'You Don't Own Me,' A Feminist Anthem With Civil Rights Roots, Is All About Empathy

Jun 26, 2019
Originally published on June 26, 2019 9:50 am

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


There's a certain kind of song you just want to crank up after a bad breakup or a rough day at work. In 1963, a young singer renowned for a hit about getting ditched at a party unleashed just such an anthem.

Lesley Gore's coolly mutinous "You Don't Own Me" is richly scored, building from a minor-key dirge in the verses to a spirited chorus. The 1963 hit reframed the 17-year-old Gore as a confident chanteuse, rather than the pert pop princess then best-known for such bubblegum hits as "It's My Party" and "Judy's Turn To Cry." Her earlier songs had mostly concerned boys — getting dumped by boys, getting approval from boys, bragging about the boys who liked her.

In an interview on WHYY's Fresh Air in 1991, Gore recalled when "You Don't Own Me" first came to her attention. "At the time, I know I chose it because I know I liked the strength in the lyric," she told host Terry Gross. "But, for me, it was not a song about being a woman. It was about being a person, and what was involved with that. Of course, it got picked up as an anthem for women, which makes me very proud."

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Many have taken up the song as a symbol of women's empowerment — like when the female cast of Saturday Night Live sang "You Don't Own Me" with actress Jessica Chastain the night of the 2018 Women's March — but this fiercely feminist anthem was written by two men. David White died earlier this year, but John Madara, now 82 years old, says the two songwriters were disgusted by how much music written for female singers in the early 1960s centered on mooning over guys and decided to try something: "Let's write a song about a woman telling a guy off."

Madara says the song's sensibility was also shaped by his upbringing in a multiracial Philadelphia neighborhood and his participation in the civil rights movement. "I saw how black people got treated," he says. "It was horrible, horrible, horrible. My friends and I got locked up in Philadelphia and Mississippi, and they treated us like gangsters. And my black friends got hit more than I got hit. [The police] had billy clubs and hit you across the legs, but the black guys got hit across the body. Those are things you don't forget."

"All of these things still exist," adds UCLA musicology professor Shana Redmond, speaking about violence against disenfranchised people who stand up to oppression. "And that is literally the haunting of 'You Don't Own Me' — all of the ways in which systems of patriarchy continue to reveal themselves in our everyday lives."

Redmond says the minor key of the verses underscores that sense of risk, but that there is power in the phrasing: The song is made up entirely of declarative sentences. "There are no ellipses, no question marks whatsoever," she says. "She is not mixing messages. You understand what she is saying from Line 1."

The song's unvarnished feminism appealed to a young Australian singer who goes by the single name Grace. Her hip-hop-inflected version, featuring the rapper G-Eazy, became a hit in 2015, the same year Gore died.

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"She was 17 when she recorded the song, which is coincidentally the same age I was when I recorded it," Grace says. And there's another parallel: Both versions were produced by Quincy Jones, a mentor to Gore in the '60s who would go on to become one of the biggest names in music. Grace says Jones approached her to rerecord the song after hearing her demo tapes — and that before she did, he educated her on its roots in racial politics and feminism.

"It's just, 'I am who I am,' " Grace says. "Everything about it was just mesmerizing. The original is unbeatable."

Gore's death at 68 from lung cancer came before "You Don't Own Me" was picked up as an anthem in the #MeToo movement. Still, the song took on a new set of meanings for her over the years: She used it in a 2012 public service announcement urging women to vote, saying, "It's hard for me to believe, but we're still fighting for the same things we were then." And by the time she rerecorded it for her final album, 2005's Ever Since, she had come out as a lesbian. Gore and her partner, Lois Sasson, were together for more than 30 years.

"If you listen to that version, it's sort of heavy with wisdom and life experience," says Trevor Tolliver, author of the biography You Don't Own Me: The Life and Times of Lesley Gore. "The original is that of this sort of assertive young lady. Her remake in 2005 sounds more self-assured and mature, that of a woman who's already staked her claim and doesn't need to please anyone but herself."

An anthem is a song that gives language — loudly — to feelings we might not otherwise be able to express. Madara says the message of "You Don't Own Me" is ultimately about empathy.

"Listen to what people have to say; be kind and loving to the people you come into contact with," he says. "I think 'You Don't Own Me' says that. It says, 'Treat people fairly.' "

"You Don't Own Me" might not be not the definitive anthem of a big social movement. But it has underscored the can't-keep-me-down spirit of dozens of television shows and movies (like The First Wives Club in 1996). The song is a swaggering clapback against powerlessness, whether in a relationship, at a job or as a citizen.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In 1963, a young singer who was best known for a hit about getting ditched at a party unleashed a ferocious feminist anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

LESLEY GORE: (Singing) You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys.

KING: Lesley Gore's song was an act of musical mutiny, and it's had a special place in the culture ever since. The song is still so much an anthem that all of the women of "Saturday Night Live" performed it on the one-year anniversary of the Women's March, along with the actress Jessica Chastain.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CECILY STRONG: Hey, we'll march with you, Jessica.

KATE MCKINNON: Yeah, yeah, I'm always wearing practical footwear.

(LAUGHTER)

JESSICA CHASTAIN: Girls, let's tell them what's up.

