Covers and context: ‘He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss’

One of the highlights of SXSW music so far for me has been seeing Grizzly Bear play in a church. Not only do the songs from their new album sound phenomenal, they played a cover of “He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss“:

Not from SXSW, but you get the idea. MP3 is here.
You’re perhaps familiar with this song. It was recorded by girl-group The Crystals in the 1960s, and produced by Phil Spector (musical genius, perhaps, but total fucking misogynist). Songwriters Carol King and Gerry Goffin penned the song after learning their nanny, singer Little Eva, was being abused. King and Goffin meant the song as a critique of domestic violence. But Spector pushed the Crystals to record the song in a pretty straightforward manner:

Yes, the Crystals version is in a minor key, and certainly sounds ominous. But somehow knowing Phil Spector’s views toward women really colors this version. It reads more like an approval than a condemnation of violence against women. I think it’s the backing vocals — which make it sound like her friends are actually pleased about this development — that really get me. And not in a good way.

Spector’s arrangement only amplified its savagery, framing Barbara Alston’s lone vocal amid a sea of caustic strings and funereal drums, while the backing vocals almost trilled their own belief that the boy had done nothing wrong. In more ironic hands (and a more understanding age), “He Hit Me” might have passed at least as satire. But Spector showed no sign of appreciating that, nor did he feel any need to.

Now, back to the Grizzly Bear version I saw yesterday (which, by the way, was even more dark and mournful than the clip above). One of the reasons it was so powerful for me is that Grizzly Bear’s lead singer is gay. The combination of the sad, deliberate delivery and the band’s decision not to switch the pronouns on the song really made it a commentary on violence in queer relationships. Here’s what the band has said about the cover:

I think we were really struck by the lyrical content and how dark it was. Dan had gotten the Phil Spector box set and he’d been listening to it a lot. He said, ‘I think we need to play this song.’ I’d never heard that one before. And a man singing it was really intriguing to us.

Incidentally, Hole has also covered this song:

Despite Hole’s place in feminist music history, I have to say that this song feels more like the Crystals’ version to me. In any case, it’s interesting to consider how the politics and personal details of the singer/band really inform the meaning of a song.

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