“You Don’t Own Me”
By Laura Kodet
It was the 1960s in America and, God, did shit happen. The years of 1963-1964 were two of the most influential of the 20th century. It is vital to understand what was happening in America and the world to understand this piece of writing.
A lot happened, culturally, socially and politically. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement caused enormous rifts between the older and younger generations around the world. Protests began non-violently but by 1963, desegregation, rioting and murder were becoming commonplace. During the March on Washington in August, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech advocating racial unity and non-violence.
The US avoided nuclear war with Russia only a year earlier when we discovered Russian missile sites on Cuba. For 13 days, tensions arose between President Kennedy, Premier Khrushchev of Russia and Fidel Castro of Cuba. America and the world teetered on the brink of total annihilation. At school we practiced hiding for cover under our desks, as if.
On a lighter note, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was exhibited in the United States. My mom took me and my older brother and sister to the Metropolitan Museum to see it. We waited on the endless line which snaked out of the Museum onto the sidewalk. I remember gazing at Mona, wondering why there were so many guards around her. If you disliked the Old Masters, you could view the beginnings of Pop Art with Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, among others.
Later that year, the traitorous Los Angeles Dodgers beat my New York Yankees 4-0 in the World Series.
So, what was going on with music in 1963? Nothing much…
• In the UK, The Beatles released their first album and single, both titled Please Please Me. They were undoubtedly the greatest and most influential band ever, spearheading the British Invasion worldwide. Many British acts followed in their footsteps. Beatlemania was born.
• Dusty Springfield released her first solo single, “I Only Want to be with You.” She was famous for her sultry voice, flamboyant beehive hairdos and copious use of makeup. She was hailed as “the white Aretha Franklin.”
• Country music suffered the irreparable loss of Patsy Cline, age 30, in a plane crash. Luminaries such as Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Tillotson, Buck Owens and Kitty Wells had hits on the charts.
• Not to be outdone by the Brits, American artists such as the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Del Shannon, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys etc. had hits during this period. Doo-Wop was waning.
• Another waning genre was the “Crooners” popular in the decades leading up to the 60s. They included Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, Vic Damone, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett etc. They were known for romantic, orchestrated, cheesy tunes.
• Folk, or protest music, began with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Peter, Paul and Mary etc. It focused on the inequalities facing blacks, the poor and women and was anti-government and anti-war. It would morph from acoustic to electric and become folk-rock later.
• The Girl Groups and the solo female singer evolved. Pre-Motown groups were: The Angels, The Shirelles, The Crystals, The Jaynetts The Cookies, The Chantels, The Dixie Cups, The Shangri-Las, Patti Labelle and the Bluebells, The Ponytails, The Ronettes, and The Chiffons. Solo artists included Doris Troy, Connie Francis, Connie Stevens, Brenda Lee, Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey, Brenda Holloway, and Barbra Streisand.
• Male solo acts included: The Bobbies: Vee, Rydell and Darin; Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Tab Hunter and Paul Anka began their careers as well.
• Jazz was still going strong: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McCrae, Etta James, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Charlie Byrd, the list goes on.
• Soul music, or R & B, (or, ugh, “race music”) included Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, The Drifters, Jackie Wilson, Solomon Burke, Ruby and the Romantics, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Impressions, Betty Everett, Wilson Pickett and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Reggae music from Jamaica began with the formation of Bob Marley and the Wailers.
• But wait…there’s more! MOTOWN! It started in Detroit in 1959 as Tamla Records by producer Berry Gordy Jr. Being comprised of all African American singers, the sound helped bridge the social gap between blacks and whites. Artists: The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mary Wells, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and later, Michael Jackson.
The music started out innocently enough. With love songs dominating the charts since the beginning of time, the early 60s were no different. The theme of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-again and vice-versa was prominent. Singers wailed about cheating, partying, ignoring parents and teachers, school, AM radio, cars, drive-ins, dancing at the hop to “the Twist”, “the Locomotion”, “the Jerk”, “the Mashed Potato”, rocking, hopping, bopping, drinking Coke, trust, distrust, hair-do’s and hair-don’ts. Teens watched American Bandstand, Hullaballoo and Shindig on black and white TV.
