The second session of GRCA 2010 comes to a close tomorrow with an amazing showcase. Likewise, Wednesday’s music history workshop commemorated the second year Kristen at Act Your Age and I have been involved with the organization. As is customary, I like to write down a few things I learn from each GRCA session. As honed as our workshop has become, it’s always open to modification. And each workshop is its own entity, based entirely on who the girls are. But there is one constant: I’m always challenged and surprised by what each group of girls brings to discussion.
1. Remember to include a section on metal, as many of these girls are fans. I’ve been given some great leads on who to include from blog commentary, friend recommendations, and a particularly informative lunch meeting with Erika Tandy. Thanks for helping out an admitted metal neophyte.
2. Sometimes a girl will come right out and tell you she doesn’t like any female artists. She may be a little smug about it like a pre-teen can be at times. When asked why she’s at GRCA, she may give this hilariously catty retort: “I’ve already gone over this — it’s summertime and I get bored and I need something to do.” Don’t let this throw you and don’t take it personally. Thank her for her honesty and hope that she participates anyway. Acknowledge her when she does.
3. Sometimes a girl will be related to a co-worker. Note the connection and make sure to incorporate her into the discussion while remaining impartial.
3A. You can be amused if she’s quite formal with you, as you were a pretty formal child yourself.
4. If a group of girls are talking amongst themselves, don’t let that bother you. Keep your ears open for a band or artist one of them mentions and bring it up. It’ll let them know you’re listening and also keep them on your toes. :)
5. Don’t worry about being cool. You’re probably an old lady to them. But even if they don’t think you’re cool for knowing about MGMT or that Ke$ha signs her name with a dollar sign, they might be amused if you drop song titles or mention that “a girl’s gotta get paid.”
6. Remember to include Lady Sovereign and Selena on next year’s mix CD, because there’s always at least one girl who is excited about each of them.
7. Bone up on your musical terminology and make sure to emphasize instrumentalists’ technique in some of the clips you provide.
8. Improvise and share with your co-facilitator. Technology may always be erratic, so don’t crutch on it. Clips may not always load. Take the lead from your co-facilitator and pop in a mix CD to illustrate your points. While you may not always have as wonderful an instructor to work with as Kristen, being aware of moments in which you can volley off one another are key.
8A. Make sure you extend this openness and trust to the counselors. They will save your ass every time. Hearts to Esme.
9. Don’t freak out if a girl disagrees with you or seems weirded out by something. You’ve been handed a teaching moment. Start a discussion. Ask some questions. Steer the conversation into something productive. And make sure you’re doing as much listening as talking.
10. Some girls may get hung up on Etta James’s fat knuckles. This will bother you, as sizeism has already taken hold. Let Kristen riff on how body types may differ across genres and that skinny ladies aren’t an ideal we should aspire to if that’s not who we are. Mentally clap for her as she drops an important message while keeping the girls on task.
11. It’s always okay to stop a workshop so you can clap in time to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” It’s also a good idea to end a workshop with a dance party.
12. Make sure you pay attention to every girl in the room and give each one a chance to contribute. Be especially cognizant of the girl who sits immediately behind you. That girl may seem disengaged or shy at first, but she is full of good ideas and smart opinions. She might tell you that her mother styled her hair like Salt-N-Pepa and that she grew up listening to The Supremes. She may also give you a hug after the workshop, which will make your day.
I’m also looking forward to what Kristen and I will learn when we take this workshop on the road. We’ll be helping out with Girls Rock Camp Houston on August 13th. As an ex-pat Houstonian, I have personal investment in GRC staking its claim there. While I love GRCA and am proud to be a part of it, Austin is already such a music-friendly city. While Houston has a considerable artistic community, the sprawl tends to swallow it up. Speaking as someone who grew up in a rural suburb equidistant between Houston and Galveston, it was pretty difficult to go to shows and get involved with a scene that was about 45 minutes away from you and scattered about a very large city that’s not always hospitable to girls. So I’m hopeful that GRCH will forge a much-needed communal space for grrrl musicians.
