Monday, February 16, 2015

RIP Lesley Gore (1946-2015)

It's ironic to think that Lesley Gore - an important pioneer in the maturation of the pop song, who died of cancer this morning at the age of 68 - was always most famous for a song that she recorded at the age of 16, but even "It's My Party" was unusual. It was an upbeat song about heartbreak whose lyrics included a deft sketch of teenage cliques and how they work - and, if you listen closely, there's an admission there of how manipulative and cruel to other girls some girls can be. It was a huge hit and was followed by what might be the first pop song sequel - "Judy's Turn To Cry" - which made pop songwriting suddenly available to narrative continuation (thus a stepping stone toward the so-called "rock opera") and returning characters. As I look back over my early life as a music listener, Lesley Gore's was the first voice I heard speak to my generation from a female perspective of anything more complex than loving that man or wishing she was married. She didn't write these songs - it was only later that she began to compose songs with her brother Michael - but as an artist, she somehow attracted songs that expressed her and her own outsiderly experience. This allowed the pop song to mature in subtle ways, allowing in deeper subjects like romantic rejection, living with hurt, living a lie, and a woman's right to personal autonomy. "You Don't Own Me" (written, incidentally, by two men) is a defining moment in the maturation of the teen anthem. (People don't remember that it was the #2 song in the country when The Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand" - a far more elementary love song - ruled the charts.) Even when she sang songs about the traditional boy/girl dating experience, she introduced something that cut a bit deeper - "Maybe I Know," for example, describes the masochistic futility of remaining attached to a serially cheating man, and the philosophical shrug of "That's the Way Boys Are" says something more heartbreaking under its surface, underscored by a thrillingly bittersweet chord change, than it does on top. Allison Anders' often moving film GRACE OF MY HEART (1996), a feature-length fictionalized distillation of 1960's pop history, featured an original song by Gore and a poignant character inspired by the closeted gay songstress that she was. She finally came out in 2005, and she is survived by her partner of 33 years, Lois Sasson.

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