Offsetting this sugary sweetness was an underlying darkness to society in general starting in the late 50s. Blackboard Jungle (1955), a movie about poor, bad, rebellious kids starred a young Dennis Hopper who pulls a knife on his teacher. This film introduced the hit, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets, the rockabilly precursor to rock and roll. Other films about delinquents were The Wild One (1953) starring Marlon Brando as a young black leather-jacketed, cigarette smoking leader of a motorcycle gang. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) featured a young misfit played by James Dean. Women in these movies were portrayed either as the understanding but troubled girlfriend or the rebellious gangster’s moll.
Speaking of women… World War II necessitated women replacing men in the workplace when men went off to war. Women gained a certain amount of independence and proved like Rosie the Riveter, that they could do the same jobs as men just as well or better (but for less money). When men returned at war’s end, women once again became housewives. A significant increase in births created the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), my generation. The most a working woman could hope for was a job as teacher, nurse or secretary. Men “owned” women. Mad Men got it right.
Women were as disenfranchised as blacks in terms of opportunity and advancement, and music reflected this status. In 1954, Ray Charles sang in “I Got a Woman”: “Never runnin’ in the streets/Leavin’ me alone/She knows a woman’s place/Is right there, now, in her home.” In 1962, the Crystals, a girl group put together by producer Phil Spector and fronted by Darlene Love, released “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss.)” It was written by the married duo of Carole King and Gerry Goffin with Spector. While King has written a truckload of fabulous songs, this wasn’t one of them. “He hit me/And it felt like a kiss/He hit me/And I knew he loved me/If he didn’t care for me/I could have never made him mad/But he hit me/And I was glad.” One of the comments on YouTube was “sad lyrics from a generation of permissive abuse.” I read how Spector carried a gun and threatened recording studio personnel. Now he is incarcerated for life for murdering an actress. In 1963, Jack Jones had a hit with “Wives and Lovers.” Jones warns a wife to keep herself beautiful at all times because there are predatory females at her husband’s office, just poised to snatch him away from her: “Hey little girl/Comb your hair, fix your makeup/Soon he will open the door/Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger/You needn’t try anymore.” And in 1963, Dionne Warwick recorded Bacharach/David’s song “Don’t Make Me Over.” She sang “Accept me for what I am/Accept me for the things that I do.” While she acknowledges that she is still under her lover’s command, it was a start.
During1963, The Beatles churned out hits in the UK while preparing for a February 1964 visit to the US. Betty Friedan, a New York writer and activist published The Feminine Mystique. Wikipedia states “it is often credited with sparking the second wave of American feminism in the 20th century.” Friedan believed that women were disenfranchised by society, kept down and relegated to be housewives. She founded NOW, the National Organization for Women in 1966. The book opened the floodgates in the quest for rights for both women and all the downtrodden. Some quotes:
“the women’s movement was not about sex, but about equal opportunity in jobs and all the rest of it.”
“Men are not the enemy, but the fellow victims. The real enemy is women's denigration of themselves”
“It is easier to live through someone else than to become complete yourself.”
The hits kept right on a’comin’. A new artist appeared in March. She was Lesley Gore (born Lesley Sue Goldstein in May 1946) from Brooklyn, NY but raised in Tenafly, NJ. Her early influences were Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Anita O’Day. She wore her hair in either a flipped bob or a beehive, both very popular then. She was only 16 when some of her demo records reached producer Quincy Jones at Mercury Records. Writes author, Blasé DiStefano, “[Quincy] liked the style, purity and talent in the 16-year-old’s voice.” They recorded “It’s My Party” an un-feminist tune about a girl who sees her boyfriend (Johnny) with another girl (Judy) at her birthday party. “You would cry too if it happened to you.” The song became a national and worldwide hit, reached #1 on the Hot 100, sold over a million copies and was certified gold. Lesley’s follow-up was the “revenge song” “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” Lesley gets Johnny back, and Judy is the sad one. Light and fluffy. Her next song, “She’s a Fool,” was more serious: Lesley loved a boy who only had eyes for a girl who treated him cruelly. Optimistically, Lesley sang, “I know there is gonna come a day/He will tell her ‘girl be on your way’/Maybe then he’ll turn to me/Then how happy I will be/That she’s a fool.” All these songs reached the top 10 on the charts, battling stiff competition with other girl groups, solo singers and the Brits.
