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.

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  1. it's a song not a slice of political history, I am a strong progressive but give me a break here.

    1. That certainly is quite the well-thought-out argument you have there, with great supporting evidence!

      C'mon. Pop culture (or non-pop as well) is inextricably linked with a society's attitudes and beliefs. Creators are influenced by their surrounding culture. Their work IS directly influenced by it, usually -- consciously or not -- reflecting or reinforcing those beliefs/attitudes, though of course there are those which explicitly reject them instead.

      All of this information forms the context surrounding a creative work and is absolutely essential when thinking about and understanding these songs, movies, paintings, literature, and so on.

      To give a different example: country music/musicians produced a LOT of reactionary and highly patriotic songs after the events of September 11 (and continuing into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars). These songs became immensely popular* because many Americans were shocked, mourning, scared and angry; these songs tapped into those emotions and provided an outlet for/method of expressing them, Look at the most (in)famous example, Toby Keith's Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue, with lines like:

      Now this nation that I love is fallin' under attack.
      A mighty sucker-punch came flying in from somewhere in the back.
      Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye,
      Man, we lit up your world like the fourth of July.

      You literally cannot understand what those lyrics mean and what he's referring to without its cultural context: the 9-11 terrorist attacks, thousands of Americans dead, wanting revenge, sending the military into the Middle East and Central Asia, increasing aggression and calls for isolationism.

      Creative works do not exist in a vacuum. Approaching them as if they were is useless and counterproductive at best.

      * which is obviously NOT the same as "universally popular", of course.

  2. Ok, I find this laughable, your whole take on the song. Who wants a doormat for a husband/boyfriend/whatever? She told him they were through, he did nothing to show he actually really cares for her and is willing to do something to keep her. She goes to a dance, other boys constantly cut in, and he does nothing to show he's unhappy about that and wants her to dance with him instead. So she's asking for some passion, some display of his feelings, to show he cares for her. Nowhere does it say, beat me up, humiliate me, lower me, debase me, abuse me. Nowhere. She says, get angry. Be brave. Stand up for what you want and feel and care for. Show me I'm important enough to you to actually do something about it. If you consider a man getting angry at a woman to be automatically abusive, there's a problem there. Every spouse will get furious at their partner at some point or another, and it's perfectly normal to express that. I don't get why you feel the need to turn this song into some dark, messed up masochistic desire to get beaten up and dominated. Seriously.

    1. Itts,
      Thanks so much for your remark. You expressed my opinion perfectly, but so much more eloquently. I listened to this song many times, and never once did abuse or violence come to mind. It takes a really sick mind to conjure up the domestic violence scenario.
      Only thing I would add would be that Joanie is now beginning to realize that her boyfriend doesn't really care for her and she should find someone who does.

    2. No, she's not asking for "passion". She's asking for her boyfriend to act like an emotionally unstable, jealous DOUCHE. She doesn't say, "go beat up the guy I cheated on you with." She's basically saying "I'm unfaithful, and if you were a real man, you'd take it out on me."

      Maybe he's smarter than that. Maybe he knows she's a manipulative head-case who tries to get him riled up because she gets off on her men acting like neanderthals.

      He probably didn't object, because he was busy updating his Facebook status to "Available". I certainly would.

  3. What annoys me about these responses criticizing your post is the willful disregard for the actual lyrics of the song.
    Can you imagine a man singing to his girlfriend "Give me the biggest lecture I've ever had"? We'd think that man deranged. We'd mock any man who insisted that his girlfriend "show me you're the boss".
    The casual assumptions about "natural" power differentials are, yes, dated, and certainly representative of their era. An era that I suspect no women, and, I hope, most men would have no desire to revisit.

  4. I remember hearing "Johnny Get Angry" for the first time in the grocery store and being instantly taken aback at the cringeworthy message. Despite the fact that I grew up listening to oldies, I didn't remember this one. Perhaps whoever was in charge at the local oldies station was conscious of how terribly dated it was. It's one thing to say you want a partner to show that they care- it's quite another to say that what all girls truly desire is a guy who will treat them like a subordinate or a kid and who will yell at them if they step out of line. Maybe the girl in the song isn't saying that she wants Johnny to physically mistreat her, but then again, cavemen weren't exactly known for their genteel, egalitarian ways.