By Erin Blakemore
Stifled, uplifted, reclaimed, there is threat and possibility in the sounds made by women. Even among feminist figures, the temptation to criticize other women’s voices can be overwhelming—as when Naomi Wolf scolded young women and told them to “give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice”. So it is perhaps not all that surprising that musical groups headed by and intended for young women are almost impossible for the broader public to take seriously. Except, that is, when the public is other girls.
What we now know as the classic “girl group” has its roots in vaudeville. The first sister acts were both literally and figuratively sisters—women who realized their strength in numbers and gained audiences’ loyalty with team-based performances. The concept of a sister act cut across class and race, as with the Hyers Sisters, a duo who made their name in both minstrel acts and classical concerts. In the words of theatre and performing arts scholar Jocelyn L. Buckner, the Hyers sisters created “new and spectacular opportunities for black and female artists creating lives in the theatre” by performing works that subverted the typical plantation sketch and brought attention to the emotions and humanity of slaves and black Americans.
These black sister acts were quickly overtaken by groups of white sisters who borrowed liberally from African-American culture and music. In the 1920s, Martha, Connie, and Helvetia Boswell translated time spent watching black musical acts in New Orleans into their own vaudeville show. In the mouths of three white sisters, songs that would have been categorized as “race music” were simply viewed as inventive close harmony ditties. Spurred along by the rise of radio, The Boswell Sisters became a hot commodity.
Their co-opting of black sounds was so complete that according to Buckner, their “husky, syncopated, sexy, and disembodied vocal renderings made white broadcast listeners, already anxious about the threat of cultural miscegenation, uneasy about the fact that they might be listening to—and enjoying—black singers.” Today, The Boswell Sisters are regarded as the first successful white artists who “sounded black.”
The borrowed sounds of the Boswells became a template for a new spate of girl groups like The Andrews Sisters, who modeled their sound and their squeaky-clean swing image on their predecessors. Another sister act, The Chordettes, embodied the perky early 1950s with songs like “Mr. Sandman” and “Lollipop,” making music that couldn’t feel farther from the musical innovation of black jazz artists.
But something was shifting as America got out of its wartime funk and back into life—young people. For white teenagers of the 1950s and early 1960s, the war was a distant memory and the penny-pinching Great Depression an irrelevant blip in the past. Unlike their parents, the era’s teenagers had disposable income, ready access to automobiles, and consolidated high schools that exposed them to large numbers of other teens. Mass teen culture was born.
Girl groups, on the other hand, had never really died, and groups of young women took easily to the doo-wop and rock sounds that started emerging in the 1950s. But it took a scandal to really get girl groups going. In 1959, revelations that Dick Clark and other national DJs had accepted cash bribes (“payola”) to play some records on the air and not others led to Congressional hearings and a sea change in the commercial landscape of pop.
Instead of allowing local DJs freedom to play what they wanted, radio stations quickly developed “top 40” formats that put pressure on labels to play to the national market. As Michele Hilmes writes, “a more standardized, homogenized sound developed,” often at the expense of black, male artists, and labels hastened to “clean up” rock music. In their quest to find “cleaner” music that would appeal to a mass, teen audience, they turned to artists they saw as less threatening—young women, often black or of mixed race.
Young women appealed to other young women, who could be counted on to spend their money on hit records. They were also cheap to hire and easy to exploit. As Jacqueline Warwick writes in her essential Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s,
“the malleability of adolescent female singer was attractive to young male producers seeking to establish themselves in the music business…[producers’] sense of black women as unthreatening and comforting in comparison to black men corresponds to a prevalent stereotype of black women as mammy.”
By some counts, over 750 of such acts proliferated over the next decade, complete with names like “The Poni-Tails” and “Julie and the Desires.” Girl groups were the musical equivalent of throwing gum to the wall to see if it sticks—no biggie if it falls off.
But girls are more complicated than that, as a 1962 almost-hit proves. It’s a song straight out of a pop funeral procession—minor melody, basic orchestration, each word painfully articulate.
He hit me and it felt like a kiss
He hit me but it didn’t hurt me
He couldn’t stand to hear me say
That I had been with someone new
And when I told him I had been untrue
He hit me and it felt like a kiss
A year later, The Crystals would gain fame with songs like “He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me.” But in 1962, their recording of “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” almost sunk the band.