Dark things also happened in 1963. On November 22, President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The nation and the world were plunged into a prolonged period of grief. The age of Camelot ended and was replaced by one of distrust of government and paranoia. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in and the Vietnam War continued.
In December of 1963, Lesley recorded a song written by John Madara and David White. Madara said of “You Don’t Own Me”: “Our original intent was to write a song with a woman telling a man off: ‘Don’t tell me what to do, don’t tell me what to say.’ Though we didn’t realize it at the time that it would become a woman’s anthem; it definitely was our intention to have a woman make a statement.” (Remember, Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” was not released until 1971.) This defiant song, written by two men no less, entered the charts in January1964, with the female protagonist demanding her independence: “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 say/And please, when I go out with you/Don’t put me on display/’Cause you don’t own me/Don’t try to change me in any way/You don’t own me/Don’t tie me down ‘cause I’ll never stay/I don’t tell you what to say/I don’t tell you what do/So just let me be myself/That’s all I ask of you/I’m young and I love to be young/I’m free and I love to be free/ To live my life the way I want/That’s all I ask of you/Violin break/And don’t tell me what to do/Oh, don’t tell me what to say/ And please, when I go out with you/Don’t put me on display/I don’t tell you what to say/I don’t tell you what do/ So just let me be myself/That’s all I ask of you, fade out. Killer violins, bass and drums.
Stefano stated, “[Lesley] loved the force and bravado behind the lyrics.” Lesley said, “This was a song that allowed me a little bit more freedom vocally. The beauty of that song is that the verses start in a minor key (G minor), and then, when you go into the chorus, it goes into the major, and there’s such a sense of lift and exhilaration.” Many of the songs on the charts at this time by women cast women in a submissive role, such as Little Peggy March’s hit, “I Will Follow Him.” Dusty Springfield’s 1964 hit by Bacharach/David, “Wishin’ and Hopin’” contained the annoying lyrics, “Do the things he likes to do/Wear your hair just for him.” “You Don’t Own Me” was a million seller and spoke to young girls who wanted a stronger message. (Sadly, as with other many artists from this era, Lesley made only a pittance financially during her career, with the lion’s share of money going to the songwriters, record executives etc.) It reached #2 and was kept from the top spot by none other than “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles.
Even though this song made a huge impression, the Women’s Movement did not exactly take off. Though sexuality was becoming increasingly embraced, misogynist lyrics continued well into the late 60s and beyond. Women writers were not exempt from self-deprecating sentiment. In Carly Simon’s 1971 song “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be,” a young woman fears that by rushing into marriage “I’ll never learn to be just me first by myself.” But she capitulates: “Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be/You want to marry me, we’ll marry.”
Lesley went on to have more hits throughout the 60s: “That’s the Way Boys Are”, “Maybe I Know”, “Look of Love”, “California Nights”, “Take Good Care (Of My Heart)”, “I’ll Be Standing By.” “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows.” returned to the light and optimistic. The British Invasion gathered full steam in 1964 and led to the downfall of the early girl groups, although the female Motown groups held their own. In the 70s and 80s Lesley spent more time writing, touring and making television and film appearances. She composed songs for the soundtrack of the 1980 film Fame, for which she received an Academy Award nomination for “Out Here on My Own” written with her brother, Michael. In 2005, She recorded, Ever Since, her first effort with new material since the 1976 release of Love Me by Name. Ever Since contains a revised version of “You Don’t Own Me” with a slower tempo. Gore stated, “It’s a song that takes on new meaning every time you sing it.”
In researching Gore’s discography, I discovered there are at least sixteen cover versions of “You Don’t Own Me,” the latest released by Ann Wilson of Heart in 2018. It kept reappearing throughout the decades, inspiring new groups of listeners. It appeared in three movies: The First Wives Club, Dirty Dancing and Hairspray, and in commercials. A 2015 version by the Australian singer, Grace, reached number one in Australia, number four on the UK Singles Chart and appeared in movies, on television and in commercials. This version was also produced by Quincy Jones. I counted at least 25 albums and compilations where this song appears. In 2016, “You Don’t Own Me” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. National Public Radio (NPR) named Lesley Gore Sings of Mixed-Up Hearts, her second album, as forebearer of one of the top 150 albums recorded by women. NPR said [Lesley Gore] is a forebear for her assertion of feminine power in pop, and her validation of a female perspective.”
