A tribute to Lesley Gore, the real first feminist singer

In this Jan. 5, 1966, file photo, singer Lesley Gore rehearses at a piano, in New York.
In this Jan. 5, 1966, file photo, singer Lesley Gore rehearses at a piano, in New York. AP

The summer of 1963 was a momentous one. Pope John XXIII died. Martin Luther King told 200,000 civil-rights demonstrators at the March on Washington about his dream. The U.S. Supreme Court banned compulsory prayer in schools. The White House, worried that a small and little-known war in Southeast Asia was going badly, was preparing a coup against the president of South Vietnam.

For most American teenagers, however, that was all background static. The real story that summer was the tempestuous romantic triangle between Johnny, Judy and Lesley. At the most disastrous birthday party of all time, Lesley discovered her boyfriend Johnny was dumping her for the sly Judy. (“Oh what a birthday surprise/Judy’s wearin’ his ring!”)

But after an evening of anguished tears and wrecked social obligations (“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to!”), Lesley recouped and counterattacked with the most potent weapon known to pre-feminist womankind — her sexual wiles. At the next party, knowing Johnny was watching, she kissed some random guy. Her revenge was instant and total, if fraught with collateral damage: “Johnny jumped up and he hit him/’Cause he still loved me, that’s why!”

This PG-rated tale of violence, vengeance and vixens unfolded not on stage or screen but within the vinyl grooves of a pair of 45 RPM records, It’s My Party and Judy’s Turn To Cry, that dominated the charts from May through September of 1963.

Judy and Johnny were fictional — or, rather, archetypes — but narrator-singer Lesley Gore was a real teenager from Tenafly, New Jersey, just 16 when she recorded the tunes. Her adventures with Judy and Johnny would lead to her eternal scorn by rock critics and eternal veneration by the kids to whom she was singing.

The unfathomable chasm between the two has never been so apparent as it was last week when Gore died at age 68. Newspapers mostly ran brief obituaries, inevitably dismissing Gore as the “queen of teen angst.” But on social media, unfiltered by the common wisdom of rock intelligentsia, the outpouring of affection was stunning.

Nothing captured it better than an exchange on Facebook first spotted by the website Buzzfeed. One person recounted playing It’s My Party while driving some friends home. “One of them picked up on the chorus and said, ‘What an uptight bitch!’” the man wrote. “The rest of us looked at her and said, ‘Have you actually listened to the verses?’ She couldn’t stop apologizing to the CD for the entire ride home.”

Retorted one of his Facebook friends: “Why the hell did you give Judy a ride?”

Rock writers, the most Stalinist critics in all the arts, have always regarded Gore’s first two hit records (she would make the charts 21 more times over the next six years) as excruciatingly embarrassing relics of the pre-feminist dark ages, tawdry proclamations of female victimization and servitude.

Pioneering rock critic Lillian Roxon set the tone in her 1969 Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, the very first rock-and-roll reference book, in which she referred to Gore’s singing as “shrewish” and her records as “shrill female nastiness.” Eventually Roxon’s descendents would reduce Gore to complete nonpersonhood. Though the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland included exhibits dissecting the impact of literally thousands of artists and records, there was not a single mention of Gore or her songs for its first quarter-century.

What’s remarkable about that is that Gore made the first feminist statement in rock and roll with her bold 1964 ballad You Don’t Own Me. Singing as a girl speaking to her boyfriend — perhaps it was Johnny himself — she warned that she was more than a fashion accessory or a notch on a phallic gun:

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

And don’t tell me what to say

And please when I go out with you, don’t put me on display…

At a time when pop music reverberated with male sentiments ranging from condescension (Go Away Little Girl) to bald misogyny (John Lennon’s astonishing Run For Your Life: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man”) You Don’t Own Me echoed like a cultural cannon shot.

Its melody underlined the lyrics, starting in a minor key and emerging into a powerful major, a roar decades before Katy Perry was even born. Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman is usually credited as rock’s first female declaration of independence, but Gore did it eight years earlier, dispensing with prissy rhetoric in favor of a directly personal approach that made the record accessible not only to girls but — possibly more importantly — their boyfriends.

Though Gore was already writing some of her songs by 1964 — she would go on to win Oscar and Grammy nominations as a composer — You Don’t Own Me was authored by a male songwriting team, John Madera and David White. (Madera and White provide their own lesson in the dangers of political stereotyping; they later became famous for writing and recording Dawn of Correction, a right-wing rebuttal to Barry McGuire’s monster protest hit Eve of Destruction.)

Yet that doesn’t mean Gore was just a passive conduit for You Don’t Own Me. Madera and White took the song directly to her in an ambush pitch at a hotel swimming pool, and she in turn — still only 17 — sold it to the suits at her label, Mercury Records, who were wary of breaking the parties-and-boys mold that had been so successful.

Gore, who picked most of her own songs (she chose It’s My Party from 200 different demo records offered by Mercury for her first recording) would keep slipping meditations on gender roles into her catalogue. Beyonce didn’t say anything in If I Were a Boy that Gore hadn’t already sung in That’s The Way Boys Are or Sometimes I Wish I Were a Boy.

Yet popular as some of those records were (You Don’t Own Me was No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in a row, blocked from the top spot only by some new British group with funny haircuts singing I Want to Hold Your Hand), it’s the ones about Judy and Johnny that stick in everybody’s minds.

Heard today, they can seem silly, petulant and sulky, perhaps even campy. But 50 years ago, when the entire concept of teenagers as a distinct cultural class was novel and mostly used as a term of derision, they were something altogether different.

The refrain “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” was not a whimper about being dumped but a shouted defiance of social convention and adult expectations, assertions of identity in a world in which teenagers felt powerless, pushed around by parents and teachers and cops and the rest of the adult universe. It was expression of pure existential will: I am. I matter. I will be heard.

A decade earlier, in West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim had taken a stab at the same thing with the witty Gee Officer Krupke, a sarcastic teenage ode to a bullying policeman. But the jazz idiom in which they spoke was alien to kids. It’s My Party connected directly to the rock-and-roll generation that Lesley Gore sang to, and for.

And it continued to do so long after it faded from the radio. When I saw her at oldies concerts in the 1980s and 1990s, It’s My Party inevitably brought the entire crowd to its feet, men and women shouting the words and waving their fists, not backwards across the years at their parents, but to bosses, tax collectors, mortgage brokers and all the rest of the petty commissars who vex adult life. Maybe even Death itself, which must have been astonished last week to find that it hadn’t silenced her as her songs boomed from car radios and CD players. As long as we’re here, she will be heard.