She's Not You Words & Music by Steve Gillette
It's a sad song. How often have you heard songwriters say, “yes it was a sad breakup, but I got a good song out of it.” That's true in the case of this song, but in having two versions of the song (male and female) I've had the opportunity for a kind of binocular revelation about it, a chance to hear it from both sides, so to speak. And I've learned something about the original version, and the person who wrote it. That's me of course.
Jim Ed Norman produced the recording by Anne Murray for Capitol Records in 1974. It was a very nice event for me, a validation as a songwriter after a long dry spell, and a wonderful credit beyond the financial windfall. But then a very surprising thing — hearing her interpretation, suddenly I understood the song in a way that hadn't quite made sense up until that moment.
I had kind of known where the song was going from the first inspiration, and I had plowed ahead in the belief that what I was trying to express would work in a male performance. It might be that I was writing about something that required an empathy which was not yet a part of the culture of masculinity, but was nonetheless an issue. The main problem with the male version is that it might seem cruel, an unwelcome sentiment. I'll try to explain how I mean that.
We've all heard someone talking on the phone and without being able to hear the voice on the other end of the line, we still could form some impressions as to who that person was and how they were responding to the person on our end of the line (assuming you can remember when phones had lines).
There are three people in this song, the singer, his current partner, and the one who haunts his memory. There's a sadness in that, and that sadness is the representation of what it is that is missing. When it is a woman who is the singer, she brings with her all the old expectations that she will be a selfless and loyal wife, especially in songs that are grounded in the pop-country world.
She can admit to the listener that she still has feelings for a former partner without losing our good will, as long as she gives the assurance that she is respectful of the current man's (and it has to be a man) commitment to her.
For a man to express the same sense of something lost can be a betrayal of character. It can be unbecoming for a man to talk of caring for the other woman. It's not unheard of in country songs, but the emotional territory of those songs is illuminated more by neon than by starlight.
An important clue to the meaning of the song is to be found in the word 'friend.' The line 'I don't pretend that she's the friend I'm used to.' gives a look into the former relationship and what it is about it that is so sorely missed: the simpatico, the level of understanding and shared vision. Seems like the simplest thing, the comfort of being with someone with whom you have a sense of 'soul mate.'
In the new relationship it may be that over time that kind of intimacy could eventually be established, but we get the feeling from the song that that promise has not been fulfilled. This is a song about tragedy, no doubt about it, not a love song in the normal sense. But if it's true that something as precious as an enduring love can be described by its absence, then that is what I would say this song is about.
One reason I think that the song works better when sung by a woman is that there is nothing noble in the man saying that he remembers a better friend. That seems hurtful, and yet when sung by a woman, it's easier to emphasize with her suffering, her being torn. Men are not easily identified with as being torn. A woman can sing 'he can't help it if he's not you' and it sounds like empathy, whereas when a man sings 'she can't help it if she's not you' it can sound like condescension.
Don't know exactly why, except for that same old tired specter of masculine dominance in our culture, and of course in country music. It's not just that men don't cry, but that men are not encouraged to express or even feel torment about not being fully present in a relationship. Not really 'guy' stuff. But when Anne Murray sings it, all the emotional implications seem to fall into place.
I may be out on a limb here, possibly making more of this distinction than it merits. It may just be that Anne Murray has enchanted me and that listening to her interpretation of the song has made me a believer. But as a teacher of songwriting I still claim the high ground because the challenge has been given to you as a songwriter to contend with the need for the song to be not so much 'gender-specific' but gender authentic.
But then it really isn't gender we're talking about here, is it? I would guess it's something more along the lines of our soul character, and our ability to empathize with the soul character of others. All this in recognition and celebration of our deeply shared humanity.
I found this helpful analysis on a site called TV Tropes:
'Change the lyrics, of course! Most of the time this will entail no more than switching a couple of pronouns (a man would sing "and you're having my baby" while the woman might sing it "and I'm having my baby" or change it to "and I'm having our baby") or changing "boy" to "girl" (or vice versa) but in some cases it can require a much more extensive rewrite. Another common way of doing this is giving the song a Perspective Flip - i.e. "then he kissed me" becomes "then I kissed her.
'This can work well in many cases, while sometimes it can seem forced and awkward, sometimes becoming more of a distraction than it would've been if the artist had simply used the original lyrics. It can also come across as Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?, especially if the original version is particularly well known ... It should be noted that, while changing the style of a song is allowed by ASCAP rules, changing any lyrics in a recorded cover requires obtaining permission from the song's owner. Artists have been sued for using this trope without doing so.'
