In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about songs that were originally created by men but were better covered by women.
The way Bruce Springsteen sings it, “I’m On Fire” is the sound of the big bad wolf serenading his prey. With a combination of bad-boy edge and earnest vulnerability, Springsteen evokes the thrilling, terrifying feeling of standing on the precipice of experience, much like Joyce Carol Oates did in her famous short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”:
‘My sweet little blue-eyed girl,’ he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.
The magnetic eroticism (as well as the simplicity) of “I’m On Fire” have made it one of the most popular Springsteen covers—Stereogum was able to round up 20 versions of the song last summer—but none have transformed the song like Natasha Khan, the British singer-songwriter who goes by the stage name Bat For Lashes.
Switching the gender of the seducer and the seduced—Khan sings, “Hey little boy, is your mama home” instead of “Hey little girl, is your daddy home”—automatically gives her version a bit of an edge, but Khan is driven by internal longing rather than any sort of predatory urge. She replaces the original’s synthesizers and propulsive, clacking drumbeat with piano, strings, and a Marxophone (a kind of fretless zither with a sound somewhere between a mandolin and a dulcimer), creating a dreamy, drifting ambience enhanced by slowing down the song nearly a full minute.
Overlaying the misty instrumentation are Khan’s expressive vocals; as the song builds, so does her voice, going from a breathless whisper to a powerful, confident tone. By emphasizing certain words and extending others, she allows the emotion in her voice to swell and eventually overflow. When Khan sings “I’m On Fire,” it’s still an unapologetically sexual song. But stripped of its driving beat and male gaze and reshaped into something expansive and ever-shifting, the desires it evokes are unmistakably feminine.