Jolene vs. Everybody Else: On Girls They Write Songs About

Carlene Bauer

While some people formed intense relationships with sourdough starters during the pandemic, I got over my Spotify antipathy and started making playlists. Turns out the art of choosing, rejecting, and arranging songs around a theme is just absorbing as it was when I was young: sometimes, lost in the fugue of composition, I find myself up much later than usual. Love will do that to you.

My A-Side Girls playlist is inspired by the title of my novel, Girls They Write Songs About, which FSG published this week. Many of the songs here would be known to and cherished by the main characters. They grew up, like I did, loving music like God, and in a time, like I did, where muse was no longer the only role available if you were looking for ways to express that love. And yet they would not have minded in the least if some dude thought they were worth immortalizing in song: they knew that wouldn’t be their only shot at immortality.

These are songs about girls—about women. Mothers, daughters, sculptors, Jolenes. Secretaries, sex bombs, rebel girls, nuns. Femme fatales, super freaks, and a perplexedly high count of Valeries. That’s the organizing impulse, but in the end it’s just a very long (do you have a 13-hour car ride coming up?) list of really great songs made by really great artists, some famous and some who should be more famous. It is by no means definitive. Below are a few thoughts about some of the songs—these are ones that go on having meaning to me and/or are reflective of the themes and structure of the book. Thanks to my editor, Jenna Johnson, for collaborating with me on this (every writer should be so lucky), and to all the real live DJs at real live radio stations like BBC 6 and WFMU who introduced me to some of the songs on the list.

The Monkees – “Valleri”

The Monkees’ 1968 song “Valleri” was one of the first songs I remember really liking. The 45 had belonged to my aunt—she loved the Monkees before eventually moving on to Steely Dan—and it somehow ended up in my mother’s old record case. My sister and I played it repeatedly, so much so that I am sure the scuffed red and white Colgems label affixed to the vinyl will be one of the five to ten shards of memory left rattling around the shattered kaleidoscope of my dying brain. Thanks to reruns of The Monkees on weekday afternoons, my sister and I had crushes on Davy Jones just like my aunt did. One generation inheriting the heartthrobs of the one before them: this might be a phenomenon particular only to Generation X, babysat as we were by televisions awash with the Boomers’ cultural refuse. (That’s not a complaint, by the way.) Who is Valleri? Nobody real; the result of a deadline. The show’s music supervisor apparently asked Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote nearly all the songs for the Monkees, if they had any songs with girls’ names lying around. They lied, said they did, and then came up with this on the way into work the next day. You can tell. The lyrics, the Internet has just now reminded me, are idiotic. The music—IMHO!—is not. But that could depend on your tolerance for 1960s Top 40 pop in its trying-to-disguise-itself-as-psychedelia phase.

Soon I’d understand that songs about girls—Diana, Sherri, Runaround Sue, etc.—were relics of a rule-bound, poodle-skirted, crew-cutted time, and they would start to sound like exercises in a meaningless romanticism churned out to meet the demands of a market. Punk and new wave bands had razed what Liz Phair would later, longingly, call “all that stupid old shit/like letters and sodas” to the ground, both by ironizing the 50s tropes of their youth and railing directly against them, so by the time I was a teenager and the Dead Milkmen came around singing “Punk Rock Girl,” I knew the song was an inside joke, mostly, not just about the genre, but about the inability of a suburban adolescent to transcend the lameness to which we appeared condemned.

Music makes shifts over time, and then we shift, ourselves, in relation to it. Bob Dylan and his worshippers used to piss me off, but now I couldn’t do without him. The short story: I’m older now, and I can see myself more clearly in the remote and fickle women he sketched in his kiss-offs. Dylan is no longer the only sinner here; I am one too.

