Music

In 2003, Nelly Furtado took her biggest risk yet. Why 'Powerless' is still a provocative wake-up call

It's the 20th anniversary of the pop singer-songwriter’s polarizing 2nd album, Folklore.

It's the 20th anniversary of the pop singer-songwriter’s polarizing 2nd album, Folklore

Portuguese-Canadian pop singer Nelly Furtado (pictured in 2003) is singing behind a microphone, arms outstretched, wearing a black sleeveless dress with thick tank-style straps and numerous gold chains as well as a large, red heart necklace and gold bracelets and rings. Her eyes are closed as she sings and her lipstick is red. Her hair is dark brown and pulled back into a ponytail that is visible at her neck.
Reflecting on 2 decades of 'Powerless (Say What You Want)' and Folklore. (Kevin Winter/Getty images; design by Andrea Warner/CBC Music)

If Nelly Furtado's 2000 smash hit "I'm Like a Bird" characterized the before of the singer-songwriter's debut (hopeful; longing; an ache for the promise of something more), then 2003's "Powerless (Say What You Want)" was the sound of after. 

Insistent, defiant, declarative: this was an artist who'd seemingly survived some brutal microaggressions — dealing with sexist higher ups, ageism and having her image digitally altered to be whiter and more nude, to name a few — in the music industry and media, and refused to stay silent any longer. 

The making of Folklore

Thanks to the massive success of her Grammy- and Juno Award-winning 2000 debut, Whoa Nelly!, Furtado had enough power to make whatever kind of record she wanted for her followup album. The result was 2003's Folklore, an ambitiously experimental record that used everything from breakbeats, banjos and ocean bass to vibraphones, cavaquinho and 64-foot pipes. Its featured guests and collaborators were equally eclectic —  Béla Fleck, Kronos Quartet, Jarvis Church and Caetano Veloso — and there were songs in both English and Portuguese. 

Folklore didn't just sound different from Whoa, Nelly!: its themes were noticeably more mature, worldly and pointed. From the album opener, "One Trick Pony," Furtado makes her position clear: "I am not a one-trick pony/ I really feel no one can own me," she sings. She also reflects on the heavy burden of expectations ("Try"), the visceral horrors of being a teenager including violence, bullying and sexual assault ("Explode") and being the child of immigrants ("Fresh Off the Boat"),  

But it's Folklore's second track, and the album's lead single, "Powerless (Say What you Want)," that continues to stand out two decades later. Furtado's voice has always possessed a warmth that melts you from the inside, a sweetness that belies whatever she's actually singing about. But on "Powerless," she radiates something different: a confident determination and purposeful clarity. Overtop a bed of breakbeat and banjo, Furtado comes out swinging at the media and music industry for everything from literally whitewashing her image to trying to silence her. The song's opening bars seem to detail the most pressing roots of Furtado's frustrations. 

Paint my face in your magazines,
Make it look whiter than it seems,
Paint me over with your dreams,
Shove away my ethnicity,
Burn every notion that I,
May have a flame inside to fight,
And say just what is on my mind,
Without offending your might.

'Cause this life is too short,
To live it just for you,
But when you feel so powerless,
What are you gonna do?

So say what you want.
Say what you want.

'Powerless' under the microscope

Though "Powerless (Say What You Want)" won single of the year at the 2004 Juno Awards, and it cracked the Canadian chart's top 10 and the U.S. Hot 100 Singles Billboard chart, the critical reception to both the song — and Folklore — was mixed at best. 

The BBC called "Powerless" "joyful and defiant" and a "wonderful song" whereas the the Atlanta Journal gave Folklore a C-, declaring, "A sophomore slump, you say? Try sophomore spiral. At breakneck speed." 

Entertainment Weekly's review was full of backhanded praise: "Folklore should have been a mess. But it isn't … Folklore is about the joy of making something new out of random elements, and few other albums this year have captured that pleasure as well as this one does." But later in the piece, the reviewer warns: "It helps, though, to tune out many of Furtado's words. Whoa's left-field success appears to have played with her head, making her not a little self-righteous and defensive. The droning single 'Powerless (Say What You Want)' includes a denunciation of the media for misrepresenting her background ('paint my face in your magazines/ shove away my ethnicity')." 

