Decades after its release, the famous song’s lyrics are still analyzed for their countercultural aspect – especially given the fact that they were written by two men, but performed by a woman.
by Eléna Pougin
Sang by Lesley Gore, “You Don’t Own Me” is a 1963 single, recently honoured as a Grammy Hall of Fame song to recognize its historical significance. Why is “You Don’t Own Me” acknowledged as being important for the music industry? Probably because the 17-year old singer at the time embodied a whole generation of women by intoning her own emancipation. Indeed, the lyrics show how much Lesley Gore refused to be told “what to do or what to say.” The song became very famous, ranking just below the Beatles in the charts, and is actually even said to have been a hymn for second-wave feminism, as it represents a woman expressing her will to be herself and not someone one else’s toy – which was quite revolutionary for the sixties.
Today, “You Don’t Own Me” still resonates
This remains relevant today, and it could even remind us of the recent tribune of Virginie Despentes, On Se Lève Et On Se Barre, written after Roman Polanski’s recognition at the Césars in Libération. Indeed, Lesley Gore was already insisting on leaving if she was not respected: “Don’t tie me down ‘cause I’d never stay (…) I’m free (…) to live my life the way I want.” This is undoubtedly why 57 years later, the jazzy rhythm and lyrics of her bold song are still remembered – especially since the singer Grace repopularized the song during the 2010s with a cover made with rapper G-Eazy. As a Gen Z child, I also discovered the song through this recent reinterpretation, even though Lesley Gore’s version now seems much more daring to me, considering the context it was first sung in and how young she was at that time. The interpretation of the song in the music video is also pretty striking in itself. Lesley Gore was bold enough, even though she was very new to this industry, to look directly at the camera while singing and shouting for her freedom – a direct critique intended towards men.
Lesley Gore: feminist, manipulated by the music industry, or both?
However, one could feel rather disappointed when realizing the single wasn’t written by Gore herself but by two men, John Madara and David White. This information easily calls into question the feminist aspect of the song, similarly to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin” which was also written by a man. Given that Lesley Gore was only 17 in 1963, there is no doubt that “You Don’t Own Me” was first and foremost a commercial move from Mercury Records given that she was asked to sing it without having previously expressed any will to be presented as a counterculture artist. It seems even more contrary when we consider her discography with the album Boys, Boys, Boys contained singles like “That’s the Way Boys Are” in which the singer is very much represented as society’s expectations of a popular young female performer in the sixties: depoliticized and centered around romantic relationships. Maybe ruled by the music industry, Quincy Jones’ young protégée was then, at the beginning of her career, torn between tales of gendered teen romance and of controversial yet catchy feminist anthems.
However, an interview she gave in 2009, a few years before her death, shows how conscious she was about the difficulties of being a woman in the music industry in the sixties. Lesley Gore seems, at least retrospectively, aware that she had to abide by a set of norms if she wanted to be a singer. She never really tried or had the power to change anything, but still managed to embody the women of her time – and maybe of ours as well.
Was the song announcing a new path for women?
This is probably the reason why the New York Times was right to consider that “You Don’t Own Me” was still an “indelibly defiant” single, with the many versions of the songs produced after the sixties emphasizing that idea – minus the 1987 Dirty Dancing version. It surely marks a groundbreaking era for female singers of the late sixties – especially given the fact that it was released the same year as legislation requiring equal pay in the United States. Yet, songs like Helen Reddy’s “I am a Woman” in 1972 sound much more subversive, mainly because they reflect a woman’s need for equality between genders rather than manufactured thoughts produced by the music industry to please women and instrumentalize their will for consideration.
Keeping in mind the song’s heritage, I can admire Lesley Gore for having borne the weight of such a provocative song at the time, but the fact that she was not the initiator behind these lyrics renders me less impressed. It makes me wonder whether we should consider her song as being reflective of the “female gaze” or the “male gaze.” Laura Mulvey, the film director behind the very concept of the “male gaze,” would probably affirm that this single couldn’t be in any way a representation of the male gaze, as she firmly believes that women must be creators of the artistic pieces in which they take part if they want to be adequately represented. According to her, as we are reminded by the title of this 2019 Libération article, “the image of women will not change until women are able to control it.” Still, this single seems to be broadcasting a fair account of women’s mindsets in the sixties – even if it is written by men, most likely for commercial purposes. Does it necessarily mean the song was instrumentalized to please women? Does one need to be a woman to understand their struggle? I don’t think so. This is why, just as Iris Brey defended Titanic that was produced by James Cameron, I would take the disputed stance of saying that “You Don’t Own Me” is an interesting embodiment of what we would now call the “female gaze” despite the fact that it was not created by a woman.
A depressing anthem?
Nonetheless, this point of view doesn’t mean “You Don’t Own Me” doesn’t raise important points about the music industry. All in all, isn’t it concerning that this song, over half a century after its release, still feels fresh and coherent when considering relationships between men and women in 2020? Haven’t things changed since Lesley Gore’s era? Of course, some have.
Yet, female celebrities still appear to be coerced, “owned” and “told what to do,” especially in the music and film industry – despite anything Gore and her colleagues might have sung in the sixties. Why aren’t we able to imagine that women could and would be responsible for their artistic career, even for a second? Is it that unbelievable? How would we know? Even I, proud to call myself knowledgeable about feminist theories, have doubted the role that Lesley Gore had in the making of her musical success in the sixties. So, I wonder, why can’t we imagine that a 17-year-old female singer would like to chant how much she craves to “be free”?
More importantly, how could we reproach anyone who believes the contrary when there is proof that the music industry, just as any other, has been silencing women, with some producers going as far as to sexually assault them? Women probably aren’t – and, at the time, weren’t – given the power to decide what they truly want to sing, and how they want to sing it. The music industry didn’t seem to be a safe environment for women, and Lesley Gore knew it wasn’t. From young women being coerced and negotiations that consider them as bargains (“toys,” Lesley Gore would sing), it still isn’t today.
Still, there is a possibility that this very song could be expressing Lesley Gore’s own political ideas, especially given that we can’t deny that one can already have opinions at 17. At 19, I am already writing about the same issues “You Don’t Own Me” was pointing out, and while being two years older, I can’t say I’m much wiser than she was or more able to make my own decisions.
However, the singer never mentioned what the lyrics of the song meant to her. She only discussed its rhythms and how it allowed her to try new things, vocally speaking, in a few interviews. As if those lyrics meant nothing. But for many women, they did. So why did Lesley Gore never talk about them? Was she not allowed to do so? The song becomes sadly less feminist, especially when we now know that, just as Mulvey criticized the “male gaze” in cinema, the music industry is just as male-dominated as it was in 1963 when “You Don’t Own Me” was first sung – and probably will be for the years to come. We should not only remember this song every now and then. Maybe it’s time to take action, and to finally listen to Gore’s injunctions. Fortunately, some of us already have.