The Meaning Behind “If She Knew What She Wants” by The Bangles and the Neat Little Twist that Helped Make a Hit

The Bangles hit an impressive commercial peak with their 1986 album Different Light. Although the quartet scored bigger hits from the album, they might have given their finest performance on the record with “If She Knew What She Wants,” a pop number with a ’60s vibe that featured their outstanding group vocals.

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What is the song about? Who wrote it? And how did The Bangles change the perspective ever so slightly to make it more suitable to them?’ Let’s find out all there is to know about “If She Knew What She Wants,” a fantastic track from one of the ’80s most iconic groups.

Making the Leap

It’s never easy to make the jump from being a band that’s buzzed about by a small sector of the listening public to one that gains widespread, mainstream appeal. And it’s even tougher to do it without losing your identity in the process. Give credit to The Bangles that they were able to make all this happen in the ’80s and make it look relatively easy.

The Los Angeles quartet had gained steam among industry types based on some EPs and their live shows in the early part of the decade. On their debut album All Over the Place, they scored a pair of alternative hits with the new wave-ish original “Hero Takes a Fall” and a shimmering cover of Katrina and the Waves’ “Going Down to Liverpool.”

That album gained them one very important fan in Prince, who took a shine to “Hero Takes a Fall” (and to Bangles’ lead singer Susanna Hoffs), and wrote a pair of songs for them. The band chose to record one of them, leaning heavily on Prince’s original demo to do so. The result was “Manic Monday,” a No. 2 U.S. hit, a perfect introduction to Different Light, and the band’s springboard into the pop-music elite.

Shear Brilliance

Different Light started spraying out hits left and right, with the quasi-novelty song “Walk Like an Egyptian,” the album’s third single, becoming the band’s first No. 1. “If She Knew What She Wants,” whose release date was sandwiched in between those two smash hits, didn’t scale the same commercial heights. But it features The Bangles at their very best, with their circling guitars and intertwining vocals calling back to some of their ’60s musical heroes.

The guy who wrote and first performed “If She Knew What She Wants” was Jules Shear. He has done excellent work as an artist in his own right for decades, but is best known by the wider listening public for the cover versions of his material. For example, Cyndi Lauper turned his original “All Through the Night” about that same time.

For the most part, The Bangles stuck to the contours of Shear’s original, which had come out a year earlier on his album The Eternal Return. But they did make one crucial change. Shear had performed the song in the first person (If she knew what she wants, I’d be giving it to her). The Bangles turned that I into a he at certain points of the song. It was a neat little twist that made it sound like Hoffs and company were giving out sage advice instead of being the tortured ones in the song.

What is the Meaning of “If She Knew What She Wants”?

“If She Knew What She Wants” sets up perfectly for The Bangles because of how it has lines in between lines in each verse. For example, it allows Susanna Hoffs to sing If she knew what she wants, and then the other Bangles (Vickie Peterson, Debbi Peterson, and Michael Steele) to answer, in harmony, He’d be giving it to her. And that’s the conundrum that faces the guy in the song, in that he can’t ever discern the girl’s needs so that he can properly satisfy them.

Shear’s lyrics suggest a kind of incurable fickleness is at the core of the problem: Then one day she’s satisfied / And the next I’ll find her crying / And it’s nothing she can explain. The narrator also suggests life can’t quite compare to the ideals of her dream world: But she won’t understand / Why anyone would have to try / To walk a line when they could fly.

Shear’s version of the song is a guy venting his frustration. But The Bangles’ take is designed to make the guy understand the futility of his quest. Put it all together and “If She Knew What She Wants” is a juicy pop pitch that The Bangles knocked way out of the park.

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Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

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