Spin's praise was even more backhanded. The review opens by acknowledging that while Folklore's vocals and arrangements are "more ambitious and arguably better," the album is lacking in the "free play" and "goofiness" that apparently "defined" Furtado's debut. The writer then dismisses Furtado's ballad "Try" because the vocal could be "almost any Lilith Fair lassie" before closing with this extra patronizing double whammy: "Furtado's certainly self-aware, and she's got the defensive, stardom-critiquing sophomore songs — 'One-Trick Pony,' 'Powerless (Say What You Want)' — to prove it. But perhaps the lady doth protest too much. Fame is what you do with it, and fun is the best revenge."

Slant compliments Furtado and her producers for continuing to "artfully mix the traditional with the modern" on Folklore. The reviewer highlights numerous standout songs, including the "exhilarating breakbeats-meets-banjo" track "Powerless" but then also suggests that Furtado's lyrical influences are too niche and that she's trapped in an overnight success bubble. "Furtado's audience is unlikely to relate to the rigours of sudden fame or the personal anguish of having their ethnicity painted over in magazines." 

Actually a lot of people — likely many historically oppressed and repressed person who have ever felt pressured to hide an aspect of their identity in order to "fit in" — can relate to Furtado's experiences. For esteemed publications to suggest that she should shut up and be more fun was — and is — a wild nesting doll of the very same microaggressions that Furtado was calling out in the song's lyrics. 

What's 'Powerless' actually about?

Whether Furtado is referencing a specific incident in the opening bars of "Powerless (Say What You Want)" or speaking more generally or metaphorically remains a grey area. A 2003 interview in the National Post claimed that "Powerless" seemed "to take direct aim at FHM, the British lad mag that reportedly altered an image of the singer for its cover." But in a 2002 Billboard Magazine article about the incident, Furtado expressed frustration with FHM not for erasing her ethnicity, but for digitally cropping her top and adding a bare torso. "There I am with a shirt that has actually been digitally altered to go to just below my chest, with a stomach that I don't recognize," Furtado said. 

In 2004, Furtado told the Windy City Times that "'Powerless' [is] not something that happened to me directly in the music business. The song is more about the sense of feeling of displacement or lack of connection that people get with images around us from looking at television and magazines and billboards. I think that's always been a motivating factor for me— to share my heritage and my identity." A couple months later, Furtado told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Folklore almost didn't get made:

"I had a beef with the business. I wasn't angry, but I did feel a little bit like an alien in the business because I'm a fan of different things that don't necessarily get exposure on a pop record. I wasn't sure how I fit into pop music. I love music, but it was always a hobby before it was a career." But in an interview with the Talk, Furtado admitted, "I didn't understand why people wanted to use Photoshop on my pictures after my first album, so I wrote the song 'Powerless' because I felt disenfranchised and I felt the weight of the world, you know."

Whatever Furtado's reasons for writing the song, "Powerless (Say What You Want)" struck a nerve for many different people, and many critics and writers seemed to tell on themselves in the defensiveness and/or accusatory tone of their reviews and interviews. But Furtado's fans love it, and the song has almost 16 million streams on Spotify today.

Three years after Folklore, Furtado would come under fire again for her third record, the 2006 blockbuster, Loose. The backlash was different this time — more conservative, as Furtado was daring to be a young woman (and mother) openly appearing to enjoy sex — but that's for a future anniversary piece. Folklore is the bridge between where Furtado started and where she was going, and "Powerless (Say What You Want)" never quite got the respect it deserved. 

But consider this: the track is 20 years old, and Furtado was just in her early 20s when she found the courage to not only speak out about racism and sexism in the music industry and media, but she also put it in a brilliant song and turned it into a vital anthem of empowerment that is relevant today. We can hear her enduring influence in a new generation of Canadian pop stars, including Jessie Reyez, Alessia Cara and Tate McRae, all of whom display a kind of fearlessness to call out injustice that is nothing short of inspiring.

As Furtado sings: "When you feel so powerless/ what are you going to do? Say what you want."  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrea Warner

Associate Producer, CBC Music

Andrea Warner (she/her) writes and talks. A lot. She is the author of the forthcoming The Time of My Life: Dirty Dancing (spring 2024), Rise Up and Sing! Power, Protest, and Activism in Music (2023), and Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography (2018). She is the co-writer and associate producer of the 2022 documentary, Carry It On: Buffy Sainte-Marie. Andrea is an AP at CBC Music, music columnist for CBC Radio’s All Points West and Radio West, and freelance writer. Andrea also co-hosts the weekly feminist pop culture podcast Pop This! Andrea is a settler who was born and raised in Vancouver on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

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