Popped Culture: Nancy Sinatra

culture
You can find her on every female empowerment mix tape, wedged between Helen Reddy and Gloria Gaynor. Her biggest hit is the anthem for jilted girlfriends. Nancy Sinatra and her boots walked into the hearts of millions in the mid-1960s and made her a feminist icon. Now she seems little more than a feminist footnote. Let’s remedy our ignorance by putting on our nostalgia boots and taking a tour of Nancy’s career.

It would be easy, though inaccurate, to write off Nancy Sinatra as a celebuspawn with a career based solely on nepotism. At the initial launch of her career, Nancy was in danger of living a lifetime in her father’s shadow. A mousy brunette with moderate singing talent, she started out singing the same bubblegum pop and torch songs as her contemporaries. As Frank Sinatra’s Daughter she was entitled a chance at stardom but was posed for a mostly forgettable string of appearances on holiday specials and the occasional duet with Frank or Dean Martin. She probably didn’t set out with the intent to become a trail-blazing feminist and role model for aspiring women musicians. Like most entertainers, she just wanted to sell some albums.

When Nancy emerged with a new look and sound, she stood apart from her competition and her own father. Her rebel bombshell persona let her dominate the stage in way she couldn’t as a brunette. Songwriter Lee Hazlewood gave her an edgy pop sound and lyrics that turned the tables on the traditional male-female relationship. Nancy’s new bold blonde attitude made the feminist statement that she could be ogled but on her own terms, that she was a woman who doesn’t tolerate misbehaving men but isn’t above misbehaving herself. And with “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’“, Nancy’s proclamation was well-received and adopted by newly liberated women.

For all the talk of female empowerment and gender equality, none of Nancy’s songs purport the message that she doesn’t need a man at all. She may chastise a man for doing her wrong, but she’s gonna find a new man that she can whip into shape not give up on men for good. Nancy isn’t really about sisterhood and girl power so much as she is about sexual liberation, which shouldn’t be disparaged. It was the 1960s and these baby steps were giant leaps in that era.

Nancy’s tough girl act didn’t translate into dance. It’s rare to find a performance in which Nancy Sinatra performs a full dance routine. Most footage of her performances usually show her posed gracefully atop set pieces or standing amidst dancers who handle all the heavy hoofing. Cool girls don’t do choreography, it seems. Occasionally Nancy can be seen employing an obligatory wiggle. Based on her performance in Speedway, maybe some cool girls don’t need to dance.

After her initial success, Nancy began disconnecting from her brand. She maintained the physical appearance but veered off in different musical directions. Questionable song choices, like a duet of “Somethin’ Stupid” with daddy Frank, are used to fill out an album. Her albums become more disjointed with covers that show off her pipes rather than her persona. The argument could be made that tracks like “Until It’s Time for You to Go” and “As Tears Go By” balance out ones like “Sorry ‘Bout That” and “I Gotta Get Outta This Town” and give her a necessary vulnerability so that she doesn’t come across as a cold-hearted heartbreaker. The ratio of Hazlewood-inspired pop to mellow ballads decreased with each album. Two years after Boots, Nancy made a musical shift from pop into country, teaming up with Hazlewood vocally.

Despite the branding conflicts, Nancy’s pop offerings have interesting musical arrangements that are fun and unexpected. She really makes cover songs her own instead of crooning along to the original arrangement. Her foray into the country-western genre retain most of her pop edge, making it passably palatable even to someone who eschews country music.

After four years, Nancy began shifting out of the spotlight and into motherhood. Beneath the liberated modern woman facade lurked a traditional-minded woman content to settle down and raise a family. She resurfaced in the mid-1990s with a Playboy spread and a new album. She was 54 when she posed for Playboy in 1995, again blazing trails and challenging perceptions, this time leading the sexual liberation of AARP members. Nancy’s daring magazine appearance helped pave the way for society’s acceptance of sexy older ladies like Helen Mirren and motivated aging women to trade their blue rinse for Botox.

It’s a shame that Nancy’s legacy is one song when there’s so much in her musical catalog to be discovered and enjoyed. Love her or hate her, she’s an inspiration. She cultivated an identity separate from her father and managed a comeback at a time of life when most people are dreaming of retirement. And she’s still active, making music and donating her time to political and charitable causes. She keeps her Twitter (@NancySinatra) and website regularly updated and is a regular host on the Siriusly Sinatra channel on SiriusXM.

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