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.
As a means to enrich my interest in girl groups, I’ve been looking for literature on the subject. One book my thesis adviser recommended was English writer Charlotte Greig’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Girl Groups from the 50s on . . ., which covers the girl group era (roughly 1960-1964) from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as girl groups that predated the era and formed (and continue to form) in the wake of its legacy.
I liked this book fine. It’s a good primer for folks just getting into girl groups (I’d certainly assign the chapters on the Brill Building or Motown to an undergrad class on gender and music culture). It’s smart and celebratory yet critical of the gender politics of girl groups without alienating a reader not hip to, say, Judith Butler’s thoughts on gender performativity. Greig also employs her trade skills as a journalist, so there’s lots of neat and valuable first-person accounts from folks like Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich and members of the Marvelettes and the Velvelettes. And there’s lots of fascinating tidbits Greig throws in that could be spun into their own books. For example:
Did you know that American Bandstand started as a radio show on WFIL in Philadelphia, on the outskirts of town? Did you know that it became a television show because bored Italian American teenage girls from the neighboring West Catholic High School would hang out after school and start dancing to the records? Did you also know that existing within this group were class tensions that were easily reflected in girls’ particular clothes and hairdos? I certainly didn’t.
Perhaps unsurprising, but did you know that Brill Building songwriter/producer Ellie Greenwich worked with her husband Jeff Barry, who elbowed her out of songwriting and production credits because he assumed he’d be the breadwinner while she had the babies? They divorced. :(
Did you know that almost all of the girl groups Greig discusses (and/or interviews) failed to be compensated for their services? Perhaps unsurprising when you consider the larger context of the early days of rock music and its shady legal dealings with publishing and recording rights, but pretty important when considering the supposed “disposability” of girl groups.
Did you know that Reparata from Reparata and the Delrons (one of the best-named girl groups of the golden era) got her name from a saint? Kinda fascinating. I’d read an entire book on girl groups and Catholicism!
Did you know about that the role the British Invasion had in dismantling the girl group era was largely a myth? Many believe that English rock groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and their brethren were responsible for the demise of the girl group era (which is poor history, as you can see American acts like The Beach Boys, The Temptations, and The Supremes right up there with The Fab Four on the pop charts). Greig does well to remind her audience that groups like The Beatles were actually inspired by girl groups and covered many girl group songs. Instead, Greig attributes pre-mature folds of girl group songwriting factories like the Brill Building out of fear that the British Invasion would spell their demise.
Did you know that there were class differences between the girl groups at Motown? I certainly didn’t but, again, it makes sense. According to other groups like The Marvelettes, The Supremes were given unequal treatment at the record label because they were savvy, culturally-aware city girls. Other groups were comprised of country girls who didn’t grow up in Detroit and, thus, were not as hip or poised.
But these gems, which are often dropped without too much comment, speaks to my biggest problem with the book: it is simply too broad. And at just over 200 pages with a scant bibliography, the fact that she covers so much ground without digging deeper really left me wanting.
That said, I think this book does a noble job broadening the definition of what a girl group is. Greig’s principle mission, as she defines from the outset, is to dispense with the myth that girl groups were born in 1960 and died in 1964. She maintains that girl groups started forming post-World War II and are still forming and recording today (“today” meaning the late 1980s at the time of her writing).
She also argues that girl groups are not adherent to a particular genre, which, read alongside the Rhino girl group box set, seems very true. The girl group sound was actually not one singular generic entity but incorporated R&B, pop, soul, folk, and the blues. Thus, after the 1960s, when the girl group legacy endured, groups would revisit it while folding in reggae, disco, punk, funk, electronic music, and many other styles. And, as girl groups evolved, Greig argues that sometimes they became more politically minded. Particularly in the 70s, funk-based girl groups like Honey Cone tended to endorse a “black is beautiful” agenda.
