It's still her party

Lesley Gore's songs were the ultimate battle cry of teenage brattismo, but they also explored the darker, murkier world of adult feelings.

By Stephanie Zacharek
July 24, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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For better or for worse -- no, make that definitely for worse -- Lesley Gore's 1963 hit "It's My Party" has become more an emblem than a song. To people who care about pop music only casually, who look at it fondly as a remnant of their youth, or of youth in general, "It's My Party" is a nicely polished window into the world of teenagers as interpreted through oldies radio: Kids in the early '60s! Their emotions were so close to the surface! There was all that fuss about who was wearing whose ring -- so much attention paid to minor details!

"It's My Party" has become, over the years, a catchy little number about "lightweight" teenage concerns, a temper tantrum you can twist to. But if you really listen, you hear the way Gore conveys how those little, insignificant problems can mean the world. There's something slightly distanced about the way she tells the story: "Oh what a birthday surprise! Judy's wearing his ring," she sings, each word a chilly little Popsicle of sarcasm. She relays the chain of events as they happen, almost with a sportscaster's relish ("Judy and Johnny just walked through the door, like a queen with her king"). No doubt about it: There's a part of her that enjoys the unfolding drama of the situation.

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And even so, the immediacy of the chorus hits you like a slap. A world she thought was hers -- for the moment, it's wrapped around a boy -- is drifting away from her on her own dance floor, and her desperation has boiled over into a kind of fever. Gore's declaration -- that she'll cry if she wants to -- is the ultimate battle cry of teenage brattismo, willful and just a little nonsensical. But it also harbors a trace of some very adult sexual jealousy. The moment of reckoning -- the moment you realize you no longer have any hold over the one you love best -- is crystallized in a fragmented phrase that's repeated like a mantra, ending with an accusation that's also, of course, perfectly accurate: You would cry too, if it happened to you.

And that's the appeal of Lesley Gore: She may not have been the most nuanced of the girl-group singers (with whom she's always been categorized even though she's a group of one), but somehow, you knew you could count on her to tell it like it is. When she made "It's My Party," she was just a teenager from Tenafly, N.J., whose demo had caught the attention of Mercury Records president Irving Green. The song was recorded, along with three others, in a studio session in late March 1963, with Mercury A&R chief Quincy Jones at the helm.

Like most monster hits, the story of "It's My Party" is dotted with lucky breaks: For one thing, Gore and Jones had waded through 200 demo numbers before choosing it. Even more miraculously, on the evening of the day Gore had recorded the song, Jones learned that Phil Spector was cutting his own version with the Crystals. Jones rushed the song out to radio stations across the country, and sure enough, Gore heard herself on the radio just a few days later.

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Gore scored a number of hits in the '60s, including the "Party" follow-up, "Judy's Turn to Cry" -- which vibrates with annoying shrillness, a pitfall that "Party" easily escaped -- "She's a Fool" and "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows." The early '60s were Gore's playground: She appeared in the 1965 film "The T.A.M.I. Show" (alongside the likes of James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye), as well as in the 1965 movie "Ski Party." A few years later, she made a guest appearance as Pussycat -- Catwoman's sidekick -- on "Batman," where she sang her dreamy, frothy-as-surf "California Nights" to a picture of Bert Ward (aka Robin).

But as the '60s waned, Gore found it harder to crack the charts. She recorded several songs ("I'll Be Standing By" and "Take Good Care of My Heart") with Philly soul kings Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but nothing stuck. Luckily, Gore had never envisioned herself as just a singer: She'd long realized she wanted to try her hand at writing songs herself. With her brother, Michael, she co-wrote a number of her '60s singles, including "I Won't Love You Anymore (Sorry)," and she also co-wrote "My Town, My Guy and Me" (which reached No. 32 in 1965). If, by the late '60s, Gore couldn't resuscitate her recording career, she found plenty to keep her busy between performing and songwriting. In the late '70s, she once again collaborated with brother Michael on songs for the hit musical "Fame," and she co-wrote "My Secret Love" for Allison Anders' 1996 "Grace of My Heart." Currently, she tours the casino and resort circuit performing her old songs, and is appearing on Broadway in "Smokey Joe's Cafe."

Gore seems to be one of those artists who's able to find pleasure in singing the old songs over and over again. "You know what is amazing? You look around and you see these baby boomers in the audience who've brought their kids along [and in some cases their grandkids]," Gore recently told the New York Daily News. "It just proves how durable this music is."

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But it's worth noting that, as is the case with so many hit-making singers, Gore's biggest records weren't necessarily the best reflection of her talent, and some of her songs -- the deadly, dippy "Consolation Prize," which Gore herself is said to have disliked -- should be dug up only as curios. (That 1963 recording was released in the United States recently, on the fine 1996 two-CD Gore retrospective "It's My Party: The Mercury Anthology.") "Hello Young Lover," written by Paul Anka and recorded by Gore in 1963, showcases her crisp, precise phrasing. She puts so much snap on the word "lover" (this guy is a bad, bad boy, who, she assures us, is gonna wind up in jail) that you find yourself waiting for it to roll around again, the sound is so delicious.

But Gore's 1964 No. 2 hit "You Don't Own Me" (kept out of No. 1 by the Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand," which held the top Billboard chart spot for seven weeks) is her finest hour -- not just because its assertion of independence was ahead of its time (and it was), but because the song represents a more simmering, darker version of the overwrought teen drama of "It's My Party." "You Don't Own Me" works at cross purposes with the gleaming-chrome nostalgia of oldies radio, in a way that "It's My Party" just doesn't. There's some depth to it, some murkiness. If "It's My Party" stuck a tentative toe into the pool of adult feelings, "You Don't Own Me" dives headfirst into its muddy depths.

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There's something very ominous, and more than a little unnerving, about "You Don't Own Me" -- it reads like the possible prelude to a revenge fantasy. You could almost call it a precursor of Goth: The string arrangement is sinewy and catlike; Gore's vocals, slinky and feline as well, are the perfect match.

The words are a warning, issued calmly and rationally and allowing a more-than-fair amount of time for the accused to shape up. But there's also urgency and more than a smattering of determination in the small, strangled cry we hear from Gore right after the line, "I don't tell you what to say."

"You Don't Own Me" is one of those songs that affects you for what you imagine might be in store after it's over. It represents the darker side of the sunny teen dream, the moment when a girl (or a boy) realizes that her lover is trying to box her in instead of allowing her to fly.

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What might happen after the song is over? Maybe there'll be a pistol shot (she sounds almost that pissed off). Maybe she'll just leave and slam the door, a way of heralding her new life. But either way, you know that the imaginary sound that rings out just after the song's fade-out is a very, very big noise. That imaginary sound is as much a part of Gore's legacy as the glorious, actual one.


Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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