Through the following decades, female groups and solo singers continued to carry on Lesley’s mantle of feminism and independence first heard in “You Don’t Own Me.” To name a few: Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn (“The Pill” 1975), Jeannie C. Riley, Linda Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Madonna, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks, Sinéad O’Connor, Yoko Ono, The Bangles, LaBelle, Destiny’s Child, Courtney Love, kd lang, Amy Winehouse, Lady Ga, Adele, Ellie Goulding, all the way up to 2020s Billie Eilish. Would we have had Grrrl Rock without “You Don’t Own Me”?
When I first heard that Lesley Gore was gay, I was naively surprised; after all, her songs were mostly about relationships with boys. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought because I liked her music so much. The 60s decade, for all its flower power and free love in the latter years was extremely intolerant and homophobic. Anyone in the public eye who was gay or bisexual, actors, actresses, writers, musicians, or politicians was closeted for the protection of their lives and careers. Dusty Springfield stated: “in the 1960s and early 1970s the tabloids became obsessively interested in the contents of celebrity closets.” People simply could not put their careers on the line and risk coming out. Some actors and actresses were even forced into heterosexual “marriages” by their studios. It was just not accepted, no matter who or what you were. Lesley only came out to her family in the 70s. Her producer on her last album, Ever Since, Blake Morgan, states, “I can only imagine how hard it was for her back then.” He believes women in the music industry today still face many of the same challenges.
Lesley said in an interview that she had boyfriends and was even slated to be married because like Carly Simon, “that’s the way I always heard it should be.” She came to terms with her sexuality during her matriculation at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. While she was never one to conceal her emotions to close friends who knew and accepted her, she still needed to keep her sexuality out of the spotlight. Gore stated that although the music business was “totally homophobic,” she never had to pretend she was straight. Even Betty Friedan said, "the whole idea of homosexuality made me profoundly uneasy.” She (Friedan), later acknowledged that she had been very square, and was uncomfortable about homosexuality. In 1996, the film Grace of My Heart starring Bridget Fonda was released. A song in the movie, “My Secret Love” which describes the emotions of a closeted singer/songwriter from the 60s was co-written by Lesley. In 2004 the PBS news magazine series In the Life, aired and focused on gay and lesbian life. Gore took part in this and it became her official coming out statement. It was later revealed that Gore had an ongoing relationship with jewelry designer, Lois Sasson which lasted 33 years.
I felt a sense of camaraderie with Lesley when she came out, being gay myself. I was only nine years younger than her. I knew I was gay or “different” as I thought of myself, since I was seven years old in the first grade. I had a crush on one of my sister’s friends. While I never thought it was wrong, I knew it was not the norm. A few years in Catholic school destroyed any hope I might have had about accepting myself. The Church and the Bible preached hating gays. I was going straight to hell anyway, so why sweat it? Having homophobic relatives didn’t help. Catholic school was stifling and didn’t offer any creative studies like art and music, so I transferred to a rough all-girls public school. It was tough but it had such a mixed bag of personalities that I didn’t feel at all alienated.
Music had always been a big part of my life. Along with books and art, it became a huge refuge for me coming from an extremely dysfunctional family. Whenever things got bad at home, which seemed like every other day, I would hole up at the library for a few hours of quiet. I could also listen to WCBS-FM a local radio station, home of the Good Guys, on a transistor. We had no Internet or MP3 back them, just scratchy vinyl records.
I was a solitary, withdrawn kid with bad skin, not knowing any other gays and always trying to stay under the radar. I had no real role models. I experienced homophobia and was threatened many times as I got older. It didn’t matter that I lived in New York City and not in say, Moose Poop, North Dakota. Gay Rights was unheard of at least until the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969. I was only 14, but still felt a glimmer of hope although being so young I didn’t attend a Gay Pride parade until later. Things seemed to get better in the 70s, with good after-effects post-Stonewall. We had disco and Glam Rock; well-known people came out. But with the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s, the movement was plunged back into the Dark Ages.
