Listening to Lesley: Feminism, Lesley Gore, and Me

Of course I’d listened to Lesley Gore before. My parents raised us on a steady diet of 60s hits, so “It’s My Party” was always a part of my childhood. But it wasn’t until I was twenty that I had a pretty significant Lesley Gore moment. Kate Nash opened her Union Transfer show in November 2013 with a beautiful montage set to “You Don’t Own Me,” and it pieced together all the parts of Nash’s new album that I couldn’t understand on my own. It was a terribly empowering moment.

Listening to Lesley Gore in the twenty-first century and feeling the wave of feminist empowerment really has me wondering about the revolutionary nature of this song in the sixties. “You Don’t Own Me” was released in 1964, when Gore was seventeen years old, and the track held the number two spot for three weeks, just behind The Beatle’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Considering the place of women in society in the 1960s, Gore’s track having a top spot for three consecutive weeks is indicative of the sentiments at the time.

Female artists had been struggling for years to put women on the power map. From Billie Holiday in the 1940s to Nina Simone in the late 50s, female performers tried to prove their chops next to men, but Holiday retained the image of the “jazz singer” rather than the genius, and Simone’s madness often offset her brilliance. It’s only in retrospect that we get a more nuanced image of these women. To see Gore’s contemporaries and how we view them now gives a larger picture concerning Gore’s feminism: Tina Turner, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Mama Cass, among countless others. So in a sense, “You Don’t Own Me” and Gore’s no-nonsense take on the song came at the right place at the right time. Empowered artists such as Holiday and Simone had, in a sense, paved the way for artists like Gore to step in and take up a new feminist torch.

What really complicates this image, however, are songs like “Maybe I Know” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” both of which perpetuate a sort of innocent, boy-obsessed image for women. “Judy’s Turn to Cry” is a sequel to “It’s My Party,” of sorts, where Johnny comes running back to Gore and leaves Judy behind instead. “Maybe I Know” describes a woman who’s coyly aware of her man’s cheating, but she turns a blind eye because she knows deep down inside he loves me. So when Gore sings you don’t own me one minute and maybe I know that he’s been a cheatin’ the next, what are we to make of the message?

This was part of the machinery of music in the 1960s, where the image was paramount and integrity could be left by the wayside. Not that things are much different now, but the difference in message doesn’t seem so stark today. What’s always struck me about 1960s music is its uniformity and its relatively tame nature. The oldies radio station we always had on at my house always served up a healthy dose of good fun with some occasional poetic heartbreak, but more often than not it was Diana Ross singing “Can’t Hurry Love” or Stevie Wonder with “My Cherie Amour” or The Temptations with “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” This was the class of music in which Gore’s “It’s My Party” was placed — not a bad class, certainly incredible music, but not terribly revolutionary as far as message goes.

So back to November 2013, hearing “You Don’t Own Me” for the first time at a lipstick-laden, fashion-conscious, musically excellent punk rock show, I was floored. I had never heard Lesley Gore like this because feminism and female strength had never quite been a part of the 1960s dreamworld music package that I knew. When Kate Nash took the stage and started ripping it up with songs like “Fri-end?” and “Omygod!” and “Kiss That Grrrl,” it all fell into place. The wackiness of Nash’s album that I hadn’t quite picked up on clicked with Gore’s voice in my head repeating don’t tell me what to do, don’t tell me what to say. It built a lineage, a direct line of female empowerment and female excellence from the opening words you don’t own me to Nash’s closing chords. Where Gore had taken up the torch for 40s and 50s female singers, Nash was (and is) taking up the torch for women who just want to play music and rock out.

Likewise, in 2013, “You Don’t Own Me” was used in a Department of Peace campaign encouraging women to vote. With women’s bodies under so much federal scrutiny, Gore was proud to support the modern feminism campaign, citing that we’re still fighting the same battles as when she wrote the song. It’s hard to believe, but she’s right. For this song to have such enduring power is mind-blowing, and for Gore’s brand of 1960s feminism to be relevant to 21st century feminism is both disturbing and enlightening.

We lost a true legend this week, but one whose legend will endure. If a sixties empowerment tone can be taken up by twenty-first century punk rock and political feminist campaigns, it’s clear that Gore did her job and did it well. The fact that “You Don’t Own Me” doesn’t just keep its power but builds power throughout the years serves to prove its necessity and its universality. So here’s to Lesley Gore, inspiring to women around the world — whether quiet girls or riot grrrls, she has something to say to all of them.

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1 Comment

  1. Lauren S

    February 19, 2015 at 9:13 pm

    I for some crazy reason never heard of Lesley Gore before, but I am so glad I did now! Thanks Katie for the read!

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