Saturday, October 10, 2009
"Johnny Get Angry" by Joanie Sommers (1962)
Ah, nostalgia. Some people get misty-eyed and weepy over any old thing, inevitably claiming, whatever the topic, that things were better ‘in the old days’.
Some things were most definitely not better back then, and a woman’s lot in life was definitely one of them. As a kid, I could never really understand the time scale of sexual liberation in the United States. 1955 is always seen as ‘year zero’ for youth culture, and you’d almost get the impression for the way things are reported that in that single year the USA went from total repression to complete liberation. Yet “Leave It to Beaver”, a great visual example of conservatism and sexual repression if ever one existed, actually débuted in 1957 and lasted until 1963, the year of Kennedy’s assassination and of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. All of the ‘sock hops’ and ‘daddy-o’ and now embarrassing ‘youth culture’ of the era happened when women still aspired to be June Cleaver, and aspired to have a Ward Cleaver tell them what to do.
Or did they? The present horrendous song was indeed sung, breathily, by a woman. Yet my research shows that it was written by Hal David, shocking since he was also responsible for many gorgeous songs including “Say a Little Prayer” and “Walk On By”. Yet Mr. David also presumably had a penis, and thus was putting these words into a woman’s mouth either because he presumed this is how women thought or because, on behalf of a male hegemony, he wanted women to think this way.
The story is sickening. Testing her boyfriend’s commitment, she feigns breaking up with him and she dances with another boy, hoping to bring out his rage. Johnny, by ‘hanging his head’ disappoints the woman. Her expectation was that he would get angry and shout at her. She hoped that he would become a ‘caveman’ and, in so doing ‘show me that you care, really care, for me’.
You heard that correct. She’s asking her boyfriend to abuse her as a sign of love.
I really can’t comprehend the thinking that goes into a song like this. Regardless of era, regardless of the gender holding the pen, this is sick. It’s not an excessive outbreak of political correctness but mere common sense to say that songs like this cheapen and exploit the trauma battered women undergo and not only make domestic abuse socially acceptable but even imply that it’s what women want. There is no acceptable “it’s only a song” argument to be made here. If popular culture has repercussions, then being “only a song” is no mitigation whatsoever.
Musically, the song is similarly dreadful, at one point taking ludicrous to a whole new level by introducing an ensemble of kazoos. Yet the musical background here is significant only to the extent that it sugar-coats the words sung over top of it.
k.d. lang brilliantly subverted this song more than a full generation later. Her over-the-top shrieks and pathos turn the song into a clever piece of performance art with very obvious political repercussions. Yet that was all those years, all those struggles, later. And the fact is that, wonderful as k.d. lang’s effort to reclaim the song was, the original still lay hidden in our collective subconscious, entirely without irony and even more dangerously buried below layers of false nostalgia and wrong-headed chronological relativism, ready to quietly pass its message onto a whole new generation of abusive men.