9. Good Girls and Bad Boys

Similar to the punk movement and the emergence of Riot Grrrl, the teenage demographic and market that emerged throughout the ’40s and ’50s in American market culture facilitated the emergence of girl groups, and I would specifically like to focus on the experiences and effects of African American girl groups. Beginning with The Chantels hit “Maybe” in 1958 to the end of the Civil Rights era in 1964, girl groups prevailed the music scene for teenagers. Though African American, the primary market for these types of girl groups was white, middle class teenage girls. While not necessarily experiencing racial injustice, still identified with the issues of femininity and dating that black girl groups like The Shirelles, The Crystals, and The Supremes explained in detail in their songs. In 1963 The Feminine Mystique made its debut in America describing women’s dissatisfaction with constraining gender roles, and this public conversation had a profound effect on young teenage girls as well as the general female population, allowing for more freedom in topics of sexuality and male-female relations to be addressed in music. Teenage girls felt a pull from rock ‘n roll music, which encouraged rebellion within teenage boys, and the confining notions of femininity that defined the World War II era and melted into the fifties. Girl group music thus illustrates the push and pull between traditionalism and the budding feminist movement by singing about true love, marriage, increased sexuality, and bad boys. The emergence of girl groups all across the country, from New York to Los Angeles to New Orleans, demonstrates the necessity of their music in the lives of teenage girls, who otherwise wouldn’t be represented within popular media. Groups like The Marvellettes, The Dixie Cups, and The Blossoms, while lesser known African American girl groups, project the same messages in the same fashion as their more well-known and effective counterparts. Because of racial tensions of the time period, black girl groups were especially subject to strategic marketing to white audiences, often putting white girls on the covers of albums, and severe exploitation and prejudice when touring around the country, often being refused to be served food because of their race. Race issues weren’t specifically acceptable to be mentioned explicitly in music, but it was often implicitly included within songs, such as The Crystal’s “Uptown,” 1962, which includes undertones of Spanish guitar to represent the Spanish Harlem while the lyrics imply a hardworking man of color attempting to “make it” in America.

the-crystals
The Crystals

The Crystals, like all other African American girl groups of the era, radiate the typical, traditional feminine beauty accepted by white audiences, with their modest dresses, hair shape, and perfect uniformity. African American girl groups at the time had to meet exceptionally high expectations of behavior, dress, and performance, otherwise they would not be taken seriously as a result of their race. White girl groups, such as The Shangri-Las of the same era, were given much more slack on the basis of their skin color, delving more into the group identity of the “bad girl,” wearing tight slacks, boots, with short hair, and emphasizing their New York accents in the spoken work portions of their music, such as in the song “Leader of the Pack.” This song, as well as many other songs performed by both white and black groups, addresses the prevalence and attractiveness of the “bad boy” archetype that came about alongside rock ‘n roll. While the “bad boy” can elicit pain or pleasure in the female teenager, the songs of girl groups address heartbreak through the girl’s passivity or activity, heard in songs like “Be My Baby” (assertive) or “And Then He Kissed Me” (passive). While white girl groups crossed more controversial lines, had standards that were more lenient, and were often portrayed as “bad girls,” white girl groups were always more respected and renowned during the 1960s than African American groups. However, there were black girl groups that played into the “bad girl” mentality, using tight dresses, heavy makeup, and large, beehive hairstyles to focus their sexuality and convey a message of rebellion to the conformity of girl groups like The Shirelles, The Chantels, and the Crystals.

the-ronettes
Compare and contrast The Ronnettes with The Crystals, picture above, and watch their performance here.

The music performed and recorded by African American girl groups directly reflects the feelings of teenage girls of the time period not only in the messages and themes of the songs, but also in the structure of the songs themselves. Firstly, the song style was muted by instruments like violins and cellos to make the music more appealing to white audiences, and therefore more consumable by white, middle class girls, their primary market. Instead of always being the objects of songs, girl groups introduced teenage girls as the narrators and subjects of songs, letting boys be the objects of their longing and making music on the whole more relatable. The call and response formula often used in girl group songs symbolizes conversation between girls, making the music more familiar and personal to young female listeners. These themes and patterns were not only prevalent during the Civil Rights era, but continue to influence modern music and teenage popular culture, girl group music often being found on teen movie soundtracks, Dirty Dancing and Adventures in Babysitting, for example. Though black girl groups, just as black jazz singers, were often perceived as decorations for male musicians, they made a profound impact on the lives of teenage girls and broke considerable boundaries in the realm of feminism, the Civil Rights movement, and within the music industry especially.

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4 thoughts on “9. Good Girls and Bad Boys

  1. I think it’s so interesting that black girl bands were held to a higher standard than white girl bands. It made me think of how during the time of slavery, African Americans were seen as more promiscuous and sexual than white women, and were often used as scapegoats for all of women’s sexuality. This seems to be the complete opposite, though, where white women can be sexualized, but black women need to be perfect. Do you know when that switch in popular conception occurred?

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