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.