Saturday, April 3, 2010

"You Don't Own Me" by Lesley Gore (1964)

What a curious thing Lesley Gore is. Or rather, her recorded works. From the perspective of 'analyses of the relationships between boys and girls', you could put together a whole Ph. D. dissertation from merely reading her lyrics.

Lesley Gore was a teen singer in the 1960s who recorded her first hit at 16 years old. Her music (and her hair) is very much of the pre-Beatles 1960s, and much of it is disposable fluff. Of course, she wasn't a songwriter: primarily, she puppeted the words put in her mouth my men much older and much maler than her. So the fact that Lesley Gore came out as gay long after her glory days doesn't mean very much in consideration of these boy-crazy lyrics; if anything, all it provides is a certain ironic distance from these lyrics.

Lesley Gore's first 'classic' hit, 'It's My Party', isn't that noteworthy, really. The tale of a girl betrayed by her boyfriend on her birthday, it's a cute enough sob story that says little about male/female relations. Its follow-up, 'Judy's Turn to Cry', however, is a shining example of all that's backwards about 1960s gender politics: in it, 'Johnny' comes back to our heroine, and is of course welcomed back with open arms. The spiteful laughs fall squarely on the shoulders of Judy, the temptress who wooed Johnny away. Johnny here bears no fault for cheating on his girlfriend: he's merely the grand prize in a bitchfest between the evil harpy Judy and the sweet singer of the song.

It gets worse: 'That's the Way Boys Are' excuses her boyfriend's leery, unfeeling and abusive behaviour as merely an unavoidable consequence of his gender. 'Maybe I Know' explains away and defends her boyfriend's adultery: despite his deceit, he loves me. I know he cheats on me, 'but what can I do?' All Lesley Gore is left to do in this rather horrible tale of female powerlessness and tolerance of male indiscretions is hope that 'maybe one day he'll settle down'.

So how to explain the present fabulous song? Musically, it's gorgeous: mid-tempo, with strings tastefully hiding behind some kind of echoed idiophone, a large room with minimal decoration, leaving plenty of space for an 18-year old to combine youth and experience in a pretty powerful vocal performance that keeps the words the centre of attention.

And the words are amazing: impressive even today, downright radical for 1964. It's a brilliant declaration of independence from a girl with an overly controlling boyfriend. The message is clear, and stated in a masterfully direct language that loses none of its poetry or power through its simplicity and directness: don't treat me as if you own me; you don't. One can imagine the singer tearing into this guy in righteous indignation after being on the recieving end of one command too many.

The song (written, surprisingly yet unsurprisingly, by two men) is all the more impressive in light of the 'boys are animals; what can we do?' theme of Gore's other hits. It was held to #2 by 'I Want to Hold Your Hand', the song that heralded the dawn of Beatlemania. So as the Beatles were radically rewriting generational relations, this little salvo for gender equality played its own part in the changes that were in the air.
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