by: Gail Goldsmith
1960s girl groups were sassy, sweet, and sexy–matching dresses, beehive hair, bubblegum-pop harmonies, and impeccable eyeliner–but behind the Wall of Sound, their image and output were heavily managed. Brill Building pop epitomized the problematic nature of the intersection between art and image: black girl groups climbed the charts, but had little artistic agency, as their songs were commonly written by white men (but also Carole King) and while many girl group hits were about young love, others were about unsavory relationships with men who were, at their best, scrubs, and at their worst, abusive.
1. “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” by The Crystals
This gut-wrencher played after the Mad Men episode where Joan dissolves her marriage to Greg in a maelstrom of seething resentment. The vocals and percussion shimmer over a dirge-y melody that romanticizes of the myth of the impulsive and uncontrollable man by describing how the singer knows a man loves her because he gets angry and hits her. Oh honey, no.
2. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by The Shirelles
“Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you love me tomorrow? Is this a lifetime of treasure or a moment of pleasure?” Put this on your playlist of sad songs that you listen to on rainy days. Tear in my eyes? Nope, definitely rain. If this speaks to you on multiple levels, then maybe you want to find someone whose jam is Second that Emotion by Smokey Robinson, because if you feel like giving a lifetime of devotion, then they will be seconding that emotion, because a taste of honey is worse than none at all.
3. “After Last Night” by The Revlons
Everyone says you doesn’t want a girlfriend, but we had something special late night…so you’ve changed your mind, right?
4. “It Should Have Been Me” by Gladys Knight
The singer is at a lover’s wedding and while he’s walking down the aisle to the bride, he turns around and smiles at the singer? OUCH, the only recourse is to shout “IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME” after the celebrant says the “speak now” bit, because really, if you include that bit, you just tempting fate. Check out the cover by Yvonne Fair, rife with visceral passion and 70s disco flourishes.
5. “Chains” by The Cookies
Not the BDSM kind and she’s not excited by them like Rihanna is in “S&M.”
6. “Playboy” by The Marvelettes
She’s standing up for herself and telling him off; wait, is this slut-shaming of a heterosexual male?
7. “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” by The Shangri-las
Forget the pop of Leader of the Pack, shit gets real. The singer runs away over a boy, and while she forgets that boy, memories of Mom tucking her in at bedtime haunt her, especially since “the angels picked her for a friend.”
8. “You Better Stay Away From My Baby” by The Tulips
Marking territory and fears of cheating…externalized at other contenders, not at the partner.
9. “Come See About Me” by The Supremes
Ah, young co-dependency. She’s crying, lonely, and fearful he won’t return even though she gave up all her friends for him. With any other words, this cut’s light brass, warm vocals, and easy beat could have been the soundtrack to your summer. Doesn’t mean I don’t sing it in the shower all the time though.
But for real, I love girl groups and Motown music like Murphy Brown.
While 60s girl groups had to make more than a few artistic trade-offs, they enjoyed visibility and popularity on a scale inaccessible to earlier female artists. Of the 2000s-era pretenders trying to mine the girl group gold for themselves, The Pipettes turned their style into a shtick, but Amy Winehouse had the hair, eyeliner, and spirit: glamour, heartbreak, and a catchy tune.
(PS: Cleanse your emotional palate with “Too Strong to Be Strung Along” by The Marvelettes; The Playboy from #6 makes a lyrical cameo.)