The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

31 July 2006

Exports from Squaresville

Amanda Marcotte cranks up the girl groups, something I've been known to do on a regular basis, and comes to some conclusions, some valid, some perhaps less so. Let's listen in:

[B]efore she lost her mind, Dawn [Eden] was a music writer of sorts, and believe it or not, she and I have pretty similar taste in music, particularly with our shared affection for the sweet pop music of the 60s.... I remember once before (probably in a certain Gawker interview that we tease her with that's been taken down) she said that she was infatuated with the simple optimism of the music. I remember thinking at the time that struck me as kind of weird because the truth is that there's plenty of songs of heartbreak, but I suppose if you really think about it, there were a few things going on lyrically that make sense. First of all, the songs are ridiculous in the level of praise for the love objects (the song on right now has lyrics about someone being your pride and joy and wanting to get married and how all the other girls are all jealous) and second of all, the lyrics, if you read them pretty literally, have very little sex in them.

I suppose a very literal reading of this music might lead one to conclude that things were better in a more "innocent" time, and Dawn in particular would probably find the fantasy of these songs where you fall in love, perhaps even with a "bad" boy, and after much mutual admiration and a little chaste hand-holding and kissing, you got married and lived happily ever after.

Effusive praise for the love object, of course, is hardly limited to the Brill Building era — cf. Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, Sonnets from the Portuguese, circa 1850.

How much sex you heard in the lyrics depends, I think, on where you lived at the time. I spent the Sixties in Charleston, South Carolina, which inevitably means that my particular musical exposure had a larger percentage of R&B in the mix. And while Southern radio stations were inarguably fearful about aggravating the Negro Problem, or whatever the current term was, they also wanted to sell ad space, and rather a lot of their customers were black, so the Top 40 was integrated more easily (and more quickly) than some other cultural barometers of the day. Rhythm and blues back then was quite a bit more open about its intentions; the Little Richard oeuvre is a virtual Katalog of Kink. And while things are alleged to have cooled off as the Fifties faded and the Sixties ascended, the crossover between white and black was simultaneously accelerating. Exhibit A, of course, is "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," a song written by a white couple (Carole King and Gerry Goffin), recorded by a black quartet (the Shirelles), released on a label owned by a white woman (Florence Greenberg) who ceded a piece of the action to a black producer (Luther Dixon) to get these records made. And its sexuality isn't hidden in the least. Lest you think that this was a one-shot fluke, I offer another Goffin-King opus, recorded by many but most vividly by Aretha Franklin, whose title is its chorus: "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman," quite clearly a song about finally, after many tries and possibly many partners, finding someone who can bring the singer to orgasm.

Those who insist that white acts would never get to this level are invited to listen to the entirety of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, a chronicle of a love affair from optimistic beginnings to mournful breakup, interrupted by "Sloop John B" because the record company insisted that there be some sort of hit single on the album. Yes, they were yammering about waiting until they got married in that first track ("Wouldn't It Be Nice"); no, they didn't actually refrain.

Amanda continues:

The thing is, the world's never been "innocent". What's changed isn't so much how people are but how honest society is about it. Hell, the world where sweet-voiced virgins spend all their time swooning over boys was so illusionary in the 60s that it's almost kind of a trope now to note that a lot of those songs were written by men (and had not inconsequential sexual tension in them). Oh yeah, and Lesley Gore is a lesbian. They were a fantasy even then, which says a lot about the unlikelihood of making them reality to me.

The real coming-out story of the Sixties, I suggest, is not Lesley Gore's, but Janis Ian's. First, Ian wrote pretty much all her own stuff, something Gore really didn't get into until the Seventies. More startling is the idea that "Society's Child," a rueful yet still angry song about an interracial romance broken up by the parental units, might have been purely metaphorical, Ian substituting the scary premise of miscegenation for a premise some found even scarier: "I can't see you anymore, baby" is spoken, not to the black boy in the lyrics, but to a girl of unspecified (and irrelevant) ethnicity.

But give Lesley Gore credit for understanding that sometimes you carry the banner and sometimes you play along with the rest of the world: "You Don't Own Me" was followed up by "That's the Way Boys Are," the feminist anthem blending into a vaguely-sexist apologia. And while it's true that men wrote both these tunes, it is equally true that they weren't writing them to be sung by men.

So: are today's lyrics more "honest"? They're certainly more blatant. The biggest change between Then and Now, though, is the fact that except in country music and in musical theatre, professional songwriters have been basically out of the picture since the British Invasion; if anyone writes a song for a contemporary pop star, it's likely to be that star's producer. There is a tendency, therefore, to assume that what comes out in the song today is more likely to represent the "true" feelings of the singer. This might be true — see Ian, supra — but conclusive evidence to support this proposition, however, seems pretty scant. And while I'm not inclined to pull rank on Amanda, who is at least one generation removed from having Been There — otherwise I'd have to knock any post-18th century commentary on Mozart — I'd remind her that illusion is at the very heart of romance: otherwise we'd all be having our relationships prearranged by efficient, omniscient, disinterested third parties, and where's the fun, the joy, the feeling of accomplishment in that?

Disclosure: Dawn and I are old friends — we've had a couple of meetings and at least one dinner — and I read her dismissal of Marcotte's piece first. I do not think that this sequence of events in any way affected my own conclusions. (I have, however, reworded this paragraph since original publication.)

Posted at 8:53 AM to Tongue and Groove


Gore & Ian lesbians??? I'm crushed....

Posted by: paulsmos at 8:33 AM on 1 August 2006