It's true that just shifting pronouns is often all that is needed to adapt the song to a singer of the opposite sex, a term that seems to be a little out of date these days. The discussion of the inadequacy of the binary label is beyond the scope of this article, but does deserve a closer consideration. But I wanted to focus on another aspect of gender that has more to do with the subtle assumptions and conventions that we face as creators of boy-girl content.
Two of the songs written by Kris Kristofferson have been enormously successful. “Bobby McGee” clearly made the transition to the female version by Janis Joplin. In a kind of double-reverse, we had already accepted Kris' use of 'Bobby' as a woman's name. All the other elements of the story followed on with no discrepancies.
On the other hand, a song like “Help Me Make It Through the Night” has some problems. It's a song of seduction, and there are so many expectations about the role of each person involved in the seductive scene. She could sing, 'take the ribbon from my hair,' even 'shake it loose and let it fall' although that begins to strain credulity, but 'lay it soft against your skin, like the shadows on the wall' incurs a definite cognitive dissonance when the listener tries to envision the scene. 'Lay it soft against my skin' is also a problem since it wanders from the writer's original vision. Sammi Smith's version of the song makes the 'against your skin' choice. I wouldn't discourage her from singing the song, especially since it was a big record for her, but I do think that it's an issue worthy of our consideration.
Now I know that many will argue that this might be just too critical, and that's certainly a possibility, but for the purposes of exercising our writer's antennae, I hope the reader will go along with me. There must be better examples to make the point, and I look forward to hearing your suggestions. Let me just say that leading the listener through a satisfying sequence of actions requires an adherence to a refined sense of who says what and when in order for it all to work.
Again, there are aspects of songwriting that are like joke telling. An exercise in what you say and what you don't say. Remember the one where the woman says, “Take off my blouse. Now take off my skirt. Now don't you ever let me catch you wearing my clothes again!” If you are concerned about losing your job to an algorithm, this is where the artist may have an advantage. Any bot can change pronouns, but I've yet to see a computer create a genuinely funny joke. Same goes for believable dialog, intriguing interpersonal conversation, true drama.
Some may say that when our very survival is threatened on several fronts, focusing on such subtle aspects of sexual politics is not what's needed. How does improving the acuity of our perceptions help to put world issues in order? What does loving and being a loving person have to do with right action in the larger world? You can see where I'm going with this.
So, no more suspense, here's a YouTube video of Anne Murray's recording of “He's Not You” produced by Jim Ed Norman:
Anne Murra's recording of "He's Not You."
And here's my version which was produced by Graham Nash and Mac Holbert. You can hear Graham in the choir of background singers. David Lindley plays lead guitar:
Steve Gillette's recording of "She's Not You." Video by Steve
I think “She's Not You” is the first song in which I hit on a structure that I have employed many times since. That is the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus form, ABABCB. Many songs add other sections, intros, outros, pre-choruses and pre-bridges, so this song is relatively simple in structure.
The verses are pretty ordinary as far as melody and chords until you get to the third line of each verse where I substitute the Dm7 for what was the F chord in the second line. Then in the fourth line I venture off the expected track to bring in a new element. This chord, the E7 can be understood as a borrowed dominant which tends toward the Am.
This use of the borrowed dominant, as we have discussed in earlier articles, grabs the attention of the listener and can heighten the intensity of the idea expressed in the lyrics. It's at this point that the tension or conflict of the song is introduced.
There's a momentary disorientation created by the shift of harmony which is then put to rest by the progression through the Am, the F, and the ending C, G, and C. This also carries the lyrics to a sense of resolution as the section comes to an end.
The chorus in this case is more like a refrain, it's really just an extension of the verse that allows for a conclusory statement which is repeated in the second verse, and then comes back to close out the song after the bridge.
Again, as in so many of my songs, the bridge acts as a break in the predictability of the verse-chorus form, and introduces new harmonic colors. As is often the case, the bridge begins by taking the melody up a fourth to the F, but then up one more fourth to the Bb for what I hope is a strong melodic hook at work in the bridge. I guess you could call this a borrowed subdominant, borrowed from the key of F.
Again the Dm7 substitution in the third line softens the tension and eases the song back to the G7 which waits and holds tension for four bars to set up the last chorus. Dwelling on the dominant chord in this way prepares the listener to hear the chorus one more time.
My recording is available on the CD A Little Warmth, in our online store here.
The sheet music, with lyrics, chords and treble clef, is available in my songbook here.
For those who might want to sing the song here are the lyrics and chords:
© 1974 Ensign Music, BMI