, but she’s rarely this unfiltered."[32] Louis Virtel of The Backlot included the song on his list of "The 100 Greatest Madonna Songs," commenting that the song's "tenderness and power resonated like no Madonna ballad since 'Take a Bow'."[33] Mark Graham of VH1 placed the song at number 34 on his list of "53 Favorite Madonna Songs", in honor of Madonna's 53rd birthday.[34]

Chart performance[edit]

"What It Feels Like for a Girl" debuted at number 73 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 edition of May 5, 2001, moving to number 46 the following week, becoming in the biggest leap of that week.[35] The song peaked at number 23 on the May 19, 2001 edition, becoming that week's greatest gainer/sales.[36] On the same week, it topped the Hot Dance Club Play chart.[36] According to her official website, "it would have gone higher on the Billboard Hot 100 had there been a traditional commercial single release - and therefore more sales points to move it up the chart. However, only a maxi-single was issued, hence its rather middling chart placement."[19] Elsewhere, "What It Feels Like for a Girl" was successful. In the United Kingdom, the song managed to be the third song from Music to peak inside the top-ten, reaching number 7 on April 28, 2001.[37] In Australia, the song debuted and peaked at number 6, on May 6, 2001.[38] It was certified gold by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA).[39]

The song was also very successful in Finland, peaking at number four,[40] in Italy, where it peaked at number two,[41] and in Spain, where it topped the PROMUSICAE chart on April 21, 2000.[42] It debuted at number 50 on the New Zealand Singles Chart, until it rose to number 15, on May 27, 2000.[43] However, in some countries, "What It Feels Like for a Girl" failed to reach the top-twenty. In Austria and Sweden, the song reached numbers 26 and 22, respectively, becoming her lowest-charting single since "Nothing Really Matters" (1999) in both countries.[44][45] In France, the song debuted and peaked at number 40 on the French Singles Chart, until descending several times on the charts.[46]

Music video[edit]

Background and release[edit]

Madonna's former husband, British director Guy Ritchie, directed the music video for the song.

A music video for the song was directed by Madonna's then-husband, filmmaker Guy Ritchie in February 2001 and filmed throughout various parts of Los Angeles, including one location on W. Olympic Blvd and S. Wooster St. The video uses the dance remix version of the song, produced by Above & Beyond, instead of the album's original version.[47] According to Madonna, the video "shows my character acting out a fantasy and doing things girls are not allowed to do," she said in a written statement distributed by her record label, Warner Bros. "This is an angry song and I wanted a matching visual with an edgy dance mix."[47] It premiered on Oxygen TV channel, on March 22, 2001, but was banned from TV broadcasts in many parts of the world, including the most famous MTV and VH1, due to its violent content. It was only aired on MTV and VH1 just once time, during a news segment at a more mature hour of 11:30 p.m. ET.[48] While the video failed to air on both networks, Madonna released it as a DVD single on April 24, 2001,[49] becoming the biggest-selling DVD single of 2001.[50] According to Andrew Morton, writer of the book Madonna, the video is "entirely consistent with the themes that she has been exploring for the last twenty years, namely the relationship between the sexes, the ambiguity of gender, and the unresolved conflict, for women in a patriarchal society of being fully female and sexual while exercising control over their lives."[51]


Madonna aiming a gun at a cop in the music video. Next to her is the elderly woman she picks up from the "Ol Kuntz Guest Home".

As stated by Eden Miller of PopMatters, the music video for "What It Feels Like for a Girl" opens with Madonna in a motel room, getting ready for a night out, which was seen as "simple and pleasant" enough. After stealing a car from the motel parking lot, Madonna picks up an old woman to accompany her in her drive around the city, and it quickly changes from there. Madonna rams her Camaro into a car full of young men who were looking at her suggestively. From here, she tasers a man at an automated teller machine (ATM) and takes his money (which she later stuffs into a waitress's pocket), and scrapes a police car with her car as two doltish cops look on. She then pulls a realistic-looking water gun on two police officers, and sprays them with water before driving backwards into their car to explode their airbags. After mowing down some roller-hockey players in a parking lot, she steals another car and blows up a gas station, all while still accompanied by the old woman. Finally, Madonna slams her stolen car into a cement pole in an apparent act of murder–suicide. In the final moments of the video, we see the old woman and Madonna putting on protective body gear (shin braces and a body vest, respectively).[52] Although having a vision of violence, "Madonna's violent acts in the video are either shown from a distance or take place off screen, and although ideas and events are clearly indicated, nothing graphic or gratuitous appears," as noted by Miller.[52]

