You’re not a sweet young thing. You’re not the virgin next door. You’ve been married and divorced. You’re a grown woman. I know there’s garbage in there somewhere.
– Lee Hazlewood, writer/producer of “These Boots Were Made For Walkin'” to Nancy Sinatra, circa 1965
Sometimes you can see a revolution when it starts; sometimes it becomes apparent only in retrospect. In February 1966, Nancy Sinatra’s virtually-unavoidable “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” (lyrics here) became the first number one hit by a solo female vocalist since Connie Francis’s “Stupid Cupid” in 1958. And boy, were we a long way from Connie Francisville here. This is a record that not only absolutely oozed sex like nothing else in the previous history of the pop charts this side of “Satisfaction” (check out that video; Betty Draper Francis would faint!), but also featured that rarest of rarities at the time: a woman singer telling a man to piss off, that he isn’t good enough for her. You had the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” in 1960, but that was more “piss off, I’m spoken for” than “piss off, you aren’t fit to iron my underpants.” In R&B, going back a few years, you had Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” (1953) and Betty Everett’s “You’re No Good” (1963), but the former only hit the pop charts when what’s-his-nose sang it, and the latter needed 12 years and a Linda Ronstadt cover to become a pop smash. (Big Maybelle’s “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” from 1955, is close, but doesn’t address the man directly. And Lesley Gore’s 1964 smash “You Don’t Own Me” does protest the double standard, but stops short of “you’re toast now, baby.”). When it came to the big, bad Billboard monoculture, stuff 11-year-old suburban girls like Sally Draper could see on TV and hear on their AM transistor radios, Nancy (can’t really call her Sinatra, now can I?) was the first real sign that a woman could sell buckets of records by telling a guy she’s done with his bullshit for good — whether Nancy intended it or not.
And chances are, she didn’t. Nancy was no rabble-rouser; she was showbiz royalty, by all accounts at the time she did what she was told, even if it meant recording a duet with daddy Frank on “Somethin’ Stupid,” a candy-fluff romantic ballad lent a slightly creepy edge by the fact that it was a father and daughter singing. Underneath the long frosted hair, fetching boots, and micro-miniskirt, Nancy was, as she put it, “soft as they come.” She gave every impression that Hazlewood was her Svengali, that the new look, the sassy material, and the come-hither alto (she doesn’t sing the lyrics to “Boots” so much as meow and purr them) were all his idea. However, in a 1999 interview, Hazlewood told a different story, that in fact he didn’t want Nancy to record “Boots” because he thought the words were too gamy for her, but she was “adamant” about it. Nancy herself has corroborated this, telling Rolling Stone magazine in 2007, “Lee wrote ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin” for himself. But I told him, ‘It’s better for a girl to sing it, because when you sing it, it sounds mean. When I sing it, it will be sexy and cute.”
Sexy and cute. That it was. But you know what else it was? A harbinger. How else to explain that right around the time Loretta Lynn covered “Boots” on a 1966 album, she also changed her image from plaintive to downright forthright, starting to write songs like “Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)”? And not only was that Lynn’s first number one on the Billboard country charts (anchoring the first gold album for a female country singer ever), but she meeeant it, maaaan, she wasn’t trying to be sexy or cute. This kicked the door open for other women country singers to cut don’t-mess-with-me numbers, like Dolly Parton’s “Dumb Blonde” (as in, “I’m not one”), and Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” (The latter was co-written by the notoriously right-wing but commercially tuned-in Billy Sherrill, who would later bring the world “Stand by Your Man,” so even he knew don’t-mess-with-me-boy was a trend.) And then, right after that, Aretha Franklin unleashed the real first feminist shots heard ’round the world: “Respect,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” and “Think.” But would Loretta and Aretha (and Dolly and Tammy) have had to fight their record companies that much harder to not just release but heavily promote those songs, if Nancy hadn’t first shown the music industry bean counters that a woman giving backtalk to a man wasn’t instant death to record sales? I wouldn’t rule it out.
Sometimes the unthinkable has to be said tongue-in-cheek first, before people start thinking it for real. And sometimes the truth has to walk in on spike-heeled boots and sequined hot pants. Nancy showed us, even it if it was unwittingly. And I’ll bet Megan Calvet was (is?) listening.