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Music

Why Lesley Gore was a true iconoclast

In terms of culture, Lesley Gore often gets overlooked for the game-changing steps she made. A feminist and LGBTQ+ campaigner, she was one of the first female pop stars to call out the widespread misogyny in the music industry and broader society.

Added to this, Gore was a vocal critic of homophobia in the music industry and an advocate of LGBTQ+ issues, long before they were talked about in the mainstream as they are today. In many ways, she was a true iconoclast, and much more than simply the doe-eyed starlet who gave us the classic hit, ‘It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To)’.

Given that she was such a breath of fresh air, after the massive success of ‘It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To)’, Gore worked with Quincy Jones on a string of hits. At the time, he was the first African American vice president at major label Mercury Records and would preside over all of her recordings, including her 1963 feminist anthem ‘You Don’t Own Me’. Although this was just one of numerous hit singles Gore and Jones produced, it is the most significant. 

Despite the fact that the song was written by Philadelphia songwriters John Madara and David White, the symbolic meaning that Gore gave the words by virtue of being a young woman would reverberate throughout time. On the track, she came across as compassionate, comforting woman-kind for the many slights they felt at the hands of their boyfriends, including being cheated on. Her stance on the song is angry and heartbroken, the same as many of her fans, and this instantly made her an icon. Through Madara and White’s words, she stuck a finger up to men and said enough is enough. 

From that point on, Lesley Gore was a force to be reckoned with. Many commentators argue that the ultra-significant second wave of feminism was encouraged by the release of the song. For a time when the concept of separate spheres was still alive and kicking, this was the beginning of the end for the domesticated woman. 

Of the song, in 1991, she explained on Fresh Air: “I’ve always hated wimpy women. I’ve never understood it. So, when I first heard this piece of material, I knew it was what I wanted to do.” Adding to her point, Gore said that she was excited by the power of the song and immediately knew she had to record it. 

Detailing further, Gore then told The Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2010: “As I got older, feminism became more a part of my life and more a part of our whole awareness, and I could see why people would use it as a feminist anthem.”

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Throughout this early part of her career, during the early 1960s, Gore constantly kept the audience on their toes, before The Beatles and The Who did so. Whether it be the vengeful ‘Judy’s Turn To Cry’, the story of the love triangle ‘She’s a Fool’, or the general male critique ‘That’s the Way Boys Are‘, she was a pop star who was singing about things that no one thought possible before that point. 

The longstanding tradition of a female pop star singing about sugary fantasies was over, Gore was getting stuck into real life. Yes, she’d briefly return to sugary pop for 1965’s ‘Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows’, but only because she could, I don’t think her bank account was complaining. Gore and Jones had ripped up the rulebook and were reaping all the rewards.

Interestingly though, whilst Gore enjoyed much success during the first half of the ’60s, she never publicly disclosed her sexual orientation until years later, but she knew that she was attracted to women from the age of 20 in 1966. Defiant in the face of bigotry, Gore never felt that she had to hide her sexuality or pretend that she was straight, regardless of the fact that the music industry was “totally homophobic”. 

“I just kind of lived my life naturally and did what I wanted to do,” she explained. “I didn’t avoid anything, I didn’t put it in anybody’s face.” Experimenting, Gore had relationships with women and men, but those closest to her were already made well aware of her preferences. 

Starting in 2003, Gore hosted numerous editions of the PBS series, In the Life, focusing on LGBTQ+ issues. She officially came out on the show in 2004, which was fitting, as on the show, she established herself as one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ campaigners out there. The woman who hailed the dawn of the second wave of feminism 40 years ago was also now a member of the LGBTQ+ community – it couldn’t have been better.

A true trailblazer who deserves more praise than she gets in the mainstream, Lesley Gore helped enact change in many ways, and whilst there is still much to be done, without her bold steps, we might not have moved forward in such a considerable way.

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