Reception and controversy[edit]

The music video was heavily criticized for being overly violent and graphic. Madonna's spokesperson said that there was a lot of violence because it tells the story of a woman who had probably been abused. Madonna also explained that her character was acting out a "fantasy and doing things that girls are not allowed to do."[53] The video was received only early hours play on MTV.[54] However, it was not the first time that Madonna had a video rejected for heavy rotation by MTV, since in 1990, the channel refused to show "Justify My Love" because of its steamy images, and in 1992 MTV only showed "Erotica" late at night.[55] The decision to ban the video was a source of argument, since it appeared to be no more violent than some television shows that aired at the time. Ironically, the video went into heavy rotation on Oh! Oxygen and was streamed on America Online frequently. It was also later played frequently on VH1 Madonna programs, but in an edited format. According to Eden Miller of PopMatters, the reason why the video was possibly banned from MTV was due to the scene where it featured Madonna pointing a gun towards the police, as MTV had previously banned videos that contained guns.[52] Miller explained that "while Madonna is one of MTV's darlings, she's still a woman, and the idea of a woman taking her aggressions out on men is something the network can just not have. That's what is so disturbing [...] And that really is what it feels like for a girl."[52] In 2002, the video was aired in its entirety on MTV2 as part of a special countdown showing the most controversial videos ever to air on MTV. This countdown was shown only late at night because of the graphic imagery of the video and several other videos on the countdown.[56] MSN listed the song on "Madonna's Most Shocking Moments" and said the song was supporting a "pro-feminist image".[57]

Despite the negative comments, the video single sold 6,200 copies in the United States during the first week and became the greatest ever registered week's sale for any single released on the DVD format, a record that was also held by Madonna with her "Music" video.[58]

Live performances[edit]

Madonna performed "What It Feels Like for a Girl" during the promotional shows for Music.[59] The first of these, was on November 5, 2000, at Roseland Ballroom in New York City, and the other on November 29, 2000, at Brixton Academy in London. Accompanying musicians performing with Madonna were; Mirwais Ahmadzaï on guitar and longtime backing singers Niki Haris and Donna DeLory.[60] During the New York performance, she wore a black tank top with "Britney Spears" written on it, along with cowboy hats and boots.[59][60] The costumes for the show and the set was designed by Dolce & Gabbana. Roseland's secondary stage was used for the performance and was decked as a neo-Western wonderland, with bales of hay, yellow-lit horseshoes and silver cacti throughout the lobby and entrance.[61] Dancers dressed as cowboys vogued during the pre-show in provocative poses, lassoing each other and skating around the passersby.[61] The stage was decorated with a white Ford pickup truck, while Madonna removed her jacket and revealed her T-shirt and started singing "What It Feels Like for a Girl".

A similar performance was done at Brixton Academy; Madonna wore a different T-shirt, with her son Rocco and daughter Lourdes' names printed on it. Jennifer Vineyard from Rolling Stone felt that "She seemed too happy to harp on anything, grinning madly as she shimmied and shook her hips to the throbbing bass and pounding beats", while Miranda Sawyer from The Guardian thought that it was the best performance from the concert.[61][62] Around 3,000 fans attended the concert in London, which was streamed over the internet.[60] More than nine million people watched the concert according to Nicky Price, a representative for Microsoft's MSN, the webcast's producer.[60] It became the most-viewed webcast of all time, beating Paul McCartney's performance of "50s rock and roll classics" at Liverpool's The Cavern Club in December 1999, which was viewed by an audience of about three million.[60][63]

Other versions[edit]

The unreleased/promo CD-R Tracy Young (Instrumental Remix) is used in the background music during the Blitzball sequences in the Square-Enix PlayStation 2 video game Final Fantasy X.

The TV show Glee performed an all-male cover of this song in their episode "The Power of Madonna" on April 20, 2010 (season 1, episode 15).

A remix is also used in the Drowned World Tour as a violent and sexually explicit video interlude, featuring footage from the anime films Perfect Blue along with Urotsukidōji.[64]

Track listings and formats[edit]

Charts and certifications[edit]

See also[edit]


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