And acts like LaBelle expanded how black could be beautiful by incorporating the (traditionally white, male) glam- and art-rock stylings of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. However, my partner is quick (and right) to point out that Funkadelic adopted a similar performance style at around the same time, so let’s view LaBelle and Funkadelic alongside one another.
Punk bands like Blondie and The Slits became more makeshift in their look and self-reflexive and parodic in their approach to addressing femininity and consumer culture in their songs. But I feel like Greig gives more focus toward Blondie, so lets look at The Slits more closely.
I do find it a little disconcerting that The Runaways, The Bangles, and The Go-Gos are largely broadsided in this discussion. If two of Greig’s principle concerns with girl groups are: 1) they tend not to have female instrumentalists and 2) they tend to be controlled by male managers and producers, it would have been nice to see her discuss girl bands who encountered and had (varying degrees of) success breaking free from male control.
This omission makes Greig’s inclusion of Vanity 6 and Mary Jane Girls a bit of a hard sell for me. Despite being multi-racial and (often celebratory and raunchy) advocates for sexual agency and pleasure, both groups were also formed and almost completely controlled by men (Prince and Rick James, respectively). As Greig points this out, I would have appreciated a broader context that I feel dicussing girl bands could have provided.
That said, I do think the inclusion of Bananarama is interesting, as they had a punkish, thrift-store edge and often linked themselves to the girl group era by covering song like The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Saying Something.” I suppose this gets us into the dangerous territory of “wearing” and “trying on” race, but I’ll let you decide.
I also appreciate that Greig included hip hop in the discussion of girl groups, vis-à-vis Salt-N-Pepa, though fear that past lesser-known acts like Northern State, hip hop has historically favored solo artists to groups and has provided scarce resources for women, whether on their own or rhyming with friends.
I’d also be curious as to what Greig would say about groups from my youth like TLC, En Vogue, SWV, The Spice Girls and, during my high school years, Destiny’s Child, 3LW, and Dream. And of course, if we’re expanding girl groups to include punkier acts, I wonder what Greig thinks of Vivian Girls and Mika Miko alongside neo-retro acts like The Pipettes, as well as acts like The Pussycat Dolls who are, for better or for worse, one of the few integrated, multi-racial girl groups to achieve mainstream success since The Ronettes.
Again, all worthwhile endeavors; each in need of their own book for further inquiry.
Today in The Root, Dayo Olopade posited that the pop star set to inherit Michael Jackson’s mantle as the King of Pop is Beyoncé Knowles. And my girl Kristen (who of course pointed me to the article in the first place) asked for people’s thoughts on this assertion. Here now is my effort.
Obviously, no opinion can be reached without mention of how important Michael Jackson was to people. While I can be snide and agree with others that he hadn’t made a good album since 1987’s Bad, I also won’t pretend to know how deep an impact he made on generations of African Americans and what it was like to see a young black man launch into that kind of mythology. Even if you’re Chuck D and you made the point that having MTV air the music video for “Billie Jean” in 1983 nearly 20 years after Jackson broke into the mainstream as part of The Jackson 5 was an achievement for white America (a point Chuck makes in The History of Rock and Roll) I don’t know if you can qualify how particularly and specifically important Michael Jackson is to generations of African Americans. And Beyoncé was born in 1981. Indeed, she didn’t exist before Michael. So I definitely think his impact on her — along with several other African American pop stars — is monumental and different from their white counterparts. Thus, I’m absolutely fine with Cord Jefferson’s assertion that Justin Timberlake cannot inherit Jackson’s legacy. Let Beyoncé wear the damn military jacket.
