One of the treasured women of pop music died on Monday: Lesley Gore. A hitmaker at the age of 16 with the indelible “It’s My Party,” she followed that up with what she called “the first truly bitchy song,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” and then with one of the first and greatest proto-feminist anthems, “You Don’t Own Me.” Although she didn’t write the latter, its words expressed a young woman’s feistiness in the pre-Second Wave early 1960s:
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
After her days of teen stardom, Gore continued to write songs and put out occasional albums. Her composition “Out Here On My Own,” cowritten with her brother Michael for the 1980 film Fame, received an Oscar nomination. Dusty Springfield recorded Gore’s powerful ballad “Love Me By Name.”
Gore came out as a lesbian in 2005, revealing that she’d been with her partner, Lois Sasson, since 1982. That suggested that the song “My Secret Love,” which she cowrote for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart, was autobiographical—and it’s sung in the film by a character (played by Bridget Fonda) coiffed in a classic Lesley Gore flip.
Twenty-five years ago, Gore sat down with another iconoclastic woman musician, k.d. lang, and gabbed away for the pleasure of a Ms. magazine readership. Here are excerpts of Gore’s part of that conversation.
As a child I wanted to sing at Carnegie Hall, so I practiced singing behind the closed bedroom door, in front of the full-length mirror, with a hairbrush as my microphone. Behind that closed door, I slicked my hair back in a fairly credible Elvis imitation. I’m sure many of us did. But when I finally walked out onstage—in the spring of 1963, I was 16—I went dressed like a nice little girl and performed as I was expected to.
That sweet-little-girl image has been very difficult for me to shed. Even now, though I’m writing and singing more politically powerful material—I’ve written a song about that, called ‘America’s Sweetheart’—it’s a tough image to shake. At least I had ‘You Don’t Own Me.’ Because ‘It’s My Party’—although it had kind of a rebellious attitude, which is why I chose it—is bubblegum in comparison.
When I started out, it certainly was an industry controlled by men. Twenty-seven years later I can’t say it’s very different. And of course they treat a woman differently once she’s established a name and they know she can sell records. I don’t see that many women getting together and saying, Hey, how can we increase women’s work in the industry? I’m not talking about the … people out front. I’m talking about the A&R people, the people in publishing, the people who really run those companies. How can we get women into those positions of power? The longer I’ve been in the business, the more I feel I have a right—and a responsibility—to speak out on matters that most concern me as a woman.
I saw one check and then I didn’t see any money until two years ago. Almost 24 years. And my royalty is a fraction of what an unknown artist would receive today. But that’s unimportant. I’m alive, and I’m not bitter, and I’m writing new songs. But you know what? I still don’t have the gold record for “You Don’t Own Me.” The two male writers, they have it, but Mercury never gave me one.
The record industry in 1963 was run like a mom-and-pop business. There was this Godfather image who ran the company and you did what he wanted. We went into Bell Sound on West 54th Street at two in the afternoon on a Saturday, came out at 5 o’clock, and were cutting four-track. We finished three songs in that period of time. I don’t mean we just put them down, I mean they were mixed and ready to go. I cut ‘It’s My Party’ on March 30, 1963, and heard it on the radio seven days later. A record company can’t think of getting a record out that fast today.
My parents knew I was signing a contract but nobody really understood, no one figured I was going to have a hit. It was ‘appease Lesley and let her record with Quincy Jones [yes, the producer who later produced Michael Jackson] and Mercury records.’ Hardly the attitude you would go into the studio with today. You go in to make hits. It took me a while to figure that out. I think my parents meant well,but I don’t think they had the sophistication to properly protect me.
Being nervous was my major problem. It took me several years of getting out on a stage to begin to feel comfortable. Once I had a hit record, I was doing all those TV shows, and there was a lot of exposure. So you learn quickly, but it was nerve-wracking. They would tell me in advance that I was going to do The Ed Sullivan Show and I would be sick for three months in anticipation.
[‘Judy’s Turn to Cry’ was] the first truly bitchy song, you know. Definitely someone getting revenge. I loved singing that. But some of the other songs, like ‘She’s a Fool’ and ‘Maybe I Know’ were about getting jilted by a guy, the old story. And then ‘You Don’t Own Me’ just puts it on another level. That’s the song I close my show with today. You know I did write a song for the film Fame back in 1980—cowrote it with my brother Michael— and in a funny way I consider it a sequel to ‘You Don’t Own Me.’ It’s called ‘Out Here On My Own.’ It has the impact of ‘You Don’t Own Me,’ but it’s even more stark.
Singer, songwriter, feminist and finally an LGBT rights activist—Lesley Gore inspired us for more than 50 years. We were lucky to be invited to her party.