Despite my Pauline Kael obsession, the biggest influences on me in terms of criticism were the first wave of rock critics. I learned about the art of criticism from Dave Marsh and Ellen Willis and Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs and, most of all, Greil Marcus. Their work informed my own, even when I moved into academia.
Over the years, things blend together. I don’t always remember specifics … at 61, I find myself hoping I’m just getting old and not turning senile. I knew about “Party Lights” first because I read about it. It hit #5 on the charts in 1962, and you might think I was unaware of most pop music then (I turned 9 in June of ‘62). But I remember many of the songs from that year: “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, “Telstar”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”, “Duke of Earl”, “Green Onions”, “He’s a Rebel”, “If I Had a Hammer”, “Johnny Angel”, “The Locomotion”, “Norman”, “Palisades Park”, “Sherry”, “Soldier Boy”, “Town Without Pity”, “Twistin’ the Night Away”, “Walk Right In”. And when I say I remember them, I don’t mean if you played those songs now, I’d know what they were. I mean that I can remember hearing them in 1962.
But I don’t remember “Party Lights”. I’m not sure how it got my attention … actually, thanks to the great new website devoted to Greil Marcus, I probably can identify the moment “Party Lights” came to my attention. In the 1979 version of Rolling Stone’s history of rock and roll, Marcus wrote an essay on Girl Groups. (The Marcus website informs me that the piece originated in the Village Voice in 1975, but I wouldn’t have read it then.) Here is what Marcus wrote about “Party Lights”:
There’s nothing at all to this record after the first five seconds or so, but those five seconds have enough emotion packed into them to last the average rock ‘n’ roller a whole career (which is what they did for Claudine—she never made the chart again). That beginning is The Party—house busting wide open, music sailing out the window, bottles and bodies and Buicks on the lawn, the good times rollin’ like they never did, and our girl is stuck right next door, imprisoned by her evil mother. “But mama, everybody in the Crowd is there!” Peeking through her window she can see that “they’re doing the Twist… the Mashed Potatoes!” (Must be her favorite.) Well, it doesn’t matter; she’s not getting out. But the way she wails in those first few moments is all that counts: “I see the party lights!”
I disagree with Marcus that it’s all about the first five seconds … Clark maintains her fever for the entire length of the song. What is wonderful, what is thrilling, what is astonishing to this day is how much emotion Clark puts into the simple desire to go to a party. In her singing, she expresses the anguish of every teenager prevented from doing that one thing which is more important than ANYTHING IN THE WORLD, because your mom said you couldn’t. There is the specific dismay of missing the party … there is the universal nature of her teenage lament … it’s not going too far to say Clark turns that missed party into an existential statement about lost opportunities.
And sure, it’s “just a silly pop song”, but the way Clark sings it, “just” and “silly” are completely off.