Yet, while I feel that the Beyoncé as successor story is really compelling in theory, I wonder if it works. As many people have argued, including Olopade, we may have witnessed, with the death of Michael Jackson, the end of superstardom. And while others might disagree, I think this is a good thing, as I feel that a life lived in quotes, italics, and all caps only ends up ruining the body and mind living the persona(e). It may be captivating, or even aspirational to the general public, but it also seems hollow, empty, lonely, and unfulling to the person. It also seems too taxing to keep up. Listen to Jackson’s songs, as his lyrics became increasingly paranoid. Look at Neverland. Look at the increasingly desperate music videos that could never replicate the magic of “Thriller.” Witness the body in a constant state of mutation, decay, whitening, and plasticity. As Michael aged, the man in the mirror must have become more alien to himself. Absenting a larger discussion about looming rumors of child molestation and a confirmed history of child abuse and exhausting work conditions administered by his father, Joe, I cannot help but view what happened to Michael as a perilous lesson at how cruel and unfulfilling that level of fame is. The high price is assuredly the self.
To me, if we want to go with a model for how Michael’s fame warped any semblance of a personal life and informed his music, the more accurate analog is Britney Spears, a young woman formed into a hologram for our society’s distorted desires, started rebelling and making commentary on her fame, who we watched collapse, villified and mocked for making poor decisions, took offense to the havoc the stress of fame and vanity wreaked on her body, and whose untimely death will assuredly be met by a dumbfounded mass. She may live past 27, but I’m not sure that her attempts at normalcy and privacy won’t be as ill-informed and unfortunate as Jackson’s were.
Beyoncé, on the other hand, seems to carve out an autonomous private life for herself as best she can. To that end, I actually think she has more in common with Michael’s sister, Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty. While both have suffered speculation and public battles with body image and weight fluctuation, I also think they were aware of their popularity, reticent to embrace it as a result of their shyness and self-possession, and made an effort to keep some of themselves to themselves. Beyoncé may collaborate with her husband Jay-Z, but they rarely disclose any personal information beyond the occasional outing to a Knicks’ or a Nets’ game or reference to their relationship in song (I seem to remember the mid-2000s being a hard time for the power couple to balance love with work — they seem to have made it to the other side without us knowing too much about their private goings-on).
Likewise, Jackson has taken privacy to perhaps necessary extremes, hiding her entire marriage to René Elizondo from the public until she announced their divorce in 1999. She’s since been in a long-term relationship with rapper-mogul Jermaine Dupri which may or may not culminate in marriage. I kind of like that I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Protestant in me, but I’m not as interested in their personal lives as I am with their work. Of course, how one informs the other is tremendously useful and important to me. But I like that both women have given themselves the space not to have the factoids of their love lives be common knowledge.
These women’s effort to separate the public from private life is reflected in their music. While Olopade states that Beyoncé asserts the confidence that Michael lacked, I don’t think you have to look any further than Janet to find similarities. Thus, I think that while Michael’s influence as a pop star is not to be ignored, neither can his sister’s. As assuredly as Michael’s innovative music, kinetic movements, and larger-than-life persona inspired Beyoncé, I get the feeling that Janet’s no-nonsense, pro-woman, and at times politically charged anthems left quite an impression as well.
Another point I’d like to challenge is the idea that Michael Jackson was born a monolithic pop star and was the first of his kind. He evolved into a pop star over time. To that end, he also modeled himself on other pop stars, icons, and musicians. As Madonna did with Mae West and Marilyn Monroe, as Tina Turner did with Mick Jagger, and as many after them will continue to do, Michael modeled himself after pop stars of his time. Obviously, Motown, the birthplace of his career, left quite an impression on him. Diana Ross, specifically, became his mentor and model for how to be a pop star. While some catty folks may argue that Michael took the admiration too far, in effect trying to turn himself into her, “whitening” his features and taking on her soft voice, I don’t think we can discuss how assimilable Michael Jackson or Diana Ross (or Motown in the 1960s) was without getting into a larger discussion about the control predominantly white people in positions of power in the culture industries have in enforcing what supposedly white perceptions of what popular music should look and sound like.
