Article Thumbnail

A Brief History of Women Covering ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’

The new film ‘Birds of Prey’ features the latest instance of a female singer subverting the James Brown classic’s perceived sexism

The Birds of Prey soundtrack features a bevy of hip-hop and pop songs, including Megan Thee Stallion and Normani’s “Diamonds,” but one track that caught my attention, which is also in the movie, is sung by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who plays Black Canary. She’s a torch singer in the film, and she takes a moment to perform a smoky version of a familiar R&B hit.

James Brown gave the world so many incredible songs — “Please, Please, Please,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat” — and one of them is “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Released in 1966, “Man’s World” is one of his lushest and saddest. Many people think it’s one of his most sexist, too.

The song paints a scenario in which the narrator lays out some weary wisdom over mournful strings, horns and a skeletal beat:

This is a man’s world
This is a man’s world
But it wouldn’t be nothing
Nothing without a woman or a girl 

The narrator proceeds to detail all of men’s seemingly mighty achievements. They created cars, trains and boats. They invented electricity. They’re the breadwinners. But every single boast is punctured by Brown’s melancholy tone. Each time he lists more accomplishments, he returns to that lament: “It wouldn’t be nothing / nothing without a woman or a girl.” As “Man’s World” fades out, Brown goes so far as to wail for the man who is all alone: “He’s lost in the wilderness / He’s lost in bitterness.” As Brown biographer RJ Smith put it in his book The One, “It’s a most peculiar ad for virility: a promise that it will make you alone, depraved and howling like a jackal.”

This is how I’ve always heard “Man’s World,” too. Let men brag all they want about all they’ve done and how they’re superior to women — a loving relationship means more than any of these meager material triumphs. To my ears, Brown was skewering alpha-male thinking. If anything, the song is a tragedy about realizing that all the things you’ve been led to believe about the power of masculinity are a damn lie.

Funny enough, a woman had a lot to do with that song — and had to fight for years to have her contributions noted. Betty Jean Newsome, who was at one point Brown’s girlfriend, always claimed she did the lion’s share of the writing of “Man’s World.”

“I was just reading the Bible and thinking about how wonderful and powerful man is… God, he can create, he can take man’s rib out of his body and make a woman,” she told The Village Voice in 2007. “I was just sitting there and thinking about how, after all of these things that he made and he did, all of it was worthless without a woman — and you gotta have them kids — or a girl. That’s where the girl part comes in.”

Later, Brown tried to argue that he came up with the song, which required them going to court. He lost, and they were both credited as cowriters. “He added a couple more ‘mans’ on there so he could try to steal it,” Newsome says in The One. “But it didn’t work. God don’t like ugly, and he sure don’t go along with thieves!”

Nonetheless, because Brown keeps declaring, “This is a man’s world” in the song, the impression has lingered that he’s proud of that state of the affairs. (Also, the notion that a man’s real worth is only measured by the fact that he has “a woman or a girl” — as if women are merely trophies for men — is more than a little patronizing.) No wonder, then, that female artists over the years have co-opted the song. Essentially, they’ve taken away Brown’s bravado, real or sardonic, by singing his boasts back at the men who’ve oppressed them.

Perhaps the best-known cover of recent years is from a 2010 episode of Glee, in which pregnant Quinn (Dianna Agron) complains about gender double-standards and uses “Man’s World” as a biting rebuke to the sexism she endures. The whole point is to make the male characters confront their privilege — and to feel guilty about it. The men shouldn’t be proud to live in “a man’s world” — it’s something to be ashamed of.

But Glee was merely drawing on earlier reworkings of “Man’s World.” In the mid-1970s, Australian singer Renée Geyer had a hit with her cover, which she sang straight while leaving plenty of room for commentary to seep in. A few decades later, she explained that, for her, it was a feminist statement akin to Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” a protest song she loathed:

“Oh, I hated ‘I Am Woman,’ and because of it, I did ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s World.’ I’ve met Helen Reddy since and she’s a nice lady, but I wasn’t crazy about the obviousness of that song, of just the… anthemic thing of it, which is the very reason it was such a big hit.”

Instead, she performed “Man’s World” like a seemingly routine ballad, which it was unless you were paying attention to the words:

If you listen to different female riffs on “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” most of them have an undertone of hostility that gives the song’s inherent soulfulness a nicely bitter aftertaste. (One of the exceptions: Katharine McPhee’s rendition on Smash, which tried to inject a sexiness that made men the helpless playthings of confident, assertive women.) But no matter what cover you hear, just remember: The woman singing it may agree she lives in a man’s world, but that doesn’t mean she’s happy about it.