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Title: ‘When You Are Who You Are’
Where to find it: ‘Pieces of a Man’ (1971, Flying Dutchman Records)
Performed by: Gil Scott-Heron
Words by: Gil Scott-Heron

Yes, I am back, some 2 months after I last was here! But not for long. I’ve been so busy and working so hard on that writing project I mentioned, not to mention living Real Life with a day job and TGTF, that I wanted to do a really short analysis post today as sort of an aperitif to what’s coming up next week. More on that to come…

I’d never heard this song until Steve Lamacq played it on his 6 Music programme 2 weeks ago. What a lovely, lovely sentiment! I practically cried reading back the lyrics after I’d found them. One of my favorite Motown songs is Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ ‘The Track of My Tears,’ which I find absolutely brilliant for the lines “my smile is my makeup / I wear since my breakup with you.” BOOM. Obviously, that’s supposed to be a sad song, expressing regret of a relationship gone south. The physical smile that he’s pasted on his face is literally a mask to hide the anguish he has inside. Is there anything more heartbreaking than that?

In stark contrast, this song from Gil Scott-Heron is from the point of view of a man who’s saying enough is enough, stop with the masks and the disguises! He’s in love with her and wants her to stop pretending to be someone else. He wants her to be who she truly is because “you can be so very beautiful / when you are who you are.

Cue the waterworks and bring on the words, please…

The words:

Verse 1
You always go out of your way to impress me
Don’t you know by now, ain’t no need to impress me
I’m impressed every time you smile
When I feel like you mean to smile

“Chorus”
You can be so very beautiful
When you are who you are

Verse 2
Every morning when you wake up you put on a new disguise
How long did you think it would take me to realize
Girl, the things you wore ain’t real
You never tell me just how you feel

“Chorus”
Girl you can be so very beautiful
When you are who you are

Bridge
People never seem to want to be themselves
So they end up running in circles confused
Yeah, confused
Just like everyone else

Verse 2 again
Every morning when you wake up you put on a new disguise
Just how long did you think it would take me to realize
That the things you wore ain’t real
You never tell me just how you feel

“Chorus” / extended outro
When you could be so very beautiful
When you are who you are
Yeah, when you are who you are, yeah
Oh, when you are who you are, yeah
When you are who you are, yeah
When you are who you are
Get it, get it, get it, get it, get it, get it, get it

When you are who you are, yeah
Oh when you are who you are, yeah
Oh when you are who you are, yeah
Oh when you are who you are

Now, the analysis:

Gil Scott-Heron makes some interesting word choices in what should be a pretty straight-forward love song that is supposed to say, “I love you just the way you are.” (By the way, if you were wondering, it would be another 6 years before Billy Joel came along with ‘Just the Way You Are.’ In case you were keeping score.) In verse 1, he’s telling his lady love to not bother with impressing him because they’ve been together long enough that he doesn’t need impressing. He even sounds a bit exasperated with “don’t you know by now, ain’t no need to impress me.” Funny! The next two lines are kind of awkward, but I think that was done on purpose:

I’m impressed every time you smile
When I feel like you mean to smile

As in, “well, I notice when you smile. And you have a great smile. But I only want you to show that smile when you *really really* mean it.” In other words, stop smiling when you don’t mean to. Scott-Heron was clearly not a card-carrying member of the “fake it ’til you make it” club.

Then in verse 2, we look on as he gets into discussing her “disguise.” I don’t think he means only a physical disguise. I mean, okay, let’s say every morning you put on your Phillie Phanatic costume and go to work. On the outside, you look like the crazy green mascot for the Philadelphia baseball team, but no-one really knows what is going on inside, do they? You could have a cold and be very unwell. You could be depressed. You could be hopped up on too many cups of coffee. (Oh wait, you’d be bouncing off the walls with that much caffeine, wouldn’t you?) You see what I mean.

Physically, you can disguise yourself of course, but I think what Scott-Heron was trying to get at was presenting a different version of yourself that isn’t really you will do you no favours. This includes pretending to be someone you’re not and expressing feelings that aren’t true to how you’re actually feeling. The clues are in the words:

How long did you think it would take me to realize
Girl, the things you wore ain’t real
You never tell me just how you feel

She’s putting up a false front so she doesn’t have to deal with her true feelings and quite possibly also her own insecurities. He’s almost mocking her (good-naturedly) that this facade she puts up every morning is silly, as if she thought he could snow him and hide what she was really thinking and feeling. The bridge is pretty interesting too. “People never seem to want to be themselves / So they end up running in circles confused / Yeah, confused / Just like everyone else” seems to be saying “there’s no use in being like everyone else. Be yourself.” It can be a hard lesson to learn, though, especially as a woman. I’m going to tack this up to my wall so I can read it again and again and remind myself of this.

I decided to write about this song because Gil Scott-Heron is known for being one of the most influential minds and performers to hip hop artists today. His most famous work is arguably the poem ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,’ which has been considered a watershed moment in his career and appears as track 1 on the A-side of the ‘Pieces of a Man’ album. How amazing that on the same album is ‘Who You Are Who You Are’, apolitical and even though it’s got elements of soul and jazz, is otherwise very pop.

Lastly, the song, a stream of Gil Scott-Heron’s original below.

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