31 August 2014

Sweet Nonsense: A Love Story About The Chiffons

Note: I actually wrote this some time ago, as the first of a planned series of girl-group essays. That never materialized (turns out nobody wants an essay series about a fairly niche, long past, deliberately non-boundary-pushing musical moment), so I thought I might as well give this one a home.

In 2000 or 2001, a boy lay on a bed in a room in his grandmother's house. I put him there. He was serious, beautiful, and had an obscurely tragic but also beautiful end awaiting him later in the story (train tracks, autumn, dusk). But first, he turned on his grandmother's beat-up old radio, tuned permanently to the oldies station, and heard a song.

He's so fine, oh yeah
Gotta be mine, oh yeah
Sooner or later, oh yeah
I hope it's not later, oh yeah

Like anyone with ears, the serious boy could not escape the perfection of the song's four-part harmonies—and that low, simple lead line free of melisma or flourish, the voice confident not from any sense of bravado but because its beauty was self-evident and the singer had never learned to doubt it. But he found them as empty as the nonsense sounds that kicked the whole thing off, doo lang doo lang doo lang; they seemed to be taking place in another world entirely, cotton-candy-light and devoid of engagement with the serious truths. Some kind of teenage thing, and although he was a teenage boy if you wanted to be annoyingly literal about the whole thing, he was definitely not that kind of teenage boy (despite being in physical description quite a lot like the soft-spoken, wavy-haired object of the Chiffons' affections, come to think of it; we teen girls being predictable, after all). But the 117 seconds of the song granted him a moment of hazy weightlessness that was the closest he would come to levity; it could not save him from the train tracks, the autumn, the dusk.

I wrote this insubstantial tragic dreamboat into existence around age 15. My grandmother too listened to the doo-woppier oldies station when she listened to music at all; she could not brook even jazz, finding it hard to understand why anyone would want to listen to "a bunch of people playing different songs at once." (My protagonist would have certainly liked jazz, and ideally been better schooled in it than I, with my collection in the genre consisting of Bird at the Apollo and a best-of Thelonious Monk disc.) But I did not discover the song in my grandmother's house, though I certainly lay back on my bed at home getting lost in those warm female voices as my protagonist did, especially in moments of soul-flattening misery. And I must have been less successfully armored with seriousness than he, because the voices did not just drift pleasantly by but reached into my chest, and had I needed them to, I was soft enough that they could probably have saved me.

At that time my musical diet consisted mainly of punk (preferably political) and riot grrrl and those two jazz CDs, with a little lesbian folk around the edges. I hadn't heard "He's So Fine" until my better-rounded best friend and bandmate put it on one of her enviably eclectic mix tapes. I hadn't heard anything like it at all before. In the middle of The Clash and the Germs and Parliament Funkadelic and probably a few joke songs from Sifl and Olly, there opened up this impossibly brief window of consuming sweetness.

I barely understood what it was—I may not have even known the name of the group, or when it was made, at first—but I copied it onto every mix tape I made for several years. It didn't occur to me that there would be more where that came from. The internet was not yet an obvious source of music; one didn't necessarily expect that even current bands would have websites, much less one from 1962. It wasn't until I got to college that I began to accumulate some context for that luminous single. Eventually I used some Christmas money to order the remarkable One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found Rhino box set. When it arrived I sat down in my dorm room and popped the first CD in, and was promptly overwhelmed to the point of welling eyes and helpless gaping grin. I hadn't been aware that there had once been all these people dedicated to what seemed the pure pursuit of the most perfect sonic beauty, weaving the richest-sounding pop arrangements I'd ever heard (strings, chimes, Latin horns!) around the variously warm, shy, bratty, bracing voices of very young women.

There is a sense in which I seem to have aged in reverse between the ages of, say, 14 and 21. Around the time I heard my first Chiffons song I was beginning to make a project of not wanting everything I couldn't have. The emotionally elegant silhouettes who drifted through my early fictions were a little better at it than I was; they shook off love and family and camaraderie quite lightly, just the opposite of these singing girls with their two or three ever-present friends in harmony, their advice-giving parents, their successes in love or their heartbreaks so gladly shared. Even if I'd had more than the one song, I wouldn't have been quite ready for their unembarrassed youth.

Instead I formed an all-girl punk band whose lyrical content comprised half sociopolitical ranting and half Dadaist goofiness—absolutely no room for love songs or other girly stuff. We were already not taken seriously as things stood. Not that we should have been, possessing as little sense of songcraft and basic musicianship as we did, but it wasn't just that; it was the ostensibly progressive dudes who let slip that they felt weird about booking more than one female-fronted act on a bill, it was an older female friend saying that she just didn't like the way women's voices sounded. And so on.

Girl groups around that time called to mind Destiny's Child, or the Spice Girls, whom I'd loved along with everyone in sixth grade.

"They're not really musicians," my mother's boyfriend explained to me one day. I'd just gotten a cassingle of "2 Become 1" from a friend for my birthday—my least favorite of their hits, what with all the uncomfortable sexiness, but I clutched it proudly as a token of admission to a cultural realm where even the popular girls hung out. "They don't play any instruments. All they do is dance around and sing." I think I just nodded. His guitars filled a corner of our living room and his classic-rock cover band sometimes practiced in our basement at volumes so eardrum-battering that I escaped to the roof of the garage. I hated him and would have given up my entire tape collection for him to teach me how to shred and use what he called the wang bar. Instead he bought a guitar for my uninterested little sister, which I appropriated the moment she abandoned it.

This sense of rock-dude authenticity was just in the air if you saw yourself as someone who cared about music. So I, too, expressed disdain for women who did nothing but stand there and sing; at least I wrote songs, and clawed at a few chords between shouted lyrics. I wasn't good, but I could be real, sort of, and sing about things that mattered.

I suppose you could see it as a subconscious counter-rebellion, a few years later, when I sat rocked open by the voices of an idealized, pastel-toned mainstream girl culture four decades gone. I was certainly delighted when I learned that authentic rock-guy George Harrison had unknowingly absorbed "He's So Fine" and rewritten it as "My Sweet Lord"—and been successfully sued for plagiarism. (Not that I have anything against George Harrison; the pleasure was in the principle of the thing.) But in fact the girl-group sound was perhaps the first body of music I loved that didn't come packaged with an argument for its worth. It would not help me better engage with my peers; it would not help me understand the ineffable musical truths of a Bach or a Beethoven; it was not saying anything of political importance; it would not connect me to a venerable American tradition. Its beauty was superfluous in a way that, had it occurred in nature, would have seemed evidence for the loving generosity of divine creation; you could see why Phil Spector's phrase "little symphonies for the kids" needn't have been exactly dismissive. Yes, the songs were there to make money—as the rough and careless treatment of the Chiffons and so many other girl groups by their labels would attest—but they were much better than they had to be for commercial purposes, if never five seconds longer.

For instance, take Judy Craig's voice shifting from playful to plaintive in the space of two bars, the backup girls so blocking out the session players' on-the-clock plunking that it takes me a few listens in a row to even register that they're doing something back there. How to put it into words, what these inconsequential sounds do to me? Doo lang, doo lang, doo lang.

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