Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s by Jacqueline Warwick

Cover to Girl Groups, Girl Culture (Routledge, 2007); image courtesy of routledgemusic.com

For financial reasons, I was only able to swing one day of Fun Fun Fun Fest so I’m blogging while many in this fair city are catching some good music in Waterloo Park. Although, admittedly, if you’re gonna do one day of the festival, I think yesterday was the way to go. I got to check several bands I’ve never seen before off my list: No Age (who I’ve missed by a marrow margin at least three times), Jesus Lizard, Pharcyde, Les Savy Fav, and Death.

But if you have the scratch, please make sure everyone sees one of Mika Miko’s last shows ever on the black stage at 2:55. I might try to get down there later just to hear it from the other side of the fence.

Mika Miko’s exceptional presence on this year’s bill seems as good a place as any to remember that, as Melissa at GRCA astutely pointed out in her recent post, this year boasts a very dudecentric line-up. So I’ll review Jacqueline Warwick’s book Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s book in the hopes that at least one historically significant girl group or all-female band will reunite for next year’s FFFF like Death did this year. And like the Shangri-Las did at CBGB’s in 1977.

As much as I hate comparing women’s work so as to pit them in opposition, Warwick’s book is a tremendous example of how effective it can be to narrow the scope of the cultural moment being covered, something I wish Charlotte Greig would have considered when penning her book on girl groups. While Greig truncates the history of the girl group era in order to broaden the definition of what a girl group is, Warwick focuses primarily on this brief but important moment in history (roughly between 1958 and 1965), considering its ongoing influence as an epilogue.

By taking this approach, Warwick considers the girl group era and its participants from several different, often surprising, areas of inquiry. As a result, she proves the cultural signficance of a popular form dismissed by many as superficial, polished, and phony who instead tend to favor rock music’s supposed transcendent raw authenticity, and argues strongly that this binary construction is inherently gendered. Duh, and amen.

Warwick posits that one of the most important things about the girl group era was its insistence on putting girls and young women in the spotlight, introducing a complex, celebratoryn and at times contradictory performance of what the author calls “girlness”. Often, these ladies were working class, and of African American or mixed racial and ethnic heritage. They had few options for financial mobility and minimal career prospects being marriage, motherhood, clerical jobs, and day labor. Forming vocal groups together and cutting records gave them access to other opportuntities toward professional advancement and personal growth, expanding the idea of girlhood as an identity across race and class lines. 

Sometimes these groupings resulted in the cultivation of considerable, devoted fan bases that, in The Supremes and The Ronnettes’ cases, were comparable to Beatlemania. Some of those fans were even other male-only rock bands, like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and later, The Ramones. Take that, pop-rock, girl-boy binaries!

In other words, I’m telling you to read this book.

One thing I appreciate about Warwick’s book from the outset is the celebration of the female voice. As I’ve long believed and argued extensively in this blog, we cannot give short-shrift to singers. While they can assuredly be tokenized and objectified, but they can also be empowered, embodied, and forge their own agency. Heartenly, she finds much going on with the voice, a distinct instrument no matter how it may have been manipulated or homogenized by label owners like Motown’s Barry Gordy and producers like Phil Spector and his overwhelming wall of sound. She hears the genteel precision of Diana Ross’s soprano, the urgent purr of Ronnie Spector’s husky alto, the untrained wavering of Shirelle Shirley Owens’s pitch, the gutteral inflections on Supreme Florence Ballard’s tone, the put-on nasal affectations of Broadway-trained groups like The Angels, the racial dimensions of Dusty Springfield’s blue-eyed soul, and the teenaged monotone of Shangri-La Mary Weiss.

She also hears these girls singing to one another, often in their own forms of feminine dialect and for the purposes of providing support and advice. On record, acts like The Dixie Cups, The Crystals, Betty Everett, and The Velvelettes would pepper their songs with seemingly nonsensical words and phrases like “iko iko,” “da doo ron ron,” “shoop,” and “doo lang doo lang,” often provided by backing vocalists as a means of support for the lead vocalist, who might be intimating her feelings about burgeoning romance or her conflicted feelings in the aftermath of a break-up.

Often, these girls were providing one another moral support and providing advice as well. While Warwick notes that advice songs tended to be the domain of girl groups with African American members like The Velvelettes, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, and The Marvelettes, they often imparted wisdom to their audiences that they learned from their mothers or their sisters, as well as sharing what they’ve learned from their own experiences. In doing so, these songs provided a counterargument to the assertion that girl groups only sang about boys and also expanded female discourse in popular music by including the words and experiences of generations of women into then present-day pop songs by girls.  

It cannot be ignored that while many girl group songs were written by men, not all of them were. As mentioned elsewhere, Brill Building stalwarts like Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, and Carole King were of paramount importance to the era. Many of these women, like Greenwich, wrote about seemingly teenage issues like young love and treated it as legitimate, at times giving it life-and-death importance, as she did on The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.” 

King is a particularly interesting case as well. Before striking out on her own as a solo artist, she wrote many important songs for girl groups. Some songs, like The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” address the troubling and dangerous aspects of patriarchy and oppression, and have been covered to harrowing effect by bands like Hole and Grizzly Bear.

Other songs King penned gesture toward the era’s prescience regarding shifting cultural attitudes toward feminism, female agency, and sexual autonomy, as on The Shirelles’ anthemic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” 

Girl groups were also clearly singing with one another, as girl groups often were comprised of siblings and relatives who wore matching outfits and performed intricate choreography to suggest that these girls were a unit, despite at times having clearly defined lead singers and stars who (especially in Diana Ross’s case) were thin and had a more conventional look and sound.

It was this image coordination that made The Ronnettes able to ingratiate night clubs when they were underaged, gave them the confidence to perform at those night clubs, and provided them with a sense of belonging that made them tough enough to brave any New York City street. It also makes this sense of actual or engineered sisterhood and camderadie seem especially fragile when success encroaches on it, as the tragic dimensions of Estelle Bennett and Florence Ballard‘s post-girl group lives remind. 

Warwick shies from making any explicitly queer connections to girl groups beyond passing references to Springfield and Lesley Gore’s orientations and their relationships with the closet. I would have liked a bit more discussion of the queer dynamics of the groups’ homosocial bonding both on- and off-record. A brief appraisal of queer fandom (seemingly most pronounced among certain circles of gay men, though not exclusively) would also have been appreciated.

That said, I do appreciate Warwick reminding her readers of girl groups’ continued impact. As this is the section of the book that gets less focus, it would be worthwhile to read Warwick’s and Greig’s books together to get a larger sense of how punk, hip hop, and contemporary pop music were influenced by girl groups.

I would hasten to add country music to the list of genres that were shaped by this era. Given last night’s Saturday Night Live, which featured crossover star Taylor Swift as both host and musical guest (a rare opportunity for most pop stars, unless they are Justin or Britney). Watching her play a brace-faced teenager in a skit about parents who are worse drivers than their kids and her performance of “You Belong To Me” complete with careful, song-appropriate gestures, it was clear to me that the girl group era continues. As Mika Miko performs one of their last shows later today, I’ll wonder where it’ll permeate next.

About these ads

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Dammit, Taylor Swift « Feminist Music Geek
  2. Pingback: SXSW Day 4 and 5 recap « Feminist Music Geek

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s