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Rebel Girl: Lesley Gore’s voice

In 2005, Ms magazine published a conversation between pop singer Lesley Gore and Kathleen Hanna of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. Hanna opened with a striking statement: “First time I heard your voice,” she said, “I went and bought everything of yours – trying to imitate you but find my own style.” Despite being two singers known for very different genres – they’re icons of 1960s teen pop, and riot grrl and feminist dance-punk, respectively – Gore and Hanna do have strikingly similar singing voices. In her 1960s recordings, Gore’s voice sounds distinctly girlish: young, high, sometimes even a bit whiny; the sound of dissatisfied teen angst. Hanna’s voice has many of the same qualities; she uses similar, nasal-sounding timbres and dissatisfied inflections, repurposing and remixing a sound of 1960s girlhood to tell convey feminist, activist messages.

Gore passed away last week at the age of 68, and profiles and obituaries have explored the connections between her music-making and her activism, how she was both a teen pop sensation and a feminist icon. Gore’s musical career began rather suddenly in 1963. She has said that her parents thought they were just humoring her when they let her go into the studio to record her first single, and never imagined that “It’s My Party” – produced by none other than Quincy Jones – would top the Billboard pop charts. After that surprise hit came “You Don’t Own Me,” an anthem of self-determinacy that’s been a touchstone through feminism’s second and third waves and has been covered by artists from Joan Jett to Amy Winehouse. After her 1960s hits, Gore continued working in music. In 1980 she wrote the Oscar-nominated song “Out Here on My Own” for the film Fame, and in 2005 independently released her album Ever Since. Gore was also an advocate for LGBT rights. She spoke openly about being a lesbian, and hosted PBS’s LGBT news program In the Life. When I revisited the 2005 conversation between Gore and Hanna, I was struck by how Lesley Gore’s relationship to feminism is not only something we can witness in her actions, activism, and musical repertoire, but is also something we can hear in the very sound of her singing voice.

The landscape of mid-twentieth century pop featured a spectrum of different young women’s vocal sounds and timbres that have gone on to become sonic symbols of girlhood. These singers’ voices often exposed and critiqued narrowly defined notions of what it meant to be a respectable young woman. The doo-wop influenced sound of groups like the Shirelles, the Bobbettes, the Marvelettes, and others mimicked schoolyard conversations among girls. As scholars including Susan Douglas, Kyra Gaunt, and Jacqueline Warwick have argued, these groups’ songs not only envoiced the tension of growing up but also spoke to how race and class shaped different experiences of girlhood. Other young women, such as Aretha Franklin and Joan Baez, lent their voices to political struggles like the Civil Rights movement. For her part, Gore’s performances were rife with contradiction; she looked every bit the clean cut, middle-class good girl (and, in fact, subsequently spoke of the difficulty of shedding that image). Despite her image, though, in a 1963 headline, the New Musical Express proclaimed her “Lesley Gore: The Singing Rebel.” In Lesley Gore’s voice was an undercurrent of rebellion.

On the surface, “It’s My Party,” which tells the story of a girl snubbed by her boyfriend at her birthday party, is pure teen melodrama. Gore’s voice sounds almost stereotypically girly throughout: high and light, the sound of someone young. Its choruses, though, also give a hint of what it was about Lesley Gore that seemed rebellious. Gore’s character is unwilling to relinquish her unhappiness; she repeats “I’ll cry if I want to!” over and over again, and each time she repeats the line, especially in the final chorus, where she adds yelping ornaments and melisma, a sense of tension and dissatisfaction grows. The song emphasizes the vowel sound in “cry” – a pointed, sharp-sounding vowel that sticks out and doesn’t sound pretty. In “It’s My Party,” Gore plays the role of a girl who isn’t shy about registering her complaints, even if that kind of self-expression isn’t considered appropriate for young women.

In “You Don’t Own Me,” the sense of rebellion is more encompassing. Again, the song emphasizes vowels that are hard to sing subtly – the “ay” sound in “Don’t tell me what to say,” for instance, sounds pointed and irrepressible. Gore’s diction is loaded with attitude. She attacks her consonants in “Don’t tell me what to do, don’t tell me what to say,” and at the song’s climax – “I’m young, and I love to be young” – she almost speaks the words, spitting them out. She uses contrasting timbres: a hushed, deadly serious vocal quality in the verses, and a strident, forceful one in the choruses. “You Don’t Own Me” communicates dissatisfaction with the status quo not only through its words, but through Gore’s vocal delivery.

Gore’s 1960s image – that of a clean-cut goody two shoes – seems at odds with the content of a song like “You Don’t Own Me,” and for all of the rebellion that one can hear in her voice, she never goes over the top, never takes it into anger and rage. Gore embodied white, middle-class respectability, even while a song like “You Don’t Own Me” expressed desire for a different kind of freedom. It was her appearance of respectability that let her sing such songs without fear of public reprisal. Gore’s sound communicates dissatisfaction, but does so within certain limits. Some might argue that her image, and the fact that she had very little control over her recording career in the 1960s, undermine the message of a song like “You Don’t Own Me.” However, I see her performances as articulating the tensions that young women experienced – and still experience. Girls may crave freedom and self-definition, but still feel enormous pressure to be a certain way and to fit into certain categories.

Since the 1960s, singers have channeled the stereotypically girly-sounding voices of Gore and her 1960s contemporaries, transforming a sound that protests implicitly into a sound that protests explicitly. I can hear the voice of the dissatisfied girl the sound of 1970s punk groups like the Raincoats, the Slits, and the X-Ray Spex. In the X-Ray Spex’s most well-known track, “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” lead singer Poly Styrene opens with a meek, girlish whisper before switching to a strident, demanding shout. Like “You Don’t Own Me,” the song is about self-determination, and in Styrene’s signature screams, I can hear echoes of Gore’s piercing, uncompromising voice. When Kathleen Hanna sang “Rebel Girl” in the 1990s, or, more recently, “Girls Like Us,” with her current band The Julie Ruin, or when Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein sings “Modern Girl,” the nasal quality of their timbres, and forcefulness of their diction convey the same persistence and attitude as Gore’s voice. These are re-appropriations of a sound of girlhood. They point out the shortcomings of the narrow roles available to young women, but they also draw on the sonic language of dissatisfaction that singers like Gore pioneered.

Image credits: (1) A record album on a turntable by Bygone. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Front cover for the 7″ single You Don’t Own Me by the artist Lesley Gore, Mercury Records, via Wikimedia Commons.

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