"If I Were A Boy" sounds like a song about gender. But on another level, it's a full-fledged heartbreak song in which a woman bemoans the loss of her lover. In order to tell both stories, the song has two layers throughout—one layer is about gendered dynamics in relationships in general, the second layer is about a specific relationship. As the lyrics progress, the first layer slowly peels away to reveal the second, and the conclusion ties both back together to turn "If I Were A Boy" into a poignant (if overly general) statement about gender in relationships.
BC Jean, the young songwriter who originally penned the lyrics to "If I Were A Boy," says that the idea for the song came from "musing on how if she were a boy, she'd be so much better than her ex." Specifically, BC Jean says she was walking around Times Square with co-writer Toby Gad and wanted a hot dog. She began to wonder whether, if she were a boy, she could snack on a hot dog "without regrets." Like the flow of the song's lyrics, BC Jean's thought process went from wondering what it would be like to be a boy in general (and lamenting that she feels stuck in certain roles as a girl) to remembering her anger at her ex-boyfriend and imagining how she would act differently if she were him.
Most of the song is written as a series of hypothetical statements: "If I were…I would…" is the basic structure. It is also in the first person, with the singer only using "I." She begins by imagining the freedoms she would have as a boy (wearing whatever she wants, going out with whoever, and not caring what people think). In the chorus she asserts that she would also be more understanding and sensitive. The song becomes increasingly aggressive with lines like "If I were a boy…I'd put myself first, and make the rules as I go," attacking either boys in general, or a specific boy, for being selfish and thoughtless.
But just after the second chorus, the song turns to the second person: "It's a little too late for you to come back/Say it's just a mistake."
When it comes to the message of the song, this line is a game-changer. Gone is the world of possibility about how things could or would or should be different…if only. Gone is the righteous anger at how unfair it is that boys get to do all these things that girls can't do as easily. Here we learn that the singer is definitely singing to someone, and that her reason for singing is because she is hurt that he left her. The use of the second person reveals that the earlier lines most likely describe a specific situation between the writer and a man she loved.
Now BC hits us with the climax: "But you're just a boy/You don't understand." This line has a tone of resolution that carries a heavy message. According to BC Jean, she might be able to be different, but boys themselves can't understand. The guy in question is just a boy, and as a result, the hope that he will change is futile. Not fair to the guys? Maybe. But the song ends in sadness, instead of anger. And the sadness of the final lines brings together both layers of the song—it is sadness about what she lost with her ex who mistreated her, but it is also sadness that the singer feels about the privileges boys have that girls don't.
If you read the lyrics on the surface level alone—as a song about "how boys are"—it seems like a bunch of silly stereotypes. But if you read it on both levels—as a song about one girl's experience, viewed in light of gender dynamics that sometimes feel unchangeable—it is a very sad and quite compelling piece of poetry. BC Jean is no Adrienne Rich as feminist poets go, but she wrote a darn good pop song.