John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“You Don’t Own Me”

An early feminist lyric sung by 17-year-old Lesley Gore, it’s still a classic.

By - Feb 20th, 2015 03:13 pm
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Lesley Gore

Lesley Gore

Lesley Gore, who passed away recently at age 68, always had a perception problem. She was never hip, but always good. Call it the Karen Carpenter Syndrome, but I like Lesley’s songs a lot better.

She was a mere lass of 16 when she had her first hit, It’s My Party, so while you may fault her for her teen topics, it would hardly have been fair to ask her to handle more adult themes. When she turned 17, she must have felt ready, for that’s when she sang that wise-beyond-her-years feminist anthem, You Don’t Own Me. She didn’t write the song, credit for that must go to John Madara and David White, songwriters from Philadelphia with a couple hits under their belt, including the super sticky 1-2-3 by Len Barry. It could be argued that feminist anthems can’t be written by men, but you might hear differently from the thousands of women who sang it, including Dusty Springfield, who recorded it. Dusty was an artist well known for her great taste in songs.

You really shouldn’t have to defend Lesley Gore. She may have fallen into a category of light pop that seems dated and corny, but a lot of insiders admired her musicality and confidant delivery. One of them was Quincy Jones, who dabbled in pop when he wasn’t arranging songs for Ray Charles and various jazz luminaries.

A few years back, on a family vacation, we caught Ms. Gore live where she was part of an outdoor celebration at the Lincoln Center in New York City called the Ponderosa Stomp. Also on the bill were two of the great voices from the girl group era, Lala Brooks and the inimitable Ronnie Spector. Both were associated with, and in Ronnie’s case, unhappily married to, Phil Spector. The Wagner of rock created some grand settings for their distinctive voices.

Following Ms Spector, who did a short and beautiful tribute to Amy Winehouse, didn’t seem to faze Ms. Gore at all. Although her approach was a little slicker and maybe a shade too Vegas, there was no mistaking what a quality instrument she possessed or the skill she displayed when she sang. She delivered each of her songs with brassy confidence and her voice seemed virtually unchanged by the years. Teenage themes or not, she was hitting it and won over a few skeptics, myself included.

The song we speak of today would have done Spector proud — in fact he had planned to have The Crystals sing it, but was beaten to the punch by Jones. Had that happened, we would probably be talking about two classic versions. Here are the lyrics:

You Don’t Own Me

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, ’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’d never stay

Oh, I don’t tell you what to say
I don’t tell you what to 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
To say and do whatever I please

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

© John Madara, David White

Okay, boys and toys may make it seem a tad teenage, but again, she was 17 when she sang it. It’s not so much that lyrics are groundbreaking poetry, but in context of the times, it broke new ground. The music is swell, it harkens back to the craftsmanship of Tin Pan Alley and The Great American Songbook. The nifty key changes and and harmonic shiftiness as it flips back and forth between minor and major, effortlessly evoking plaintiveness and triumph, would be beyond the grasp of your average chart topper back then. It would have been a great melody with any words, but this defiant mini-anthem struck a nerve.

Lesley Gore came out as a lesbian when the dust of fame had settled. She said she never really had time to explore her feelings during those years. She lived with the same partner for over 30 years and saw a lot of changes before she left us. She probably had some part in bringing them about. Although it’s hard to measure how big a part that would be, I give her points for such a stirring performance of this enduring tune.

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “You Don’t Own Me””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Phil Spector was not interested in You Don´t Own Me, he wanted The Crystals to record IT´s My Party, Spector told it to Quincy Jones who made the final arrangements in a rush to have Lesley recording on radio & stores immediately.
    It was L Gore´s great hit although the 1st one to record that song was Helen Shapiro for her album “helen IN Nashville” …..
    Lesley Gore will always remain associated to “It´s My party”.-

  2. Anonymous says:

    You Don’t Own Me has a plaintive, artistic quality that rises about the (albeit wonderful) lightness of some of Leslie Gore’s other songs (although It’s My Party does tell us “and I’ll cry if I want to”). You’re absolutely right, there’s no reason to defend Leslie Gore, she’s unique.

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