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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  • r.r.r.

    grizzly bear ROCKS!!! their new album is being released in May and i can’t WAIT! their cover of “he hit me” is off the hook! :)

  • sk1

    carol king was so genius at writing incredibly simple lyrics with such complex meaning behind them. this song has always left me feeling uneasy but in that good “now i’m forced to think more about this” kind of way. it’s great to hear three versions of the song which each illuminate different underlying themes. i agree that the grizzly bear version is quite moving but i think the crystals version and the hole version also offer complex interpretations.
    in the crystals version the singer sounds lost and scared, only buoyed by this false vision of love, and yet it sounds like she is only barely believing her justification for his violence herself (although this might be me projecting). like this is the mantra she repeats to herself to make it seem ok.
    courtney love in contrast sounds angry and instead of being uplifted by the “love” she is held down by it. the way courtney’s sarcastic tone cracks as she sings “and i knew he loved me” it is as if she is realizing that even though she knows he is wrong to hit her part of her does actually believe that it is a sign of his love. the whining refrain of “baby won’t you stay” is the point of her submission to that emotion.
    the concept of violence being a way to communicate affection is disturbing and upsetting to me but at the same time this song makes it easy to understand the singers rationalization of the situation, which just makes it all the more heartbreaking.

  • Okra

    I had never heard of this song or its history, so I thank you for posting about this, Ann. Very illuminating comparative analysis of the various versions.
    May I suggest that the greatest dissonance in the Crystals’ version stems from the contrast between the lyrics and the arrangement and orchestration, particularly the sweeping strings that are almost majestic and triumphant in their soaring up the musical scale?
    Also, I don’t know a lot about Hole, but perhaps they thought that the very fact that they, a band with their history and makeup, would cover this song was itself the source of the meta-commentary/irony. (Personally, I think it’s more pointed and effective for the arrangement and performance of a song to express irony and dissonance, but whatever works…).

  • baddesignhurts

    i was just listening to this song yesterday. bizarre.
    one note about hole’s cover: i remember when they performed on SNL (i believe they did “violet”, though i’m not positive), then they closed with a few bars of this song. it was quite powerful and the arrangement gave me chills, as they slowed from a faster tempo and fiercer delivery, to a slower, quieter, more delicate, fragile tone. i remember the audience needed a few moments before applauding, because it was so….out of place and strange.
    i’ve always found the crystals’ version of this far more straightforward, whereas hole’s version always seemed sarcastic, especially when coupled with some of their more rocking songs.

  • whitelabcoat

    Gerry Goffin was the lyricist in the Goffin/King partnership. King was responsible for the music/melody. Traditionally, songwriting credits would run ‘music by/lyrics by’, but, when it came to male/female partnerships, the man’s name would tend to come first, regardless of whether or not he wrote or contributed to the music (big surprise), leading many people to mistakenly believe that the man wrote the music, the woman wrote the lyrics. No doubt King contributed lyrically, but Goffin was, as I say, the principal lyricist.

  • nakedthoughts

    I think it may be difficult for a woman to cover it in a way that feels ironic simply because this IS the logic used by abusers. “I hit you because I love you.” and many women believe it because they have been manipulated so much. So to hear these words from a woman it rings so true that it is painful and we I have trouble telling what the intent is.
    Hitting women is socially acceptable. No this is not just rad-fem view, Chris brown/Rhianna, anyone remember that? everyone apologizing for the abuser? The fact that some great percentage of people surveyed thought she was at least partly responsible because she might have cheated?
    The song almost feels less like commentary and more like real life rationalizations.

  • nakedthoughts

    I wanted to add that I understand that these words are very true for any abused party not just women, but partner violence in the queer community is SO not talked about, I don’t have the same gut reaction.
    This is actually pretty sucky on my part I think. I don’t want to be an ass, but socialisation changes my gut reaction, I guess it is important for me to realize that my gut was raised in a racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist setting…

  • opheliasawake

    Is there any meaning to the title of the song being a direct quote from the notoriously misogynistic play, Liliom (which the musical Carousel is based on)?

  • Logrus

    I like “Fistfull of Love” by Antony & The Johnsons better.

  • Ann

    Another awesome, awesome song.

  • Erik

    I don’t know. I write songs for emotions that I haven’t really processed yet. And then once I’ve processed those emotions I look back and I’m like “ew, that’s how I felt?” But I’ve given it some thought and decided NOT to banish those songs from my repertoire. Because it’s a real thing. I felt that way. Other people are feeling that way right now. If I perform that song it’s not an endorsement or a condemnation. It’s just something I’ve felt.
    As for “He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss”… Sometimes abuse is the only form of intimacy people know. And it’s not necessarily even in a minor key in their head. It’s not necessarily coupled with an unambiguous condemnation or a snarky response. If it’s the only love they know, sometimes it really does feel like love. That’s what’s fucked up about it.
    And I think the onus is on the listener to process that “hey, it’s kind of fucked up that someone would end up in that place”. I don’t think art has to spell everything out.