Important Songs

On Facebook, someone suggested that the song that hit Number 1 on the pop charts the week you turned fourteen defined your life. This is a pretty silly idea, given that most of the songs that make the charts are about the overheated concerns of adolescents, and most people are glad to see the end of that period of life.

Besides, even in the heyday of Top Forty radio a lot of the best songs never got to Number 1, not to mention that the whole phenomenon was tied to a certain slice of U.S. and maybe British life.

But I was curious, so I looked up the hits around my birthday. And proved my own point: by this measure, my life should be defined by Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party.”

If I bought into this, my life would be all about painful breakups and bad boyfriends and spending most of my time in tears seeking solace from my friends. Or, at least, by being miserable at my own parties. And never getting past the teenage take on such issues.

I doubt that song was even particularly meaningful to Lesley Gore, though since it’s a very high school sort of pain, she might have suffered a taste of it at the time: she was sixteen when she recorded it. Given that she was a lesbian from an early age, an activist on LGBT issues in her later years, and with the same partner for more than thirty years, teenage angst over a straying boyfriend didn’t define her life, either.

I remember the song well, though I didn’t like it much. It was certainly part of the teenage soundtrack of my life. But the mention of Lesley Gore made me remember another of her songs, recorded the same year, one that did speak to me — and maybe to a lot of other girls and women: “You Don’t Own Me.”

Don’t tell me what to do.
Don’t tell me what to say.
And please when I go out with you,
don’t put me on display.

Yeah, that has a lot more to do with my life. And hers, too.

She didn’t write it. In fact, two men wrote it: John Medora and David White, a songwriting team of the time. I somehow doubt they were thinking feminist anthem when they wrote it, though it certainly became one.

That’s the funny thing about some pop songs: they transcend their origins. The way Lesley Gore sang it certainly contributed to that. But sometimes neither songwriters nor other writers or artists know what they’re really doing.

This got me thinking about another singer and song from my teenage years: Aretha Franklin singing, “Respect.” Again, she didn’t write it, but the power of the way she sang it made it anthem-like as well. It was written by Otis Redding, a great musician himself, not just someone turning out pop tunes for others to sing. I suspect it might have been written with more purpose in mind.

When you write, you put an idea out in the world. It might be a deep idea or a trite one; it might be intended to change the world or just to provide brief entertainment or just to be about what the writer thinks is going on. But what happens to it once it gets out there goes beyond the writer.

“It’s My Party” remains a silly song of teenage angst. If you want to go deeper, you could do a feminist commentary on teenage girls and their need for boyfriends. (To do it right, you’d need to add in its sequel, “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” which has the boyfriend coming back. I’d like to see the singer and Judy getting together to tell the boyfriend to take a flying leap, but that might be the perspective of age as well as feminism.)

“You Don’t Own Me” is something more, and it resonated. I don’t think it changed my life, but it explains it, at least a little.

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Important Songs — 26 Comments

  1. Like so many memes this is preposterous.

    Though, unlike a lot of people, in many ways there is music that has come to define my life — as far as that goes. It’s music I never even heard in all those years in which I was growing up. Afro-Cuban music. It’s even led to us forming our company, Postmambo Studies, via which many, many, many people have come to learn personally, on the ground and face-to-face with Cuban people, including many, many musicians, what Cuba is really like, its history, geography and culture, and most of all, its present and its spirituality.

    And of course, that #1 song thing, that was a creation of Billboard magazine and radio, which never existed throughout most of the course of the world — and the young people today don’t even know what a radio is.

    • My take on the meme is the same as yours, which is why I turned this into a blog post instead of responding on FB.

      And your experience with Afro-Cuban music is exciting.

      The music I came across in college and in later years in Austin had a much bigger effect on my life than the Top 40 of my teenage years. But since Top 40 was a big thing when I was a kid, I recognize the songs when they go by.

  2. So true about the stupidity of that meme.

    And yet some of those old songs did resonate. I remember really liking Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking.” Another that had an effect on me (talking about abuse, and then anger in striking back) was “My Baby Shot Me Down.” Also, Neil Harrison’s nervy, dark side of teenage love, “A Young Girl.”

    None of these songs were the least deep or memorable as great music, but they sure had an effect on teenage me.

    • I suspect there are very few songs from the Top 40 days that were great music, but some resonate and a few probably do transcend. (I liked “These Boots Are Made for Walking” a lot, too.)

  3. I’ve had the same thoughts, as an adult, about those two songs (three, if you include “Judy’s Turn To Cry”).

  4. The song this meme would have me believe defined my life was “Do You Believe in Magic,” by the Lovin’ Spoonful.

    I don’t know that it defined my life, but as such things go, I’m happy to have it represent 14-year-old-me. Even now, I’m not sure, but I think the answer is “yes.”

  5. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that when “You Don’t Own Me” came out the studio tried to suppress it. Their contract with Ms Gore said they had to release it, had to include it in her album. But the contract didn’t say they had to promote it.

    It found a life of its own because of who sang it and how she sang it. A heart-felt song that resonates to this day.

    • I didn’t know that bit of history. There was a wonderful recent version of it out on the Internet that had a lot of different women lip-syncing to it. I think it was put together before Lesley Gore died.

  6. Just googled my top hit for September 1964. “Dancing in the Streets!”

    If you’ve ever seen photos of me dancing in fountains at various SF/F cons, that’s me!

    Doo Wah Diddy is also on the list.

  7. Thanks for this—I now have an ear worm that will be competing with my tinnitus for the rest of the day: “…muh-muh-muh my Sharona!”

    I would argue that there’s something to the idea that the music which forms the backdrop to one’s adolescent years is influential on some level. But there are so many variables, and I don’t think it can be boiled down to one specific song from one specific year of one’s life. For one thing, not everyone listens to the same kind of music, so the number 1 hit on the charts may not be the seminal song in everyone’s “life soundtrack.” On the other hand, adolescence is a very communal time, when we’re all trying to fit in with our peers, so being in tune with the music of the day can be a unifying experience. It’s like fashion and tv shows and movies and books—there are definite trends, and different decades tend to be defined by them. And we do seem to remember the songs from our teen and early adult years more vividly than all the rest.

    Mind, if it turns out that the number 1 hit from our birth year is likewise significant, I’d say that “Dancing in the Streets” pretty much sums it up for me…

    • “Dancing in the Streets” would be good for a lot of people in my generation, I suspect.

      At some long ago high school reunion, the theme was supposed to be music from our generation. I came expecting a lot of Motown, and instead got a lot of the sappy pop. I recognized the pop, but Motown, R & B, and soul ended up being more important to me.

  8. For my 14th birthday, the song was Mr. Tambourine Man – The Byrds, but for the year, it was Wooly Bully.

    Yeah, those are meaningful for my development…

  9. I have been laughing for the last five minutes, down on the floor and banging that floor with one fist–the number one song for my fourteenth birthday was ‘Help!’

    What can I say?

  10. The number one hits were “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band”, rather apt for a lifelong sf fan. The other one was “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone, also apt, as our wedding anniversary was this week.