And don’t tell me what to do
Don’t tell me what to say
And please, when I go out with you
Don’t put me on display ’cause
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’d never stay
An original composition by Philadelphia songwriters John Madara and David White, “You Don’t Own Me” was recorded by Lesley Gore in 1963. Gore was just 17 years old. To note, the song was her second most successful recording, as well as her last Top 10 single.
The Grammy Hall of Fame inducted “You Don’t Own Me” along with that of another 24 songs on November 27, 2016.
The song narrates a threatened emancipation. The girl tells her lover that her man does not own her. Hence, he doesn’t have the right to tell her what to do nor what to say, and that he is not to put her on display.
Furthermore, the lyrics of the song suggests women empowerment. It inspired younger women to fight for their right as women and not as slaves or toys inferior to men. Gore reiterated,
“My take on the song was: I’m 17, what a wonderful thing, to stand up on a stage and shake your finger at people and sing you don’t own me.”
On the other hand, in Gore’s obituary, The New York Times referred to “You Don’t Own Me” as “indelibly defiant.”
A Song About Women’s Liberation
“You Don’t Own Me” can be considered one of the many artistic works that helped begin the Women’s Liberation Movement. Despite the fact that the movement did not really take off until a decade later, the song is one of the very first in which a woman demands her independence from her man.
In an interview with the Forgotten Hits newsletter, songwriter John Madara said,
“Our original intent was to write a song with a woman telling a man off: ‘Don’t tell me what to do, don’t tell me what to say.’ Though we didn’t realize it at the time that it would become a woman’s anthem, it definitely was our intention to have a woman make a statement.”
Originally, this song was written for Maureen Gray. However, when Quincy Jones, Lesley’s producer, heard the song, he let the songwriters Madara and White play it for Gore.
Gore’s Thoughts of the Song
Gore then explained,
“I met John Madara and Dave White up at the Catskills (New York) hotel Grossinger’s. Up there doing a record hop, gratis, for a disc jockey by the name of Gene Kay at WAAB in Allentown. I was sitting at the pool on, I think it was Saturday – the day I was going to perform – and John and Dave came up to me with a guitar, took me into a cabana by the pool, and played me ‘You Don’t Own Me.'”
She then continued,
“I told them they had to meet me in New York on Monday, to see Quincy and play him the song, and we were in the studio probably a week and a half later. It is much to Quincy’s credit that he could see what was really involved in that song, because his edict, as far as I know, was to keep me in ‘It’s My Party’ territory – keep it light, keep it frothy, keep it young. You can’t hold back a 17-year-old woman… she has got to find a way to spread her wings – and this was a song that allowed me a little bit more freedom vocally. The beauty of that song is that the verses start in a minor key, and then, when you go into the chorus, it goes into the major, and there’s such a sense of lift and exhilaration. After seeing how powerful that is, it became a method I’ve used on a number of occasions.”
Watch Lesley Gore’s original rendition of the song in 1963, and in a live performance in 1988 below:
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