Miss Peggy Lee – girl/woman/dame

Having joined iPodistan a few weeks ago, I’ve been contentedly ripping CDs and uploading the songs and rediscovering some old favourites that have been moldering down the bottom of the CD pile for a while (not one of those Virgos with everything in alphabetical order, me).

One of those old favourites is a Peggy Lee compilation of shiny remixed and remastered hits (EMI 2000), showing just what a gifted vocalist she was. I adore her voice on every single track, and the orchestrations are lush delights. But Miss Lee’s first hits were in the early 40s, with her strongest hitmaking years in the 50s/early 60s, and sometimes the lyrics smack you right upside the head with the Feminine Mystique.

I’m a girl and by me that’s only great
I am proud that my silhouette is curvy
that I walk with a sweet and girlish gait
With my hips kind of swivelly and swervey

I adore being dressed in something frilly
When my date comes to get me at my place
Out I go with my Joe or John or Billy
Like a filly who is ready for the race

When I have a brand new hairdo
With my eyelashes all in curls
I float as the clouds on air do
I enjoy being a girl

When men say I’m cute and funny
And my teeth aren’t teeth but pearls
I just lap it up like honey
I enjoy being a girl

I flip when a fellow sends me flowers
I drool over dresses made of lace
I talk on the telephone for hours
with a pound and a half of cream upon my face

I’m strictly a female female
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
who’ll enjoy being a guy, having a girl like me

When men say I’m sweet as candy
As around in a dance we whirl
It goes to my head like brandy
I enjoy being a girl

With someone with eyes that smolder
Says he loves every silken curl
That falls on my ivory shoulder
I enjoy being a girl

When I hear a complementary whistle
That greets my bikini by the sea
I turn and I glower and I gristle
But I’m happy to know the whistles meant for me

I’m strictly a female female
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
who’ll enjoy being a guy, having a girl like me

The first time I heard this song, I had to replay it right away to check I’d heard it right. It’s almost the Sexbot Anthem, isn’t it? And compared to her other songs I knew it seemed out of place. (The emphasis on curvy seems kinda quaint, too, these days.)

But a bit of research gives some perspective. The song comes from a Rogers and Hammerstein musical (which is why it’s such a marvellous singalong joy) of 1958: The Flower Drum Song. It is sung by character Linda Low, who is a nightclub entertainer thoroughly enjoying playing the sexbot game in a very cynical fashion – a good old-fashioned gold-digging manipulator. (In the movie version the character is played by Nancy Kwan and she performs this song in front of a full-length 3 way mirror wearing a mini-shift – hubba hubba).

So yes, it is a Sexbot Anthem, but it’s a Subversive Sexpot Anthem. Strip away the libretto’s context, and the voice doesn’t have to be that of a gold-digger. She’s not just waiting around for Mr Right, she’s seeing John and Joe and Billy to have fun with their drooling, and trusts that eventually a brave and free male (that doesn’t play the games?) will come along and they can enjoy each other.

Apparently a verse of this song was recently used in a GAP ad with Sarah Jessica Parker, who reputedly didn’t get and certainly didn’t sell the lyrics nearly as well as Miss Lee. Phranc’s version from 1989 is apparently much more biting, and I admit wrapping my head around an androgynous folkpunk queercore singer’s cover of this song intrigues me and I plan to hunt it down.

A few years later, Miss Lee graced us with the following gem, which could almost be an anthem to the double shift if it mentioned pulling down a wage at the same time (the lyrics are pattered so rapidly it could almost be rap, except for the last verse line which is a big bluesy belt):

I can wash out 44 pairs of socks and have ’em hangin out on the line
I can starch & iron 2 dozens shirts ‘fore you can count from 1 to 9
I can scoop up a great big dipper full of lard from the drippins can
Throw it in the skillet, go out & do my shopping, be back before it melts in the pan
‘Cause I’m a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I’ll say it again

I can rub & scrub this old house til it’s shinin like a dime
Feed the baby, grease the car, & powder my face at the same time
Get all dressed up, go out and swing til 4 a.m. and then
Lay down at 5, jump up at 6, and start all over again
‘Cause I’m a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I’ll say it again

If you come to me sickly you know I’m gonna make you well
If you come to me all hexed up you know I’m gonna break the spell
If you come to me hungry you know I’m gonna fill you full of grits
If it’s lovin you’re likin, I’ll kiss you and give you the shiverin’ fits
‘Cause I’m a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I’ll say it again

I got a twenty-dollar gold piece says there ain’t nothing I can’t do
I can make a dress out of a feed bag and I can make a man out of you
‘Cause I’m a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I’ll say it again
‘Cause I’m a woman! W-O-M-A-N, and that’s all.

Peggy Lee died in 2002 at the age of 81. What a dame.



Categories: arts & entertainment

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