Beyoncé has had to face similar instances of institutional racism and assimiliation. She often bleaches and straightens her hair, has witnessed multiple magazines Photoshop inches off her curves, and has shed pounds for movie roles. Beyoncé is also clearly inspired by Ross. Her first group, Destiny’s Child, were clear heiresses to The Supremes’ girl-group legacy. Similar to Ross, Beyoncé broke out on her own, becoming a definitive diva for her era. And adding another layer, Beyoncé played Ross’s avatar in Dreamgirls (for which she lost a considerable amount of weight).
We could then argue, via the Jackson-inspired dance break in the music video for Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylious,” that Beyoncé is placing herself in a continuum between Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
Like Michael and Ross, Beyoncé has worked in movies. And while some people may want to scoff at her film career, I think the range and variety of Beyoncé’s filmography is interesting and helps open up what a pop star can do. She’s been in summer blockbusters like Austin Powers in Goldmember. She’s been in campy, racially charged suspense thrillers like Obsessed (which I haven’t seen, but dear God I hope she cuts that white girl). She’s also been in Dreamgirls and Cadillac Records, playing either fictionalized or real female musicians. (Note: She got to put on weight when she played Etta James in Cadillac Records, a movie I’m sorry to have missed in the theaters but expect a later post about it — gotta support African American female directors like Darnell Martin). But she isn’t only playing the singer.
Beyoncé’s foray into acting, coupled with her recent stint as The Gloved One 2.0 (aka Sasha Fierce) also speaks to her ability to self-fragment, using this tactic to showcase multiple, often contradictory versions of the female self. Which I think speaks to her feminist camp potential as well. Her music videos are sexy and provocative, but always with a wink, always tongue-in-cheek, whether she’s referencing Basic Instinct, riding a mechanical bull, rolling a hula hoop, or channeling Robert Palmer.
But while it might suggest a commonality with Madonna (one of the few pop stars to rival Michael Jackson’s stardom in the 1980s), I think Beyoncé’s campiness is singular. Principally, she channels her camp through humor. She’s really funny. Not a lot of pop stars get to be (or allow themselves to be) truly funny. A song like “Irreplaceble” stings with so much camp wit, and there are many others (the woman has her own vocabulary and phraseology). And, ever the shrewd businesswoman, she can use any song to its full synergistic potential. The guy in “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” is holding her tighter than her Deréon jeans, after all.
So, while it’s important to think about Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, I see their cultural relationship less as an issue of successorship than as an instance of continuum and evolution. Because while I’m stoked that Beyoncé is on par with Michael Jackson and am excited about watching her career evolve, I think of it as her career. In time, I hope that we think of this shy Houstonian playing the brazen pop goddess for all the world not as the next anything. Rather, I think of her in dialogue with the past, looking to pop history as a means of defining Beyoncé.
Summer is a party-time kind of season. It’s also a road-trip kind of season. Recently, I lent an item for both a party and a road trip to some friends that will be the subject of this post. It’s Rhino Records’ girl group anthology One Kiss Can Lead to Another. 120 classic and obscure girl group tracks from the 1960s. These songs are timeless and go with everything. Not a morning person? Throw this on for your morning commute. Having a party? This is sure to please. Doing chores around the house and want to wink knowingly at your own domestication? Here’s your soundtrack.
Yes, this collection has been around for a long time (summer 2005). It’s even been around my house for a long time — my partner got it for me Christmas 2007. It’s a little pricey — retail value is around $70 — but in my estimation, it’s worth it. It is at once a fun party favor guaranteed to get people dancing, a site of feminist discourse, an incredibly well-preserved piece of musical history, and a tasty pop culture artifact. And for all you commodity fetishists who like your semiology, I have to point out that the collection comes in a hat box, each volume is packaged to look like a compact mirror with a reflective panel inside, and each disc is designed to look like a powder puff. You even get a diary that goes with it that contains multiple critical essays and key information on each song.
