You Don’t Own Me by Lesley Gore: what’s left of this feminist anthem of the Sixties?

Soon to be read on The Sundial Press, Sciences Po campus of Reims official media. Written for a course about the Sixties led by Pierre-Yves Anglès.

Decades after its releasing, the famous song is still analyzed for its countercultural lyrics – especially while they’ve been written by men, and chanted by a woman.

Sang by Lesley Gore, “You Don’t Own Me” is a 1963 single, recently honored among the Grammy Hall of Fame songs – where music of historical significance is celebrated. Why is “You Don’t Own Me” acknowledged as important for the music industry? Probably while the 17 years old singer at the time embodied a whole generation of women by intoning her own emancipation. Indeed, the lyrics tell how much Lesley Gore didn’t want to be told “what to do or what to say”. The song became very famous, ending up right behind 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 a will to be herself and not being someone’s toy – which was quite revolutionary for the Sixties. 

Lesley Gore’s 1964 performance of “You Don’t Own Me”

Nowadays, “You Don’t Own Me” still echoes

This seems so much relevant today that it could even remind us of the recent French tribune of Virginie Despentes, On Se Lève Et On Se Barre, written after the events of Roman Polanski’s recognition at the César – while Lesley Gore was already insisting in leaving if 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 probably the reason why 57 years later, the jazzy rhythm as well as the lyrics of her bold song are still remembered – especially since the singer Grace popularized the song again through the 2010’s with a cover made with the rapper G-Eazy. As a Gen Z child, I’ve also discovered the song with this recent reinterpretation, even though Lesley Gore’s version appeared way much daring for me considering when it was first sang and how young she was at that time. The interpretation in the music video is also pretty striking in itself. Lesley Gore was bold enough, even though very new in this industry, to look at the camera while shouting for her freedom and singing the song – as demonstrates her facial expressions – as a direct critique intended towards men.

Lesley Gore: feminist, manipulated by the music industry, or both?

However, one can be disappointed while realizing the single wasn’t written by Gore herself but by two men, John Madara and David White. This information easily questions the feminist aspect of the song, just as for Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin » also thought by a man. While Lesley Gore was only 17 in 1963, no doubt “You Don’t Own Me” was at first a commercial move from Mercury Records and that she’s been asked to sing it without having expressed any will to be shown as a counterculture artist before. It seems even more suitable when we consider the discography of Lesley Gore, where the album Boys, Boys, Boys is displaying singles like “That’s the Way Boys Are” where the singer is very much representing what you would expect of a popular young female performer in the Sixties: depoliticized and centered around romantic relationships. Maybe ruled by the music industry, the little protégée of Quincy Jones was then, at the beginning of her career, torn between tales of gendered teen romance and others of controversial, yet smooth feminist anthems. 

Though, an interview she made in 2009, a few years before her death, shows how conscious she was about the difficulties implied when being a woman in the music industry back in the Sixties. Lesley Gore seemed, at least restrospectively, aware that she would have to abide to a set of norms if she wanted to be a singer. She never really tried or had the power to change anything, but still, accomplished to embody for some – willingly or not – 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 after Gore’s death in 2015 that “You Don’t Own Me” was still an “indelibly defiant” single, the many versions of the songs produced after the Sixties emphasizing that idea – 1987 Dirty Dancing version and its male standpoint excepted. It surely marks a groundbreaking era for female singers of the late Sixties – especially because it was released the year where women got the first US legislation requiring equal pay. Yet, songs like Helen Reddy’s “I am a Woman” in 1972 sound quite more subversive to me, surely because they reflect a woman’s need for justice between genders, and less some manufactured thoughts produced by the music industry to please women and instrumentalize their will for consideration. 

Not minimizing the heritage of the song, I can only admire Lesley Gore for having bear on her shoulders the weight of such provocative songs at the time, but the fact that she was not the initiator behind these lyrics makes me less impressed and wondering about whether we should consider her song as a “female gaze” or “male gaze”. Laura Mulvey, film director behind the very concept of “male gaze”, would probably affirm that this single couldn’t be in any way a representation of the male gaze, as she firmly believed women had to be creators of the artistic pieces in which they were taking part, if they wanted someday to be adequately represented. According to her, as reminds the title of this 2019 Libération’s article“the image of women will not change until women are able to control it”. Still, this single seems to me – even if written by males probably for commercial purposes – broadcasting a fair account of women’s mindset in the Sixties. 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 with Titanic produced by James Cameron, I would take the disputed stand of saying that “You Don’t Own Me” is – all things considered – an interesting embodiment of what we would nowadays call the “female gaze”, even though not created by a woman. 

A depressing anthem?

Nonetheless, this standpoint doesn’t mean “You Don’t Own Me” doesn’t raise important issues about the music industry. All in all, isn’t it worrying that this song, half a century after its release, still feels fresh and coherent while considering relationships between men and women in the 2020s? Hasn’t loads of things changed since Lesley Gore’s era? Of course, some did. 

Yet, female celebrities still appear, especially in the music and film industry, coerced, “owned” and told “what to do” – despite anything Gore and her colleagues sang in the Sixties. Why aren’t we able to imagine for a second that women could and would be responsible of their artistic career? Is it that much unbelievable? How could we know? Even myself, proud to say I’m sensible to feminist theories, have doubted the role Lesley Gore had in the making of this musical success of the Sixties. So, I wondered, why can’t we imagine that a 17 years old female singer would like to chant how much she craves to “be free”?

More importantly, how could we reproach anyone to believe the contrary when there’s proof that the music industry, just as any other, has been silencing women – some producers going as far as sexually assaulting them? Women probably aren’t – and weren’t in the Sixties’ music industry – given the power to decide what they truly want to sing, and how they want to sing it. The music industry didn’t seem then a safe environment for women, and Lesley Gore knew it wasn’t. Between coercion of young women and negotiations considering them bargains (“toys”, Lesley Gore would sing), it still isn’t nowadays. 

Still, there’s a possibility that this very song could be expressing Lesley Gore’s own political ideas, especially since we can’t deny one can have opinions already at 17 years old. At 19, I’m 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 take my own decisions. 

However, the singer appears to never have mentioned what the lyrics of the song meant to her. She only discussed in a few interviews its rhythms and how it allowed her to try new things vocally. Just as if those lyrics meant nothing. But for many women, they did. So why has Lesley Gore never spoke about them? Was she forbid to? The song becomes sadly less feminist, especially when today, we know that, just as Mulvey criticized with “male gaze” in cinema, the music industry is, and will be for the years to come, just as male-dominated as it was in 1963 at the time where “You Don’t Own Me” was first sang. 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 did

Une réflexion sur “You Don’t Own Me by Lesley Gore: what’s left of this feminist anthem of the Sixties?

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