Mary Gaitskill is responsible for her feelings—meaning: she unlades her skepticism, her fears, what piques her, what feels wrong. In this essay, originally published in 2006, she turns up The Shangri-Las sugary shrill.
The Shangri-Las used to scare me, a little. I first heard them at age twelve, when they were already oldies-but-goodies, like Elvis and Ann-Margret singing from the bright, shimmering hologram of the past. They didn’t scare me because they sang about gangs (“Leader of the Pack”) or sex (“Walking in the Sand”) or fighting with parents (“I Can Never Go Home Anymore”). What scared me was the sweetness with which they sang about these things, sweetness combined with earthy coarseness. I don’t mean “coarse” as in rude and crude, I mean as in broad and big-grained, based on shared mass feeling. There is a lot of juicy sweetness in that kind of understanding, especially when it’s about sex, love and fighting, and the Shangri-Las dripped with that juice.
But I was leery of their sweetness; what scared me was that I didn’t feel part of the shared understanding it was based on. I wasn’t sure I wanted to, either. I couldn’t imagine meeting someone at the candy store, let alone telling a bunch of girls about it and having them say “Yes, we see;” it seemed like the experience you were supposed to have, and I didn’t want to have it because I wanted to have my own experience, one that wasn’t getting sung about on the radio. Besides, I didn’t think I could have the experience everyone else had—to do so seemed to require a piece of visceral information that I was somehow missing.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t like their songs; I did like them, but with a shade of disturbed feeling, like you have about an ideal dream you can barely remember. I didn’t think much about the meaning of their name, but I knew what it was. I’d seen “Lost Horizon,” the 1937 movie about Shangri-La, the hidden city of eternal youth: the only parts I remembered were the first glimpse of the city, the sighing, singing voices that accompany it, and the death of the girl who tries to leave Shangri-La with her British lover, her collapse and sudden horrific aging in a chaotic snow storm. It was a perfect name for a band made up of high school girls whose songs were all about a glimpse of eternal youth shadowed by the hint of the coming storm — you can hear both in their voices. And if you can hear that, it doesn’t matter if you share the group understanding the songs seem to depend on.
But shared mass feeling, or the illusion of it, sometimes comes with age, and when the Shangri-Las started showing up on mix tapes friends or lovers made for me, I felt like the songs were part of my experience just because I had heard them with everybody else. Last summer I played one of those old mix tapes in the car when I was driving around with my ten-year-old godson Chris. He’s Dominican, but unlike his older sister Maxiel, he’s not into reggaeton or rap — he likes the Beatles and ’60s pop, which is why I was playing that particular tape. When he heard the Shangri-Las “Leader of The Pack,” he wanted to hear it over and over.
It was wonderful, and also a little ironic. When I was a white suburban kid, this was supposed to be my music, yet I had found it mysterious and a little intimidating; the Shangri-Las aren’t supposed to be for modern-day Dominican kids, yet my godson got it more than I did. Which, when I thought about it, made total sense. The Shangri-Las after all were urban, not suburban; they came from Brooklyn, where he lives — and he lives in a gang-heavy neighborhood. (“He’s the boss of the gang?” “Yeah.” “So he kills people?” “Not really. They didn’t do that then, they just roughed people up.” “Then why does her dad make her stop seeing him?” “If you were a dad you wouldn’t want your daughter to see someone who might rough her up.”) Then there is the emotional drama, which he loves, the story of remorse, the sense of misunderstood passions revealed too late. (“He just smiled and looked away. The tears were beginning to show. When he drove away on that rainy night, I begged him to go slow.”) On top of that the old song has something in common with the small-label Latino groups that his sister listens to, like L’Aventura: the singers sound like real kids, people you might know who just happen to sing better than you do. Plus, there’s the sound of squealing brakes and crashing vehicles. Maybe two years from now the song will sound lame and stupid to him. But that afternoon it was talking to both sides of him — the sweet boy he is and the tough man he’ll have to become — and feeding both.
It was haunting for me, and bitter-sweet to listen with him, to experience the song through him in a way I had not really been able to take in the first time. To once again glimpse the hidden city and sense the coming storm.