Every once and a while, you see some cultural artifact from the past — a song, a TV show, a print advertisement, whatever — and think, “You couldn’t do that now.” Something either sexist, or racially/ethnically insensitive, or otherwise politically incorrect.
When it comes to popular music, though, it’s hard to believe that there’s much you couldn’t do these days. A random survey of rap lyrics should convince you of that — that is, if you consider rap to be both “popular” and “music.”
But something I heard the other day on Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure sat radio show, as is often the case, set me to thinking. And I had never before heard “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss),” released in 1962.
That’s despite the fact that the artists who recorded it, the Crystals, had a lot of success with their other efforts. In fact, the New York girl group followed it up with a No. 1, the classic “He’s a Rebel,” and had two later Top 10 hits (“Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me”).
Although we may like to think of the early 1960s as benighted and less sophisticated, “He Hit Me” died the quick and quiet death it deserved. The Wikipedia entry says that it got some airplay early on, but that there soon was significant blowback about it condoning domestic abuse, and it was pulled from the playlists.
There was an interesting backstory to the song, though. It was written by the duo that penned a bunch of ’60s hits, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, for producer Phil “Wall of Sound” Spector. Their inspiration was the discovery that their babysitter was being beaten by her significant other.
The songwriting duo’s sitter was none other than Little Eva, who would have a No. 1 hit performing Goffin and King’s “The Loco-Motion.” Eva Boyd, who would record three more Top 40 tunes after that but drop out of sight within a couple years, told her employers that her boyfriend beat her because he loved her.
Hence the “He Hit Me” lyric, which King later said she regretted being involved with. Her third husband had physically abused her on a regular basis, a decade and a half after she and her first hubby wrote the Crystals’ non-hit.
Spector probably didn’t have such qualms. The record producer was thrice-married when he was convicted of fatally shooting a woman with whom he was romantically involved — evidence was presented at trial that he had previously gun-threatened other women who spurned his advances — and married a fourth time while serving the resulting 19 years-to-life sentence.
But while “He Hit Me” had an obviously problematic lyric, plenty of other ’60s songs could be considered sexist or otherwise non-PC. An obvious example would be the Beatles’ “Run for Your Life”: “Well I'd rather see you dead, little girl/Than to be with another man … Catch you with another man/That's the end ah little girl.” Lennon and McCartney were doing some preemptive stalking there, I guess.
How about “Lightnin’ Strikes,” which was a No. 1 for Lou Christie in 1966? Pleading for one standard for the dudes, and another for the chicks, Christie sings, “Listen to me, baby, it's hard to settle down/Am I asking too much for you to stick around?/ Every boy wants a girl/He can trust to the very end/Baby, that's you/Won't you wait? But 'til then.”
Lou goes on to say that he can’t stop when he sees lips waitin’ to be kissed, blah, blah, blah, but when he settles down, he’ll have one baby on his mind and make up for all lost time. Probably fewer ladies be buyin’ that line these days. But at least Christie had gotten over the schizophrenia, or bipolarity or whatever, of his No. 6 of three years earlier, “Two Faces Have I.”
Let’s face it, though — there was plenty of musical creepiness going on back then. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” sounds like more stalking. I love “Save the Last Dance for Me,” but it could sound vaguely threatening: “But don’t forget who’s taking you home.”
There was a threat of violence, too, in the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”: “You’re gonna be sorry you were ever born/ (Hey-la, hey-la, my boyfriend's back)/ ’Cause he’s kinda big and he’s awful strong.” Lots going on here: Other guy creeping on a girl, and talking trash about her when she turns him down, so she’s gonna sic the palooka boyfriend on him.
The title of Elvis Presley’s “Wear My Ring around Your Neck” sounds a bit like a paean to bondage, but it’s really only about possession. Except that her wearing his ring around her neck shows that he’s hers? Well, maybe the King was ahead of his time, back in 1958.
Or maybe Elvis was hanging out with Lesley Gore, who sang: “You don't own me/I'm not just one of your many toys/You don't own me/Don't say I can't go with other boys.” But that was in 1963, when Gore was 17, so she was 12 in ’58 — the King was into younger women, I know, but that’s a stretch.
“You Don’t Own Me” marked quite a turnaround for Gore, who a year earlier had been in tears over what Johnny had done to her at the party. And then got all happy when Johnny came back and it was Judy’s turn to cry.
In these deconstructive times, though, something bad could be read into just about any song lyric from back then. “100 Pounds of Clay”? Women are just made for men. “Chapel of Love”? After we get married, everything will be great. “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”? And you don’t have to stay forever, either, she will understand. Huh?
“Come Back when You Grow Up”? That’s kind of the point of this blog. Although I’m still not sure I’ve grown up.