Billy Bragg – “Greetings to the New Brunette”

Probably around the same time I was listening to “Punk Rock Girl,” I met Billy Bragg. He was my first real boyfriend, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only woman for whom lines like “Your sexual politics have left me all of a muddle”—rhymed as they were with lines like “We are joined in an ideological cuddle”—held out the promise that somewhere in the world there had to exist a flesh-and-blood American analogue who would also fly the flag of his heart as bravely, and with as much wit, as this Cockney-sounding British guy. Too sincere? Too sentimental? Too punning by half? I regret nothing.

OK, yes, so this song, which I think was the first of his I ever heard—probably on Philadelphia’s WXPN. In which a young man sings to a Shirley of his love and his confusions.

I half-remember thinking that the Shirley in the song might be pregnant, and that the new brunette might be the daughter that was on the way. The Internet hasn’t handed me a conclusive rebuttal to that interpretation, although I have learned that the song exists because a friend sent Bragg a postcard with the line “Greetings from the new brunette.” She’d just dyed her hair. He nicked the line and built a song around it. A born writer: compulsively eavesdropping, unapologetically borrowing.

The Spinanes – “Spitfire”

The Spinanes were Rebecca Gates and Scott Plouf: a girl wearing a thrift-store dress from the 1960s to unleash a vertiginous, highly melodic stop-start hurricane from her guitar, and a boy in a plain white t-shirt pounding the drums so precisely and ferociously you could hear the skins reverberating from the attack. They were beloved, but they weren’t as widely worshipped as some of their peers from the Pacific Northwest, such as Elliott Smith, who Gates sang backup for, or Built to Spill, who Plouf later joined as drummer. What really made me love them was the impressionistic narratives that might have also been confessions, and wry lyrics like “Did you give up punk for Lent?” There are no obvious riot grrrl anthems here. There’s nothing obvious—not in the melodies, the rhythms, the lyrics, or the song structures—just a ton of musical and writerly confidence rampaging through every song. And what might have been more necessary to me than the sound of explicit raging against the patriarchy—I had Hole for that—was the sight of a girl and a boy getting down to creative work together without fuss or drama—the sight of them being equals. What also might have been necessary was the sight of a young woman blowing us away with her playing, but in a very down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, ostensibly egoless way.

June Christy/ “Something Cool”

This June Christy song, from a 1955 hit album of the same name, is a dramatic monologue in which a woman takes a seat at a bar on a hot summer day and strikes up a conversation with the stranger who offers to buy her a drink. “Something cool,” she tells the bartender. “I’d like to order something cool / It’s so warm here in town / And the heat gets me down / Yes, I’d like to order something cool.” Christy’s vocal puts you right on the stool next to her, and you can almost smell the heat from the street swirling through the stale air of the bar as she fully inhabits the role of a regal coquette who’s fallen on hard times and possesses nothing of value in the moment save a brave face.

This is an ice-cold and sweating martini glass full of what used to be called cool jazz that goes down real easy. But despite an orchestration that almost cartoonishly telegraphs its mid-century provenance—a sprightly tootling bouquet of horns here, swooning strings fit for a first-wave Disney princess wedding there—in the end the song is a heartbreaking and masterful bit of storytelling, especially when the narrator begins to let her mask slip just a little. Billy Barnes, the Hollywood composer who wrote the song, was born in L.A. and died in L.A., but this sounds like a very New York ghost story: it captures the kind of melancholy that can overtake you in the punishing heat of August, when you’ve lived here too long and everyone’s gone but you.

Memphis Minnie/“Ma Rainey”

When Ma Rainey died in 1939, Memphis Minnie wrote and recorded a song to mourn the loss of an artist who meant the world to her and without whom she might have never existed. Over the past few years, when I couldn’t connect in any meaningful way with the people I loved, I leaned even harder on music for strength and perspective and a baseline will to live. It was comforting to hear one female legend acknowledge her need for the work of another, and to hear a legend acknowledge that the artists we love become as real, through our repeated listening, as the flesh-and-blood people we don’t want to live without.

Carlene Bauer is the author of the memoir Not That Kind of Girl and the novel Frances and Bernard. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Virginia Quarterly Reviewn+1The New York Times Book ReviewElle, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.