I loved all popular music, especially the Beatles and Motown. But a song I listened to incessantly that stuck with me to this day was “You Don’t Own Me.” I can honestly say this song changed my life. When I first heard it, I thought it was defiant, adventurous, angry. At nine years old I wasn’t very rebellious, but the song sparked something in me. Peoples’ opinions of me became irrelevant and I didn’t care what anyone said behind my back. I felt a little more at ease and in control. I spent most of my twenties like most, figuring out what to do with my life. I went away to college for a year to get away from my family. I met someone who I became good friends with but developed a mad crush on. Alas, she was straight. I stopped living there and commuted. It seemed like I was always running away from something. “You Don’t Own Me” was always with me as “oldies” were making a big revival in the mid to late 70’s.
Later in the 80s I saw the film Desert Hearts, a love story about gay women in the 50s. One character embodied the “don’t tell me what to do, don’t tell me what to say” in-your-face attitude which once again brought “You Don’t Own Me” to mind. The characters faced discrimination and homophobia and you’re not sure if girl-gets-girl in the end. At work, a co-worker went to my supervisor and said about me, “What’s wrong with her? She’s gay.” To my supervisor’s credit, she told the woman to shut up or she would fire her. At this point I was getting more serious and less paranoid. I started frequenting bars and bookstores, attending the Pride parade where “You Don’t Own Me” always played, and doing volunteer work at a gay community center. My brother died of AIDS; he wasn’t gay but got it from sharing needles due to his heroin addiction. The reaction to the AIDS epidemic ignited new waves of hatred towards gays, but for every gay person bashed or killed, more waves of positive activism, such as AMFAR followed.
In an interview Lesley said that for her “You Don’t Own Me” was not so much a song about being a woman as a song about being a person. That hit home to me. I didn’t like hiding in my anonymous little shell. I was a person, too. I felt I shouldn’t have to hide, but society was still not very accepting of other peoples’ sexuality. People hate what they’re afraid of. I went over the words in my mind and they became my silent mantra: “I’m free and I love to be free, to live my life the way I want, to say and do whatever I please.” The words gave me strength, hope and solace. They became my armor. “Don’t tell me what to do, and don’t tell me what to say.” I found the more I immersed myself in gay culture and learned gay history, the better I felt about myself and the stronger I became. Maybe kids have it easier today, with “transgender” “gender-fluidity” and gender-bending becoming common terms; but in the 60s, many had a rough time.
“You Don’t Own Me” is not just another pop song. The article, You Don’t Own Me by Timothy Sandefur “explores how the idea of self-ownership has been expressed in American popular culture and intellectual discourse.” Sandefur explains how Lesley expects to be treated as an equal, not a possession. The article explains how the idea of you don’t own me:
• Goes back to 17th century revolutions in England and before
• Reflects philosophies of whether we are owned by other people
• Contradicts the ideas of ownership in the relationships of monarch/subject; parent/child; God/Adam; God/us; slaveowner/slave; the state/citizens
• Agrees with the Classic Liberal: No person owns anyone else.
Lesley might not have been thinking about the Classic Liberals when she sang “You Don’t Own Me,” but this intellectually stimulating article discusses the concepts of “ownership” in ways that go back thousands of years. It is amazing and needs to be read in its entirety.
In 2009 as a birthday present, a friend took me to the expensive Feinstein’s Supper Club at the Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan. We went to hear…Lesley Gore. She had a four-piece band and three male back-up singers in a small, intimate setting. She sang “It’s “You Don’t Own Me” among her other hits from the 60s. She said in an interview that she continued to sing her 60s material because “the idea is it’s entertainment; you’re supposed to make people happy.” She also performed new material from Ever Since and other contemporary classics. I swear she winked at me. After 28-dollar cocktails, we indeed left happy.
Lesley was working on a memoir and a one-woman performance piece on Broadway in the years leading up to 2015. Unfortunately, she died of lung cancer on February 16th at age 68 in New York. Her strength for coming out gave many people like me hope. Although I was deeply saddened when I heard the news, I was happy for the chance to have seen her in person. “You Don’t Own Me” helped me out of a ton of angst. Her music is always with me.