Lesley Gore – Sings of Mixed-Up Hearts (1963)

1960’s pop sensation Lesley Gore began her career as a victim in “It’s My Party,” but became a feminist icon in 1964 with a pre-feminist movement anthem “You Don’t Own Me.”

When Lesley Gore hit the top of the Billboard charts in 1963 there probably wasn’t any singer in the world least likely to become a feminist icon.  The sixteen-year-old singing prodigy of producer Quincy Jones, she was still singing in her school’s glee club and her family home in Tenafly, New Jersey was still listed in the phone book, prompting fans to show up outside of her house looking for autographs.  But within months Lesley would become one of the biggest pop stars in America, and become a predecessor to future pop princesses like Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, and for the most part, do it all with dignity, class and very little drama, despite having secrets of her own which could have decimated her career in the early 1960’s.

But right out the door, when looking at Lesley’s earliest recordings, despite being products of their time, were extremely problematic.  Lesley was introduced to the world as the broken-hearted girl next door who, on the night of her birthday party, had her boyfriend Johnny dump her for her rival Judy in ‘It’s My Party.”  The drama was all too familiar for teenage girls living throughout middle America, and the melodrama wrapped up in an up-tempo melody was pop music gold, and has become one of the defacto standards of the era.  But it set a tone for Lesley’s image as the eternal victim. Sad, innocent and helpless against her tormentors, Lesley Gore personified girls everywhere who were trapped in the patriarchal society of the post war generation, who allowed themselves to be walked over by their fathers, brothers and boyfriends.  In song after song, Lesley sang about the cruel way life treated her in tracks such as “I Don’t Want to Be a Loser,” “Just Let Me Cry” and, possibly the worst of the bunch, “That’s the Way Boys Are” which pretty much had Lesley justifying abusive relationships as part of being in love.

Lesley Gore receives her gold album award for “You Don’t Own Me” from producer and mentor Quincy Jones in 1965

 And it wasn’t just men that victimized Lesley.  It was the girls too – especially the “bad” ones.  She sang about a nasty cheating harlot in “She’s a Fool” and even recorded a radio commercial for Coca-Cola where she played a kid sister lamenting how she was left out of her older sister’s party.  Even when Lesley got her revenge against Judy in the “It’s My Party” follow up, “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” Lesley reverted to mind games, and still ended up being the loser by reentering a toxic emotional situation with Johnny, who in retrospect is one of the thickest assholes in the history of pop music.  By being a “good girl,” Lesley had to play the role of being quite and doing what she was told, which set her up to be victimized again and again in song.  As America’s newest singing sweetheart, this was not setting a great example for the girls who related to her.

So, when Lesley Gore released the single “You Don’t Own Me” at the end of 1963 on her second album “Lesley Gore Sings of Mixed-Up Hearts,” probably nobody knew just how revolutionary of a statement the song would make.   Long before Women’s Liberation was even a thing, and seven years before Gloria Steinman would enter the cultural radar, here was little Lesley Gore, with her tears dried and standing up to men and bullies everywhere, saying she wasn’t going to be pushed around anymore:

“You don’t own me
I’m not just one of your many toys
You don’t own me
Don’t say I can’t go with other boys.

And 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 “

When the song started getting radio play early in 1964, this wasn’t the same Lesley Gore from a year earlier.  Although only seventeen years old, Lesley Gore was singing for women all over America, and showing that good girls could, and should, stand up for themselves. 

Ironically “You Don’t Own Me” wasn’t written by a woman, but were written by two men – Philadelphia based song-writers John Madara and David White whose previous hit was “At the Hop” for Danny and the Juniors.

Ironically, “You Don’t Own Me” wasn’t written by a woman but was composed by the Philadelphia based song writing team of John Madara and David White, whose biggest successes prior to this was “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors (White was also a member of the band).  It’s anybody’s guess what inspired them to write what would become a feminist anthem, but the song captured the attention of the record buying public.  By the beginning of 1964 “You Don’t Own Me” began to get airplay across North America, and eventually rose to Billboard’s number two spot in February 1964 where it stayed for three weeks. 

Why didn’t it climb to number one?  Well, at the number one spot was “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles, who had just made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on the first Sunday of that month.  That was one speeding train that nobody was going to beat, but when put in that context, Lesley climbing to the #2 position with “You Don’t Own Me” at the same time was an extraordinary feat.

Now while some female artists might have received some sort of backlash from releasing such a defiant “out of the box” statement, Lesley Gore had the perfect amount of non threatening likeability to allow her star to grow even brighter, and despite the British Invasion dominating the world music scene throughout 1964, Lesley would maintain a coveted place at the top in the American pop charts.  Her follow up hit, also on “Sings for Mixed-Up Hearts” would be the far tamer and poppier “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” which would become her third biggest hit of her career.  Later that year Lesley would relocate from the East Coast to Los Angeles where she made appearances on “Shindig” and the films “Girls on the Beach” and “Ski Party.”

Lesley Gore makes concludes her historical seven song set in “The T.A.M.I. Show” in 1965.

But the tour de force of Lesley’s year was when she became the center piece to the concert film “The T.A.M.I. Show.”  One of the best concert films ever made, the movie was a wisely thought-out showcase of a cross section of the music of the moment, bringing together acts across the different sections of the industry including the British Invasion, Motown and the West Coast Music scene.  Sharing the stage with a plethora of legendary performers including The Rolling Stones, James Brown, The Beach Boys, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Temptations, the center point of the film was given entirely to Lesley, who was one of the few musicians in the film to get an uninterrupted seven song set.  This included a powerful performance of “You Don’t’ Own Me.”  Her “T.A.M.I. Show” performance was possibly the highest point of Lesley’s Gore career and remains to be a testament to the power of pop music’s unlikeliest feminist icon.  Not bad for a young woman who was barely eighteen years old.

Of course, the twist to the whole story is that Lesley Gore was actually gay, but the public wouldn’t find that out until the 1990’s.  Lesley wasn’t really all that into Johnny after all, making him the biggest loser of that musical melodrama.

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