It's been fifty years since the Shirelles released their hit about good girls who want "bad" things. Abigail Jones considers the song's enduring appeal ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Four teenage girls in matching sleeveless dresses, their hair swept in updos, were singing a song
about love. “Tonight you’re miiiiiine, completely / You give your love so sweeeetly,” purred the lead singer. Her alto voice was smooth and velvety, devoid of embellishment, and each line was sweeter and more hopeful than the last. Everything about the way she looked and sang embodied the innocence of a young girl in love with a boy. Yet beneath the song’s fluttering violins and subtle syncopation lurked something less pure: girls wanted to have sex, too. And the Shirelles
, an all-girl group of teenagers from Passaic, New Jersey, were ready to sing about it.
Fifty years ago, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” lit up the Billboard Top 40. It was the first ever number-one song by an all-black female group, and it remained on the charts for 15 weeks. “Tomorrow” was an anthem of female adolescence, giving voice to the challenges of being a girl who longed for both love and sex at a time when only “bad girls” would admit such a thing. Until “Tomorrow”, most popular songs of the time defined women as conquests or aspirations, mere objects of male desire. There had been very little music made for girls, by girls and about girls. “Tomorrow” was revolutionary.
Written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin when they were 18 and 21 respectively, “Tomorrow” marketed the sounds of rock'n'roll, R&B and Motown to a predominantly young, white, female audience.
Growing up on Long Island steeped in middle-class values, King understood the novelty of lyrics about physical desire. In “Tomorrow” the female perspective was suddenly paramount, as if plucked from the diaries of real girls. The song’s simple lyrics and title both asked and ultimately answered that aching question of girlhood: I want to have sex with you, but if I do, will you still love me tomorrow? (Incidentally, King and Goffin wrote the song during their days at the Brill Building, where teams of lyricists, composers and producers created music in the last gasp of the production model that grew out of Tin Pan Alley. They also went on to write some of the most memorable music of the 20th century and had married, had two children and divorced by 1968.)
“Tomorrow” was the right song at the right moment. America’s postwar boom saw the rise of the middle class, and teenagers were suddenly a significant consumer group. With money to spend on magazines, clothing, films and records, girls and boys were increasingly targeted by advertisers armed with the knowledge that sex sells, regardless of the market or the product. For example, in 1960
Maidenform unveiled its “Dream Girl” campaign
, which featured a model wielding a gun and wearing a bra, holster, black gloves and a hat; the tagline read “I dreamed I was WANTED in my Maidenform bra.”
It was the purchasing power of teenage girls that ultimately pushed “Tomorrow” to the top of the charts. The song both embraced and cracked the veneer of traditional girlhood, and the young Shirelles conveyed, in five brief stanzas, the complex emotional lives of girls.
Given the tenacity of the sexual double-standard—that tension between what it means to be a “good” or “bad” girl, and the way perfectly “good” men can desire both—it’s no wonder that “Tomorrow” continues to resonate. The song had a second life on King’s “Tapestry” (1971), an album that spent 15 weeks at number-one, remained on the charts for nearly six years, won four Grammys, and has sold over 25m copies worldwide. And a glittery roster of stars has taken the song for a spin, including Elton John, Amy Winehouse and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. That such disparate (and sexually mature) voices can still bring something unique to "Tomorrow" drives home the song's lasting power.
“Tomorrow” endures because in many ways the conundrum endures. Though it is now conventional wisdom that “good” girls crave sex too, these girls still run the risk of being seen as "cheap" or "slutty" if they let their desires appear to run wild. Though boys needn’t worry about the relationship between promiscuity and respect, many girls continue to wonder how far is too far. Today, “Tomorrow” no longer seems so empowering. For a song to capture the more profane desires of still-earnest teens and tweens, the day calls for stronger stuff.