Is that what it’s really about? The Who’s I’m a Boy


This is an occasional series in which, inspired by their being played on Sounds of the Sixties, I pick apart the lyrics of a big Sixties hit record for the real meaning concealed behind the seemingly innocent lyrics.

Well, would you credit it? Just last week, Brian Mathews gave me an excuse to talk about the Who’s less-than-subtle ‘Pictures of Lily’, leading to a comment about the fact that I’d have another piece to write when they got round to playing the band’s ‘I’m a Boy’, a number 2 in Britain earlier the same year, and it’s only the penultimate track on today’s programme.

Like ‘Pictures of Lily’ and to an even greater extent, this song is even less of a double meaning. It only goes and sets things up in its first verse in a way that only the deliberately naive could mistake. There are these four little girls, you see, called respectively Jane Marie, Felicity, Sally Joy and Bill.

And this little girl is not the tomboy kind who runs around in dungarees, Wilhemina who’ll only answer to Bill. No, this is the real thing. The other (little girl) is me – and I’m a boy.

And a very confused little girl, sorry, boy, is Bill (I’m a headcase) as his mother practices making up on his face (just how little a girl is he supposed to be?), dressing him up in skirts and filling his hair with hairpins. But Bill’s insistent that he’s a boy, and it’s just because his mother refuses to accept that she has given birth to a child made of snips and snails and puppy dogs tails, and insists on him living the life of the one that’s made of sugar and spice and everything nice (yeah, right, has anyone here ever had a younger sister?)

At least Bill has a clear image of his natural, as opposed to his enforced gender and wants to spend his time doing manly – sorry, boyly – things: cricket on the green, riding bikes across the stream, cutting himself and seeing his blood, getting muddy. But instead, whilst the other little girls are putting on frocks, plait their hair, painting their face, he’s being forced to wear a wig.

It’s all very cheerful and upfront and in that sense jokey, so that people don’t really stop to recognise that Townsend is writing about enforced transvesticism, the abusive enforcement of an unnatural gender identity upon a child, with the inevitable long-terms psychological effects, and that’s not necessarily a laughing matter, or even a sing along with the chorus one, come to that.

But the ultimate joke might be that Townsend is burying a genuine issue beneath this seemingly absurd setting. For we only have Bill’s word for the fact that he’s a boy and not a girl all the time, a girl perhaps suffering from body dismorphia and desperately seeking to escape from her own physical form into a fantasy of being a boy, or potentially being transgender.

So what does lie beneath the superficial surface of this song? And what more serious issues might lie beneath the superficial surface below the surface? Some songs are never as simple as they sound.

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