Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" by the Shirelles (1960)

Ah, youthful innocence. There are, and have always been, people who claim that this generation loses its innocence more quickly than the previous generation. Being now old enough to claim that if I so choose, I do wonder. I think that a lot of the perceived generational differences we claim have to do with our own shifting perspectives, not those of any given generation. As we slide into age-induced conservativism, perhaps we colour our own childhood memories differently, so that when we see a child today behaving more or less exactly as we did, we misremember our own youth and see today’s kid as more licentious.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps we truly are going to hell in a handbasket, morally.

To learn, let’s go back in time – way before I was born, before even my parents were old enough to worry about the sentiments expressed herein. I have no idea what age group the record labels presumed this was written for, but I suspect it’s the teen age group. Popular music is generally marketed to teens, and in 1960 I don’t think anybody marketed anything except movie soundtracks and big band music to adults.

So this is an experience meant for teens. The lead singer’s crystal-clear vocal performance is so filled with fear and anticipation that you suspect it really was recorded on the verge of her ‘first night’. The strings (an absolutely gorgeous use of strings) conspire to inflate the romance inherent in the event, but the singer is all about uncertainty. She is quite naïve, not very worldly at all, and quite dependent on her boyfriend for emotional satisfaction: all very pre-Kennedy era.

As Carole King’s lyrics, artful yet conversationally plain, explain, she is about to surrender her virginity to her boyfriend and is terrified that he’s just in it for the conquest and will disappear the next day.

In that light, almost fifty years seem to have changed nothing. Girls today – and if not at the same age group then at least in the neighbourhood – ponder the same dilemma. This girl is not married; this is not a ‘wedding night’ song. This event is happening in a bedroom in either her house or the boyfriend’s house, with the parents downstairs watching TV, unaware. They’re both young, emotionally unaware, yet going with it anyway.

And she’s looking for assurance. Perhaps the most explicitly female emotion there is, outside of motherhood, is the need for that ‘first sexual encounter’ to be a sharing and bonding experience for both of them. This is a need that men, particularly teenage men, are almost entirely bereft of. This is why it matters that the words were written by a woman, and an 18-year-old woman at that (addressing, no doubt, her songwriting partner and soon-to-be husband). In an era where older men were awkwardly putting insincere words into the mouths of teenage girls, this song is so completely legit because it’s written by someone who knows, who feels the emotions expressed in the words. This is virginal female sexuality laid bare, and though it might be filtered through a the lens of a more inhibited era, the emotions are just as raw and real as if they had been written today.

I hear this song with a bitter nostalgia: not for the era, which is almost a full generation before me, but for the age at which girls feel this way, and age that has now long passed for me.

And perhaps if I find myself judging the kids of today, it’s with more than a twinge of jealousy.
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