The story of the song’s composition and production is like a collision of everything that was problematic about girl groups. Carole King and her husband Gerry Goffin (the songwriting duo behind later megahits like The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) got the idea for the song when they learned that their babysitter, “Little Eva” Boyd, was being beaten by her boyfriend. Boyd reportedly told them that it was his way of showing her that he loved him.
Inspiration struck, as it were, and the team handed the song over to Phil Spector, who gave it his wall of sound treatment along with The Crystals. The performers abhorred it—Barbara Alston, whose haunting lead vocal makes the track a real skin-crawler to this day, said that “After we cut it, we absolutely hated it. Still do.” King, who wrote the music, agrees: In 2012, she said that “I kind of wish I hadn’t written any part of that song.”
But the damage was done. Despite an initial favorable review in Billboard, PTA groups and public complaints soon shook the song’s chart chances. Its producer, Phil Spector, himself a domestic abuser, eventually pulled it from the radio.
It wasn’t enough that the song drew on the life experiences of a young black woman who wasn’t even given the chance to tell her own story—and Boyd, who recorded “The Loco-Motion” and “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby,” could definitely sing. Alston recalls that Spector’s controlling ways made the recording session “terrible,” but the band wasn’t even rewarded for their obedience. Rather, Spector kicked the singers out of the Crystals and released vocals from another girl group, Darlene Love and The Blossoms, under The Crystals’ name instead.
During The Blossoms’ short tenure as Crystals, they got the best and most memorable song in the group’s canon, “He’s A Rebel.” The original Crystals weren’t even aware that they had been replaced until they heard “their” own song on the radio. The song shot up to number one and they were forced to perform it live on stage, but Alston simply didn’t have Love’s live range and was booted to second-rate status when Love herself joined the newly reformed Crystals for the remainder of the band’s short tenure.
Even worse, The Crystals were forced to participate in Spector’s Svengali-esque scheme to boot out his partner. He forced them to record a monotonous ten-minute song called “Let’s Dance the Screw”—a song so terrible, so lengthy and so controversial in subject matter that it could never be played on the radio. The song was never released publicly, but being forced to participate in Spector’s literal “screw you” to his business partner must have reminded the performers that they were not just interchangeable, but completely beholden to their producer.
Behind every girl group was a group of men pulling the puppet strings, sometimes brutally. But here’s the thing—to their fans, girl groups meant something. Listeners had no idea about the hard work and humiliation that went on behind the scenes of songs like “The Leader of the Pack” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” They didn’t realize that Diana Ross had to attend charm school to record at Motown, or that four of The Ronettes’ songs were credited to The Crystals instead, or that the Shangri-Las made up much of their tough-girl image to fend off potential attackers. Instead, they heard girl groups’ songs as impassioned emotional experiences—legitimate expressions of the ups and downs of teen life.
Girl groups’ songs weren’t just great because they took listeners on a rollercoaster of teenage love and desire. Rather, writes Cynthia J. Cyrus, they put girls at the center of everything. Girls could try on the identities of other girls, ones who fell for “Sweet-Talkin’ Guy”s or who warned their rivals to “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby.” By singing along with girl groups, teenagers became part of the group themselves, identifying closely with other girls and finding possibility within the lyrics and the stylized performances of their favorite artists.
Later girl groups have come by their success just as honestly. Groups like The Bangles, Exposé, En Vogue, Sisters With Voices, The Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, and Girls’ Generation aren’t always in control of their careers.
Reviewers often skewer music by girls, for girls as vapid or inconsequential. But that doesn’t diminish their importance.
They’ve gone on to inspire everyone from The Beatles to the boundary-pushing “girl bands” like Hole and Bikini Kill that, as Karina Eileraas puts it, “[perform] ugliness as resistance.” But perhaps using their trickle-down influence in a world still dominated by the male gaze and the male ear is not the point. To find the real influence of girl groups, just look for the current and former girls who found themselves—idealized or not—in their sisters’ voices.
Erin Blakemore is a Boulder, Colorado-based author and historian. Erin’s work on history and culture has appeared in publications including mental_floss, NPR’s This I Believe, The Onion, Popular Science, Modern Farmer and JSTOR Daily. You can find more of her work at erinblakemore.com.