JESSICA CHASTAIN, KATE MCKINNON AND CECILY STRONG: (Singing) You don't own me. Don't try to change me in any way.

KING: For our series American Anthem, NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us about a song that from the beginning has been a catalyst for personal change.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Before "You Don't Own Me," Lesley Gore was a teenage pop star known for a string of unthreatening hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S MY PARTY")

GORE: (Singing) It's my party and I'll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you.

ULABY: She sang mostly about boys - getting dumped by boys, getting attention from boys - all standard stuff for girl singers of the era. But even at age 17, Gore craved more challenging material. The late Lesley Gore discussed "You Don't Own Me" on WHYY's Fresh Air in 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GORE: At the time, I know I chose it because I liked the strength in the lyric. But for me, it was not a song about being a woman. It was a song about being a person and what was involved with that. Of course, it got picked up as an anthem for women, which makes me very proud.

ULABY: This feminist anthem was written by two men sick of how much music for female singers of the time was about mooning over guys.

JOHN MADARA: Let's write a song about a woman telling a guy off.

ULABY: John Madara co-wrote "You Don't Own Me" with David White, who's now deceased. Madara is 82 years old. He says the song is not just about boys and girls. He grew up in a multiracial Philadelphia neighborhood and says that informed the song's sensibility, as well as his participation in the civil rights movement.

MADARA: I saw how black people got treated. It was horrible, horrible. And my black friends, they got hit more than I got hit. They had billy clubs. They'd hit you across the legs. But the black guys got hit across the bodies. You know, those are things that you don't forget.

ULABY: And those things linger in the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

GORE: (Singing) I'm free and I love to be free, to live my life the way I want, to say and do whatever I please.

ULABY: Professor Shana Redmond, who teaches musicology at UCLA, says the minor key of "You Don't Own Me" underscores the risk of standing up to oppression, enduring violence and a lack of control over your body.

SHANA REDMOND: All of these things still exist, and so that is literally the haunting of "You Don't Own Me" - all of the ways in which systems of patriarchy continue to reveal themselves in our everyday lives.

ULABY: "You Don't Own Me" is a protest song, she says, made up entirely of declarative sentences.

REDMOND: There are no ellipses, no question marks whatsoever. She is not mixing messages. You understand what she is saying from line one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

GORE: (Singing) You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys.

ULABY: The songs unvarnished feminism appealed to a young Australian singer who goes by the single name Grace. In 2015, the same year that Lesley Gore died, Grace recorded a hit remake with the rapper G-Eazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

G-EAZY: (Rapping) She's the baddest I would love to flaunt, take her shopping, you know Yves Saint Laurent but nope, she ain't with it, though, all because she got her own dough, boss bossed if you don't know. She could never, ever be a broke ho.

GRACE: (Singing) You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys.

You know, she was 17 when she recorded the song, which was coincidentally the same age I was when I recut it as well.

ULABY: Both versions of the song were produced by Quincy Jones. Gore's success helped Jones become the first black executive at Mercury Records. Today, he's one of the biggest names in music.

GRACE: And he happened to hear a couple of my songs, so he got to hear my voice. And he just, like, came out and said we should remake "You Don't Own Me." Like, we should do an updated version for this generation.

ULABY: Before she sang it, Grace says Jones educated her about the song's roots in racial politics and feminism.

GRACE: It's just I am who I am. Sorry, not sorry, you know (laughter)?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

GORE: (Singing) Don't tell me what to do. Don't tell me what to say. And please, when I go out with you, don't put on display.

GRACE: Everything about it was just mesmerizing. The original is unbeatable (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GORE: You don't own me takes on a whole other set of meanings for me now.

ULABY: Lesley Gore died before her song was adopted as an anthem during the #MeToo movement, but she used it nearly 50 years after she first recorded it in a public service announcement urging women to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GORE: It's hard for me to believe, but we're still fighting for the same things we were then. Yes, ladies, we've got to come together. Get out there and vote and protect our bodies. They're ours. Please vote.

ULABY: Lesley Gore revisited "You Don't Own Me" on the last album she ever made, says her biographer, Trevor Tolliver.

TREVOR TOLLIVER: And if you listen to that version, it's sort of heavy with wisdom and life experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

GORE: (Singing) You don't own me. Don't try to change me in any way.

ULABY: By the time Gore rerecorded the song, she'd come out as a lesbian. She and her partner, Lois Sasson, were together for more than 30 years.

TOLLIVER: So it's really interesting the growth between the two versions from the same artist. The original version is that of this sort of assertive young lady. Her remake in 2005 sounds more self-assured and mature, that of a woman who's already staked her claim and doesn't really need to please anyone but herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

GORE: (Singing) I'm young. I love to be young. Oh, I'm free. I'm free. I love to be free.

ULABY: An anthem gives language loudly to feelings we might not otherwise be able to express. Co-songwriter John Madara says "You Don't Own Me's" message is ultimately one of empathy.

MADARA: Listen to what people have to say. Be kind and loving to the people you come in contact with. And I think "You Don't Own Me" says that. It says that. It says treat people fairly.

ULABY: It's not the anthem of a big social movement, but "You Don't Own Me" is a clapback against feeling powerless in a relationship, at a job or as a citizen.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.