I admit that when I originally received this collection, I was a little disheartened by what I originally perceived as a very limited notion of gender in popular music. Ironically enough, I was cooking when I listened to the first disc and was like “all these songs are about girls being subservient to men.” Later, when Vivian Girls appropriated the girl group sound to make garage rock and shoegaze’s indebtedness to the Spector Sound more pronounced (and I had a good two years of post-structuralist theory under my belt), I revisited this collection and was pleasantly surprised at just how much was going on.
The first thing that immediately hit me about the collection is how good it sounded. The folks at Rhino took great pains to make sure these songs, some of which were all but lost because the last few out-of-print copies and master tapes were damaged, destroyed, or missing, sound brand new. These songs were originally recorded, arranged, produced, and mastered with the car stereo in mind, and damn if they don’t sound as shiny and clean as the lines on a 1961 mint-condition Corvette.
The other thing that struck me about the collection is how the term “girl group” is less a catch-all term for female pop and pop-informed R&B acts primarily active during the first half of the 1960s and actually a pretty diverse, borderless signifier. All kinds of interesting influences and sounds are in this collection — songs informed by pop, R&B, country, blues, rockabilly, folk, bossa nova, jazz and songs that would help to inform dub, reggae, hip hop, and electronic music.
While I have yet only confirmed that two pieces on this collection were actually sampled in other songs (Daedelus lifted the vocal, hand clap, and drum tracks of The Pin-Ups’ “Lookin’ for Boys” for “Fair-Weather Friends,” Saint Etienne borrowed from Dusty Springfield’s “I Can’t Wait to See My Baby’s Face” for “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”), I am also struck by how sample-friendly a lot of these songs are. The Flirtations’ “Nothing But a Heartache” and The Jewels’ “Opportunity,” among many others, could easily be incorporated into any hip hop track (specifically one that 9th Wonder is producing).
Which also lets you in on how weird and ground-breaking a lot of these songs are. Listen to the reverb-laden a capella opener for The Chiffons’ “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)” and you get a sense for how ESG and Luscious Jackson came to their sound. Keep your ears open for the eerie theramin arrangement in Julie Driscoll’s stately break-up anthem “I Know You Love Me Not.” A song like The Bitter Sweets’ “What a Lonely Way to Start the Summertime” has a hollowed-out, haunted psychedelic sound that may have left quite an impression on Broadcast. Songs like “Nightmare” by The Whyte Boots easily draw a line from girl groups to L7. Some dance songs, like The Goodies’ “Sophisticated Boom Boom” and Marsha Gee’s “Peanut Duck” have an effortless quirky cool to them that no hipster can fake. And that doesn’t even get into The Tammys admittedly un-PC rave-up “Egyptian Shumba” that The Black Kids covered, but couldn’t match the original’s manic glee.
In addition to obscure songs by minor recording artists once left to dust in storage vaults, you get little-heard songs by bigger names. Behold the woozy drum syncopation with Cher’s deep alto in “Dream Baby.” Behold the sugary urgency of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Drop Out.” Behold the cinematic majesty of The Shangri-Las’ “The Train to Kansas City.” Listen for The Supremes’ “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” and The Ronettes’ “He Did It” (one of the few early cuts Rhino could get a hold of without having to involve producer Phil Spector). Get dirty with Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” and Lulu’s “I’ll Come Running” (which features future Zeppelin ax-man Jimmy Page on guitar). Even folks like mod it-girl Twiggy got a shot at the pop charts with the proper little ditty “When I Think of You.”
There are also songs that were obscure and later became popular when other people (perhaps unsurprisingly, primarily white artists) covered them. P.P. Arnold got to Cat Stevens’s “The First Cut is the Deepest” first. Former Cookies member Earl-Jean scored a minor hit with Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “I’m Into Somethin’ Good” a year before Herman’s Hermits rode it the top of the pop charts in 1965. Dee Dee Warwick made minimal commotion with “You’re No Good” before Betty Everett and Linda Ronstadt got ahold of it.
