Wednesday, May 16, 2007

“You Don’t Own Me” / Dusty Springfield


So where were the women in the British Invasion? Well, there was Liverpool’s own Cilla Black, Brian Epstein’s sole female client; there was Petula Clark, though I never really warmed to that type of hard, strong female voice (don’t even mention Helen Reddy, Pat Benatar, or Stevie Nicks). Marianne Faithful sounded soulless and hollow to me, and we all knew she got her break just by being Mick Jagger’s girlfriend.

But then there was Dusty Springfield. That platinum bouffant hair, the enormous fake eyelashes – the look was classic Swinging London Bird, even though she was channeling American soul with all her might (decades before Joss Stone and Lily Allen). The raspy velvet of Dusty’s voice has always seemed quintessentially English to me, and one of the most gorgeous things in music.

Even on an early track like “You Don’t Own Me” (from her 1964 UK debut album, A Girl Called Dusty), Dusty was already DUSTY, with that dead-on command of vibrato and phrasing and vocal coloration. This was no stripped-down Merseybeat number, but a full-fledged studio production with strings and horns and exotic percussion and back-up oooh’s – but then, a big emotive voice like Dusty’s deserved a big emotive arrangement, didn’t it?

In some ways, this track is astonishingly feminist. “You don’t own me,” she begins, in a darkly warning voice, “I’m not just one of your many toys / You don’t own me / Don’t say I can’t go with other boys.” Well, maybe that’s more sass and sexual liberation than true feminism, but for mid-60s Britain it’s plenty bold (compare that to clingy Cilla Black songs like “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and “You’re My World”.) The key is minor, threatening, with tense thrumming piano chords and clanging strikes on a xylophone. Even when it switches to a major key for the chorus, it’s still feisty, mounting in volume and shifting keys up the scale: “Don’t tell me what to do / And don’t tell me what to say / And please, when I go out with you / Don’t put me on display.” Long before the phrase “trophy wife” was coined, Dusty was spurning it.

Sinking back into minor key for the next verse, Dusty’s voice darkens again: “You don’t own me / Don’t try to change me in any way / You don’t own me / Don’t tie me down, ‘cause I’ll never stay.” Ah, Dusty’s phrasing – it’s sheer genius, how she resists the beat, makes him wait for a key word, then bitterly snaps a word short or hustles carelessly through a phrase. And listen to where she lets her voice shiver – on “own” and “don’t” and “never stay” – this guy had better pay attention. “I don’t tell you what to say / I don’t tell you to what to do,” she points out in the second chorus, with a particularly percussive attack; “So just let me be myself / That’s all I ask of you.” Flinging her voice out there. Going for broke.

The orchestra’s in full swing by the middle eight, as she passionately declares, “I’m free, and I long to be free / To live my life the way that I want / To say and do whatever I please.” She wants the man, all right, but on her terms. This track is worth twenty anthems like “I Am Woman” – it’s sung by a creature of desire and impulse and pride, not just some programmatic equal-rights robot.

You know what? The British Invasion didn’t need any other women. So long as we had Dusty, we were good to go.


Julie said...

Until 5 years ago, I only knew the Lesley Gore version. I was staggered by Dusty's rendition. An excellent match of singer and song.

G12 said...

Anyone who doubts Dusty, listen to Dusty In Memphis - and then hang your head!