You Don’t Own Us
Confession: one of my favorite pop music genres is the girl groove, those all- female groups and soloists that hit their peak in the 1960’s. On one of those public television pledge nights a while back, we were treated to dozens of fading video tapes of those Detroit , New York, and Nashville female vocalists who I had stayed up listening to on the bubble gum AM radio stations of my California pre-teen years.
Some of them were minor stars, even one hit wonders, and others like The Supremes dominated the charts for many years with their songs of one way love and rejection. Their stories of leaders of the pack and soldier boys. Their advice to those of us who dreamed of being Bobby’s girl: that just to see his smile made our life worthwhile.
My favorite was probably “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis, a minor star with her medium looks and Southern twang singing soulfully about her lost boy friend, the one who didn’t love her anymore. She asked why the sun went on shining the birds singing, the stars glowing above, the sea rushing to shore, her heart beating, her eyes crying. One guy had said goodbye and it was all over for her at 16 or 17. I had not even had a date yet, and I was totally relating to her doomed future and her unending pain.
Listening again 50 years later to the five volume retrospective Girl Grooves CD set I was sent in exchange for an upped annual contribution to my local station, confirmed for me that the music itself was good. These were infectious songs: danceable, listenable, covered by (mostly) top notch performers. That many of the lyrics preached such adulation, such willingness to do whatever it took to please those gangly, pimply boys, is undeniable. That these hit songs have staying power in artistic ways and at least gave young women musicians a platform for fleeting fame is also true.
One of the luminaries among these died last month.
The Brooklyn-born, New Jersey raised Lesley Gore, nee Goldstein, was only 16 years old when she was discovered by Quincy Jones and began recording, starting with “It’s My Party” and other treacly tunes that sold millions of copies. It wasn’t until she released “ You Don’t Own Me, written by a male songwriting duo, which urged her peers not to become “little toys,” told what to say and do, and put on display, that her own voice emerged.
This song was the first in a series of break-aways for the singer, choosing to go to Sarah Lawrence College as a ”normal” student, coming out as a lesbian, using the words and overall message of “You Don’t Own Me” in a public service ad urging young women to exercise their vote, calling for equal rights and especially reproductive justice.
Lesley died of lung cancer at age 68, survived by Lois Sasson, her partner of 30 years.
Says Sasson: “She was a wonderful human being — caring, giving, a great feminist, great woman, great human being, and great humanitarian.” Indeed.