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Miley Cyrus Maya Marty
Miley Cyrus on the Maya & Marty show

The best songs that question gender binaries

These songs question what it means to be male or female, either by playing with alter egos or by examining their own sense of self

“If you want a father for your child...” sang a husky-voiced Miley Cyrus on the inaugural episode of variety show Maya & Marty, dressed in a bejewelled tuxedo and top hat, “...I’m your man.” A few minutes later, she ripped off her trousers, stepped to the front of the stage and declared, “I’m a woman. W-O-M-A-N, I’ll say it again.”

Like most of Cyrus’ endeavours, the song – a mash-up of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” and Peggy Lee’s “I’m A Woman” – left the media somewhat reeling, with headlines marvelling at her “gender-bending”“gender-defying” performance. The casual flitting between a male and female persona alluded to her genderqueer identity (as she told Out Magazine last year, “I don’t relate to what people would say defines a boy or a girl... Being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into”) in a way that was camp and playful – but it was deadly serious, too.

As more and more people come to define their gender identity as somewhere outside the binaries of male or female, Cyrus’ performance was just another example of art reflecting life. It’s not a new phenomenon, of course – artists like Prince and David Bowie ushered in the start of a new approach to gender. “I am not a woman, I am not a man,” sang Prince in “I Would Die 4 U”, “I am something you will never understand.” As Frank Ocean said in his tribute to Prince, “He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity.”

More recently though, more and more musicians – pop and otherwise – have injected interrogations of gender into their lyrics, questioning what it means to be male or female, and subverting what’s expected of them with delicious bite and, sometimes, piercing vulnerability. Here's five songs in which the artists, either by creating a playfully jarring alter-ego or by breaking apart and examining their own sense of self, do just that.

GRIMES – “KILL V MAIM”

Written from the perspective of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II – “except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space”, as Grimes told Q Magazine – “Kill V Maim” relishes the juxtaposition between hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity. “I’m only a man,” Grimes repeats in an airy, playful falsetto, aware that her voice belies this, “and I do what I can.” This paradox ploughs its way into the song’s pre-chorus too, when she squeezes aggressive posturing into the shape of a cheerleading chant – “B-E-H-A-V-E arrest us” – before descending into a fierce, almost incomprehensible growl: “You gave up being good when you declared a state of war.” It’s gloriously mixed up.

CHRISTINE & THE QUEENS – “iT”

“I wrote it in a fancy way,” French electro-pop artist Christine & the Queens said of the inverted capitalisation of the song’s title, “because the T looks like a dick.” Though “iT” is ostensibly similar to Grimes’ “Kill V Maim” in its refrain – “I’ve got it, I’m a man now” – it’s sung not from the perspective of a fictitious vampire gangster, but from that of Christine herself. Or, at least, a version of herself; the version that was “tired of being a young girl.” She’s not convincing enough though, to quell the malicious whispers (her own) that puncture the song. “She draws her own crotch by herself,” they hiss, “but she’ll lose because it’s a fake.” The song questions what it means to be a man – whether masculinity is a commodity that can be bought, sold and stolen, or femininity a weakness to be gleefully discarded. They’re questions she doesn’t try and answer, only leaves hanging in the air.

SOKO – “WHO WEARS THE PANTS”

Taking a swipe at both clichéd gender norms and “hypocritical homophobic demons” in one fell swoop, “Who Wears The Pants” takes on the voice of a concerned third party, baffled at the thought of two women together (SoKo, who introduced the world to her wonderful eccentricity almost a decade ago with the strange, sweet “I’ll Kill Her”, has since been subject to even more intense judgement and scrutiny, thanks to a brief but high-profile relationship with Kristen Stewart). “Who wears the pants? And who is gonna water the plants?” she asks, in a mock-incredulous tone, “Who is the woman? Who’s the man?” Her answer? “Well, you just gotta live to tell.”

ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS – “FOR TODAY I AM A BOY”

Released just over a decade ago, before the artist now known as Anohni had fully aligned her public gender identity with her private one, “For Today I Am A Boy” is the tender, vulnerable tale of a young transgender person, and their desire for a butterfly-like metamorphosis. “One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman,” she sings, her voice fractured and wavering, before conceding, “But for today, I am a boy.” Though it’s deeply personal, the song also serves as a riposte to those confused by Anohni’s gender identity – those who demanded an either/or, and described her in interviews as “behaving like a shy adolescent of indeterminate sex.”

ST. VINCENT – “PRINCE JOHNNY”

A poignant tale of self-destruction and reinvention, “Prince Johnny” is in St. Vincent’s words a “love letter to a tragic character and the New York downtown freak, weirdo, queer scene”. The titular character – whose gender and sexuality are left deliberately ambiguous – prays “to all”, to any deity who’ll listen, to make him a “real boy.” Later, the song’s narrator does the same, begging to be a “real girl.” Later, she sternly advises, “Honey, don’t mistake my affection / For another spit-and-penny style redemption”. It’s an allusion to an old wives’ tale that advises pregnant women to spit on a penny and stick it to the wall – the speed with which it falls, it was believed, tells you whether the baby is a boy or a girl. For Johnny though, nothing sticks. It’s not that simple.