Also, not all of these songs are about boys who treat girls bad. Yes, that’s a component and the folks at Rhino would be ignoring a huge lyrical motif and its pre-second wave context by omitting the tracks about fellas who “lie sly, slick, and shy,” as The Velvelettes sing in “Needle in a Haystack.” And by putting these songs in a larger context, lyrics like “I know he’s cheating on me, but I don’t care” in The Angels’ “I Adore Him” play both dated and baldly disturbing.
I also think by acknowledging the racial aspects of girl group may also help confront the fact that many of these groups were comprised of African American girls, many of whom had to deal with the ingrained lack of social or economic value placed on the romantic love and family units built by people of color in white society. A song like The Fabulettes’ “Try the Worrying Way,” which is about how a heavy-set woman becomes skinny as a result of her partner’s infidelity, cannot be read without this context and becomes profoundly sad with it.
The raced component, alongside issues of age, is crucial to understanding what girl groups contributed — a space for young women and young women of color, many of whom were working class and had minimal opportunities in the job market, to be a part of the work force. This isn’t to absent that many of these groups were designed, produced, and controlled by men. But some were not, or found ways out of it.
But there’s much more going on in these songs than waiting for boys to shape up. For one, there are a lot of break-up anthems. There are elegant songs like “Walking In Different Circles” from Goldie and the Gingerbreads. There are poignant odes to post-break-up autonomy like Reparata and the Delrons’ “I’m Nobody’s Baby Now.” There are also almost-love songs like Sandie Shaw’s “Girl Don’t Come” (which was written and arranged by Burt Bacharach). There are maternal warnings of men’s true nature in Cathy Saint’s “Big Bad World.” There are humorous rejections in The Hollywood Jills’ “He Makes Me So Mad.” And, importantly, there are sneering kiss-offs and odes to female bonding like Donna Lynn’s “I’d Much Rather Be With the Girls” (originally written by and for The Rolling Stones).
For me, it’s not hard to read all of these break-up songs and anthems to being single and out with girlfriends as having a queer element to them. The renouncement of stupid boys, or heterosexual courtship altogether, is heightened by girls singing to, for, and most importantly, with one another. In close proximity. In intimate spaces. In matching outfits.
You also get lots of songs about death, many, like The Goodees’ “Condition Red,” that recount dark, grisly tales of parental disapproval, juvenile delinquency, and racing accidents gone horribly wrong. This was the era where boys beefed it on motorcycles, after all. Indeed, this teen angst bullshit has a body count.
You even get critiques about the fleetingness of youth, the plastic lies of feminine consumerism, and the urgency of action in songs like Toni Basil’s anthem “I’m 28,” which I fully intend to sing drunk at my birthday party in two years.
Oddly enough, she was 23 when she recorded it. She’s 65 now and still working. I think she did okay for herself.
But there are also celebratory songs about love (many explicitly heterosexual, some more ambiguous). These songs are important too, particularly because most of these songs were sung (and, in some cases, written) by unmarried teenagers. Though marriage was the stated goal in many of these songs, it hadn’t happened yet. Thus, it was pretty easy to dismiss these songs, performed by teenage girls, as frivilous. But they aren’t. The feelings, regardless of how artfully or artlessly worded, are real and amplified by mammoth orchestration and pop-song immediacy. Take a song like The Girlfriends’ “My One and Only Jimmy Boy.” A giddy, up-tempo ode to love on the surface, its hook, soaring vocals, and wall-of-sound production takes teen love to “Hulk smash” levels of power and might.
And, of course, a lot of these songs were written by women. Carole King, in addition to singing two songs included in the anthology, wrote many of these hits, along with fellow Brill Building dwellers Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil and many other independent female songwriters.
Thus, this collection has the best that any feminist music geek could hope for — sites of discourse that have, to borrow from American Bandstand, “a good beat and you can dance to it.”