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The song “Frozen” from Madonna’s Ray of Light (1998) contains the lyrics:

Love is a bird, she needs to fly,
Let all the hurt inside of you die.

Does she refer to bird or love? And why is it she there? As far as I know, love and bird both are gender-neutral.

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Since the phrase is "Love is a bird", the "she" would refer to both. As to why it's she as opposed to he or it, that's just a stylistic choice for the song. This question might offer some insight as to circumstances in which you might use "she" for an object. –  Lynn Aug 6 '12 at 22:39
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@Lynn Your comment is really an answer, and I suggest you make it one! :) –  Mark Beadles Aug 6 '12 at 22:54
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I’m not very happy with calling nouns “neuter” in English. It does not make sense. –  tchrist Aug 7 '12 at 0:30
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It doesn’t really work that way in English. English only has animate and inanimate, with the animate further subdivided into sex by male and female, although these are only distinguished in the singular, not the plural. It doesn’t really have gender. Old English has gender, like seo siȝel (f) vs se mona (m) vs þæt scip (n). Modern English does not. You cannot apply Romance grammar to English and expect it to make sense. –  tchrist Aug 7 '12 at 1:33
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I'm afraid lyric interpretation is off topic. It is quite subjective. –  Matt Эллен Aug 7 '12 at 7:30
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5 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Since the phrase is "Love is a bird", the author is equating the two. "She" would refer to both.

As to why it's she as opposed to he or it, that's just a stylistic choice for the song. Using "it" would be common in everyday speech, but probably not as poetic. Using "he" would be an odd choice, since "he" is not normally used to refer to either abstract concepts or genderless objects.

This question might offer some insight as to circumstances in which you might use "she" for an object.

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If a mother bird needed to fly off her nest, no one would begrudge her the pronoun. If love were that mother bird, then love, too, would merit the same considered treatment as our mother bird. By saying that love is that bird, then love deserves the same pronoun.

English reserves it for unthinking, nonsentient things, usually inanimate ones. When we use he or she, we are attributing agency to the thing named. It now has a life and a soul. It makes decisions, it feels, it hurts. It is no longer an it. It is become a he, or more softly, a she.

Madonna is imputing that agency of animate life, and the delicate tenderness of a mother bird, to love itself. Of course she — meaning Madonna — uses she, for having breathed life into love itself, her it is it no longer. It is she.

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'[S]he' definitely refers to bird.

The line in question is a metaphor. Metaphors are all about creating connections between seemingly-unrelated ideas. Birds and flying aren't unconnected ideas, so the metaphor is either that love is like a bird, or that love needs to fly.

"Love is like a bird", then, prompts us to consider in what way are they related. What, about a bird, is common back to love? The bird has a quality that she needs to fly. '[S]he' directly refers to the bird, but is extended in the metaphor to also conceptually refer to love. The meaning becomes a prompt for us to think about love in terms of flying and freedom, and so on and so forth.

But, for kicks, let's imagine that 'she' referred to love. If 'she' directly refers to love, then being like a bird as a concept is placed completely wrong, breaking up the concept of love needing to fly. A valid sentence under that theory would have been "Love needs to fly, like a bird."

BUT, humans process why before what or how! Therefore, option number 2 is an overall less satisfying framing, being out of order for the target audience (Homo Sapiens). Assuming that 'she' refers to 'bird' is better form, because it introduces the non-trivial idea of love being like a bird before the more-obvious idea that birds need to fly.

Therefore, the optimistic assumption is that 'she' refers to the bird.

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I disagree. If I say, "Jim is a singer. He needs to sing." We are clearly talking about Jim and his need to sing. So 'Love is a bird. She needs to fly.' is talking about Love and her need to fly. –  Jim Aug 7 '12 at 1:00
    
But Jim could literally be a singer. 'Jim' and 'Singer' aren't describing different entities in this case. Love cannot literally be a bird! Therefore, bird (as opposed to love) is the closest candidate for 'she', where Jim was still the closest candidate for 'he'. –  rsegal Aug 7 '12 at 1:06
    
No, she refers to "love". The whole point of this lyric is that love needs to fly because she is a bird. To say that it's the bird that needs to fly throws away the entire metaphor. –  user16269 Aug 7 '12 at 7:41
    
As I specifically said, she directly refers to the bird, but because it's a metaphor, we extend the concept of being like a bird (and thus needing to fly) to love. If the two ideas there were 'love needs to fly' and 'love is like a bird', then only the second part would be a metaphor, the first would be some weird personification. Further, the second part would be merely cruft. But if the ideas are 'love is like a bird' and 'a bird needs to fly' then we have an extended metaphor and transitively consider 'love needs to fly' its product. –  rsegal Aug 7 '12 at 11:16
    
Personification is very old: and Venus (or Eros) has been personified as a goddess by the Greeks from ancient times. It is not therefore unreasonable that "she" would be used. The bird, on the other hand, is the odd entry here, and is used to introduce the idea of flying, since Venus was not known to. –  shipr Aug 8 '12 at 21:42
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First, judging from the other answers that are listed, I don't believe that we can really know what "she" exactly refers to, unless we could be told by Madonna or the songwriter, and then we may get different responses anyways.

This touches on, or makes an issue of the way gender neutral nouns are sometimes treated. As @tchrist refers to, sometimes objects that have no gender are given gender in English. Often, people will refer to a ship or a car as "she", even giving the objects names, when they are important, or as a custom.

My opinion is that the "she" is meant to give love some transcendental qualities. To say this in another way, we are talking about a metaphor. The second line gives additional thought to the first line, and helps describe, or "shape", this metaphor. It does not necessarily mean "she" in this case.

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Consider 1 Corinthians 13, from the New Testament. Many characteristics of personhood are written as if applicable to love. "Love is kind, is not puffed up, believes no evil, ..."

The personification of Love is therefore assumed. In this context, therefore, the "person" of love (most often referred to in the female since the introduction of the goddess Venus, although some considered Eros male) is metaphorically identified with a bird so that it can fly.

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Venus? Venus is a parvenue. She’s easily antedated by Aphrodite, Ishtar, Isis, Inanna, Ashtart, Hathor, and Nûgue — just to name of few. As for the gods themselves, well, in Greece alone there were quite a few love gods, like Hymen, Himeros, Anteros, Peitho, Hedylogos, and Pothos. What you want to do about Dionysus I don’t know. Plus you really have to give Phoebus Apollo his due in the love parade. Outside Greece, you had Tu Er Shen, Bes, Kamadeva, Yue-Lao, and many others. –  tchrist Aug 8 '12 at 22:18
    
You are astonishingly well-informed! You're right, of course ... and some of those I was even aware of. I thought, though, that almost everyone would have heard of Venus. –  shipr Aug 9 '12 at 17:14
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