“A Rebel Just for Kicks”: The Funny, Real, and Serious Meanings Behind Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still”

For a song that clocks in at under three minutes, there is a lot going on in Portugal. The Man’s 2017 megahit “Feel It Still.” There are references to vocalist/guitarist John Gourley’s daughter Frances, nods to two previous decades, a quote attributed to George Carlin, and a melody swiped from an early ‘60s Motown hit. Somehow, it all fits together perfectly.

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As with many hit songs, the writers of “Feel It Still” didn’t intend to make the song a coherent statement. In fact, they didn’t intend to write the song at all. Gourley unwittingly began the process of writing “Feel It Still” while taking a break from mixing another track (“Live in the Moment”) from the Woodstock album. He started to play a bass line, and in less than an hour, that bass part morphed into an entire song, including lyrics. It’s one thing to write a song in a matter of minutes and another thing to write one that ties several disparate ideas together into a cohesive whole. Here’s how Portugal. The Man—with help from several others—wound up writing a song about feeling solidarity with a cause but not being in a position to take action.

Prioritizing Care for Frances

As much as there is to unpack in the lyrics of “Feel It Still,” we can get the gist of the song after the first verse and chorus. From the opening verse, we learn that Gourley wants to get involved in a number of things, but he refrains so that he can be there for his young daughter.

Can’t keep my hands to myself
Think I’ll dust ‘em off, put ‘em back up on the shelf
In case my little baby girl is in need
Am I coming out of left field?

What Gourley doesn’t address in “Feel It Still” is that he and his partner (and bandmate) Zoe Manville are raising a daughter with an extremely rare neurodegenerative disease called DHDDS. On a 2023 episode of the H3 Podcast, Gourley described Frances’ condition as being akin to “Alzheimer’s dementia with kids.” While it’s not clear if her condition had been diagnosed by the time he worked on “Feel It Still,” it’s possible Gourley had some strongly compelling reasons to focus his attention on his “little baby girl.”

How to Be “A Rebel Just for Kicks”

That puts the hook that starts off the chorus in a different perspective. Gourley is a rebel just for kicks, because his commitment to his family, and especially to Frances, precludes him from being more invested in rebellion. In a video for Genius Lyrics, Gourley expounded on what being a “rebel just for kicks” means to him, saying, “A rebel just for kicks is the guy who’s gonna go out and tell you the truth about politics and tell you the truth about religion, and he’ll do it in a funny way that’s real and serious.” Gourley added another wrinkle to the “just for kicks” part: “He’s also not going to vote, because he doesn’t trust government.”

Once a Rebel, Always a Rebel

In the rest of the chorus, Gourley lets us know that he still has a rebellious spirit.

I been feeling it since 1966 now
Might be over now, but I feel it still

Gourley was born in 1981, so he has not been literally feeling it since ‘66, but he is saying he feels a kinship with those involved in movements for political and social justice at that time. In the latter part of the chorus, Gourley changes the first of those lines to Let me kick it like it’s 1986 now. In the Genius Lyrics video, Portugal. The Man bassist Zach Carothers said that was a reference to the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right.” The song came out that year and begins with the words Yeah, kick it.

Channeling George Carlin and The Marvelettes

While the first two verses relate specifically to Frances, the third intends to make a reference to a specific “rebel just for kicks.” Comedian George Carlin was someone who would tell the truth “in a funny way that’s real and serious,” Gourley said, and the verse’s opening line, We could fight a war for peace, is a direct reference to the one-liner “Fighting for peace is like f—ing for virginity.” While the joke has been widely attributed to Carlin, the website georgecarlin.net claims the late comedian never said it.

“Feel It Still” is not short on cultural references, and its most obvious one is baked into the song’s melody. It’s not an accident the melody Gourley sings for Ooh, I’m a rebel just for kicks now sounds suspiciously like the refrain from The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” Gourley has openly admitted to stealing the melody from the Motown classic, which was one of his favorite songs growing up. Robert Bateman, Brian Holland, and Freddie Gorman—all of whom were involved in writing “Please Mr. Postman”—received writing credits for “Feel It Still.”

The Impact of “Feel It Still”

While Portugal. The Man has not had any other entries on the Billboard Hot 100, “Feel It Still” made the most of its time there. It spent 45 weeks on the chart, peaking at No. 4. The song’s success on a wide array of Billboard charts speaks to its unusually broad appeal. It reached the top spot on six major Billboard charts: Radio Songs, Pop Songs, Adult Pop Songs, Alternative Songs, Adult Alternative Songs and Dance/Mix Show Airplay. “Feel It Still” also spent a record-breaking 20 weeks at No. 1 on the Alternative Airplay chart, with the first 17 coming consecutively. (Blink-182’s “One More Time” equaled the feat with 20 consecutive weeks at the top in late 2023 and early 2024.)

“Feel It Still” has also enjoyed immense popularity on streaming services. It has been played more than 1.2 million times on Spotify, and its official video has received over 370 million views on YouTube.

Portugal. The Man won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for “Feel It Still.” The interactive version of the song’s official video won the 2018 Webby Award for Online Film & Video—Best Use of Interactive Video.

Gourley packed a lot of nuanced ideas into “Feel It Still,” and in less skillful hands, it could have been overly ponderous. Instead, he helped to create a song that is not only incredibly catchy, but thought-provoking in a funny, real, and serious way.

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Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for dcp

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