As we all know, the incredible, talented, and lovely powerhouse that was Lesley Gore succumbed to her battle with lung cancer in February. She left behind a catalog of music that spanned decades in different ways, transcending boundaries in her own unique way. In the ’60s, Gore was a different type of feminist role model, but still very much the prototype of the typical teenager. It was her voice, her confident grace, and her quiet command that made her a superstar, even in recent years. Lesley Gore would have turned 69 years old yesterday, and in celebration of her extraordinary life, here are seven of our favorite tracks from her early years.
1) “Maybe I Know,” (1964)
Picked by: Sally
Lesley Gore may have been one of the biggest pop stars in pre-Beatles America, but it can be hard to put a finger on her exact persona. Is she the pitiable heroine of “It’s My Party,” or the self-righteous sadist of “Judy’s Turn to Cry”? The strong-willed badass of “You Don’t Own Me,” or the wet noodle of “Maybe I Know,” in which she laments her unfaithful boyfriend and status as schoolyard gossip fodder, yet refuses to stand up for herself? (“But what can I do?” she cries, wringing her hands, to which a modern listener replies: dump him?) Maybe she knows that he’s been a-cheating, but she definitely knows that “deep down inside” he loves her, even if he sure has a funny way of showing it. Perhaps that’s why the music is so aggressively bouncy despite its angst-ridden subject matter, as if she believes merely acting like everything is hunky-dory will be enough to make it so.
But while it can be tough for an adult to sympathize with Gore’s equivocating, “Maybe I Know” aptly captures the short-sightedness of adolescence. Gore clings to her awful boyfriend because she can’t imagine ever finding someone better — and that’s the real tragedy of the song, not his unfaithfulness. Likewise, Gore’s lack of consistency between songs is precisely what made her the perfect emblem of teenagerhood: unpredictably flittering between self-empowered defiance against controlling boyfriends and frenemies, and the fear that a minor social hiccup will guarantee a lifetime of loveless, friendless misery.
2) “She’s a Fool,” (1963)
Picked by: Allison
It’s a tale as old as high-school-romance time: girl likes boy, boy has girlfriend, girl thinks girlfriend sucks. But what makes “She’s a Fool” a truly special track is its hard-driving edge that was missing in Gore’s breakout single, “It’s My Party,” underscored by the male “rack-a-do” backing vocals and hand-clapped backbeat. Indeed, it’s a little bit darker than Gore had gone before; even the most optimistic verse of the song — “I know there is gonna come a day/He will tell that girl, ‘Be on your way’/Maybe then he’ll turn to me/And how happy I will be” — is lacking confidence, as if she’s trying to convince herself more than the listener (which is quite a departure from her previous single, the victory lap that was “Judy’s Turn to Cry”). But, for all of its wavering insecurities, “She’s a Fool” is a unique example of Gore’s versatility, especially as a female singer in the early ’60s, solidifying her “blue-eyed soul” status.
3) “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” (1963)
Picked by: Emma
There’s something about songs that just radiate happiness that is infectious. If anything actually conveys “sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows,” it’s this upbeat track. I know this is one of Leslie Gore’s more popular songs, but I still absolutely love everything about it.
4) “Maybe Now,” (1966)
Picked by: Jim
This is picked moreso for the venue than the song: Leslie Gore performing this as the henchwoman/second-in-command/padawan of Catwoman on Batman is what makes this stand out more than the song itself. It may not be one of her stronger pieces, but having it show up here, with the producers giving her a chance to do the piece in character, gives it a context that is hard to ignore.
And looking back on this piece many years later, knowing in the back of your mind that had things been a lot less restricted back then, it wouldn’t be Burt Ward’s picture she’d sing over but Julie Newmar’s. Actually, if you did make that substitution in your head, it adds a whole new level of subversive poignancy that just makes the whole experience that much more embraceable.
5) “Hello, Young Lovers,” (1965)
Picked by: Erika
As a theater geek, I love the way showtunes and Great American Songbook numbers permeated early ’60s pop music. Lesley Gore did some of the best musical theater covers out there, and my favorite is this version of “Hello, Young Lovers,” from the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I. Originally a sad and wistful ballad, Gore’s version puts a swing and happiness into it that makes it almost unrecognizable from the original — and way more fun. Gore never stopped loving musicals; later in life, she contributed to the musical theater catalog herself as one of the songwriters for the 1980 movie-musical Fame.
6) “You Don’t Own Me,” (1963)
Picked by: John
Given the tempo and medley this seems almost like a response to the song “I Put a Spell On You.” It’s like, “Yeah, you put a spell on me all you like, you’ll never own me!” It’s got a great style, great vocals, and it’s just a nice, catchy song.
7) “Sometimes I Wish I Were a Boy,” (1964)
Picked by: Gretchen
Although “You Don’t Own Me” is more commonly cited as Lesley Gore’s feminist anthem, I’ve always thought this particular tune deserves some props for how it takes on gender norms in its own subtle way. The lyrics describe a girl at a record hop who laments the fact that she can’t act on her emotions the way a boy can, thanks to the social expectations placed on girls. Boys are allowed to make the first move and start a fight over someone they like, and the singer longs for that kind of freedom, as her inability to tell the boy how she feels results in losing her chance with him. I like how sneaky this song is about questioning the unspoken rules that dominated teen life (and music!) in the ’50s and early ’60s. While on the surface it may seem like just another melodramatic love song of the Brill Building era, it subversively voices the frustrations of girls restricted by their gender by placing those feelings in a seemingly mundane scenario. Though it’s not quite “I Am Woman,” “I Wish I Were a Boy” is a cool little proto-feminist anthem that’s certainly worth a listen.