Sharps & Flats

Sure, Nancy Sinatra was a lightweight, but 30 years later, the queen of cool still sounds fresh.


Michelle Goldberg
January 6, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Before there was Bust magazine, the Spice Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there was Nancy Sinatra. With her thin, fairly unmelodious voice, she was no great singer, but she inaugurated the kind of sexpot self-sufficiency and hipster divadom that's now the lingua franca of cool girl culture.

Ironically, like later hot-shit tough girls the Runaways and then the Donnas, Sinatra's hard feline hauteur was engineered by a male svengali, Lee Hazelwood. Before she teamed up with him in the mid-'60s, her output was largely confined to the pining saccharine masochism of songs such as "Like I Do" and "Not Just Your Friend." It was Hazelwood who reinvented the Chairman's daughter as a contemptuous go-go ice queen stomping on the hearts of her chump lovers. Their most famous collaboration, of course, was "These Boots Are Made For Walking." But there was also Sinatra's first chart-cracking track, "So Long Babe" and the kiss-off song, "How Does That Grab You, Darlin'?," each included on the superb new compilation from Varise Sarabande, "You Go-Go Girl!"

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"You Go-Go Girl!" wisely forgoes Sinatra's pre-Hazelwood recordings. Though there are plenty of songs on the 16-track disc written by others -- including an aggressive cover of the Beatles' "Day Tripper" and the previously unreleased hippie-kitsch "Zodiac Blues" -- most were produced by Hazelwood. His swaggering, tripped-out, twangy bass shows up throughout, perfectly complementing Sinatra's cocky, fabulously carefree delivery. She has the gift of seeming worldly without being jaded; she's a ball-buster, but never a harpy. On tracks like "The Last of the Secret Agents," "Sorry 'Bout That" and "How Does That Grab You, Darlin'?" her disses are delivered with such offhand casualness that it seems not to have occurred to her to let an inadequate man ruin her night, much less her life.

Her sexual confidence is perhaps even more pronounced when she's issuing an invitation than it is when she's sneering her goodbyes. On the lusty, triumphant "Good Time Girl," she belts out the chorus "I'll be your good time girl/I'll be your sunshine girl/I'll turn your nighttime into day" over an exuberant burst of horns with the assurance that the gift of herself is the greatest present any man could ask for. Similarly, the supremely optimistic, insanely catchy "In Our Time" is the song of a woman relishing the Technicolor tumult surrounding her. She inserts a little laugh in the middle of the line, "Girls were once suffragettes/Now they're out taking bets/Smoking filtered cigarettes" as if she can't contain her amusement.

Another line from that 1966 song, "I used to be such a prude/Now some take trips and never move," suggests that Sinatra's sugary pop was on the same libertine bus as her self-serious rock contemporaries. Indeed, the spirit of just-discovered freedom courses through confections like "The City Never Sleeps at Night" and "Happy." Obviously, compared to heart-wrenchingly honest singers like Janis Joplin, Nancy Sinatra was a lightweight. But while many hippie chicks were having another little piece of their hearts ripped out, Nancy Sinatra, with all her glamazon bravado, was grooving on girl power and reveling in a pop bliss that sounds just as fresh more than 30 years later.


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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