How The Songs Of Lesley Gore Helped A Teenager Find Her Voice


Note: This article is the grand prize winner of The Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing. About 100 high school contestants from around the country answered the following question: “Choose a living or deceased person and write about his or her legacy in any musical specialty. Why are his or her accomplishments meaningful to you?” The contest is sponsored by the Jewish-American Hall of Fame and The Jewish Week Media Group.

Sometimes, I’m afraid of voicing my own opinion. Scared my voice won’t make an impact, that nobody will listen to the musings I have to offer. When adults at the Shabbat table debate their viewpoints on feminism or gun control, I sit silently and meekly, while holding all of my thoughts inside. But one singer, Lesley Gore, proved to me that it is indeed possible to make an impact, big or small, no matter your age.

When Gore was only 16, she recorded the vocals to the chart-topping single “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry if I Want To).” The song proved an instant success, telling the story of teen drama with a playful melody. Still, despite its lightheartedness, the lyrics and tune have paved a threshold for a multitude of modern American songs and are sampled by modern pop stars such as Rihanna, Drake, Eminem, Icona Pop and Robin Thicke. Although reaching No. 1 on the charts before graduating from high school is extraordinarily impressive, this accomplishment isn’t one of Gore’s most incredible musical endeavors. At 17, she recorded another hit, “You Don’t Own Me.” The song has been cited as a factor in influencing the second-wave feminist movement. Recently, the melody has also served as a political manifesto opposing presidential candidates and sampled in numerous other singles, most notably by rap artist Eminem and on the “Suicide Squad” soundtrack by artists Grace and G-Eazy.

In addition to her musical legacy, Gore was also an advocate to many social rights movements. When she came out as a lesbian towards the end of her musical career (she died in 2015), she began to become a figure in the LGBT community. Although she didn’t disclose her sexuality until later in her career, she has stated that she was always herself and never falsified her personality. In the years before she died, she hosted multiple episodes of “In the Life,” the longest LGBT-focused TV program in history.

One component of Lesley Gore’s career that particularly resonates with me is how courageous she was when speaking out about previously ignored topics. In the early 1960s, when she released her second No. 1 track, the feminist movement was just reviving itself after decades of women staying silent. Gore broke the mold in “You Don’t Own Me” unexpectedly, especially for a girl as young as herself. In Gore’s words, “When I first heard that song, I have to say I didn’t immediately think of feminism, but I did think of humanism.” Her sentiment about the song is something that I find particularly meaningful. Now more than ever, with the epitome of contrasting political views throughout the country and in my own Jewish community, there are times when it is crucial that we put our opinions aside and look at the situation from humanity’s perspective. Lesley Gore’s songs and influence are significant to me, because they exhibit how a high schooler, like me, can express his or her voice and be heard.

Sarah Nachminson is a rising sophomore at YULA Girls High School in Los Angeles.

Read more from Fresh Ink For Teens here.