Look Out Look Out Look Out: The Dark YA Fiction Of The Shangri-Las
In the wake of the premiere of Fox's Red Band Society, there's been lots of talk — not unreasonably — about how it's just The Fault In Our Stars crossed with Glee, which it sort of is, and about how it's just a variation on what I've heard called "sick lit": books where being sick and/or dying is terribly romantic. Perhaps you can fit it into the larger picture of dark and sad YA fiction that's given us the dystopian futures of The Hunger Games and Divergent.
Or perhaps you can fit it into the girl groups of the '60s.
Because the truth of the matter is that a certain swath of teenagers always like stories with incredibly melodramatic high stakes, and a good chunk of those who like romance have always had a weak spot for a combination of kissing and traaaaagedy.
The Shangri-Las — made up of Mary and Betty Weiss and Marge and Mary Ann Ganser, though not all four of them all the time — only made records for a handful of years, and they were certainly not the only practitioner of the genre of teenage tragedy songs — in fact, there's a whole Wikipedia page! While not all of those are quite what we're talking about here (Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" is ... a different thing), you certainly have to recognize the related nature of things like "Last Kiss" and "Teen Angel."
But what The Shangri-Las were into was not just love and death and teenagers, but love and death and teenagers and important messages about life, just like a lot of your better YA fiction.
Their most famous song, for instance, "Leader Of The Pack," kills off the hot boyfriend Jimmy not merely because he was a reckless motorcycle rider, but because he rode off upset after Betty broke up with him. She didn't want to, but her hand was forced by her parents, who were always putting him down (down, down) because he came from the wrong side of town (whatcha mean when you say that he came from the wrong side of town?). Despite the fact that she apparently saw it coming (thus her holler of "Look out look out look out look out!"), she couldn't save him. The message: Thanks, Mom and Dad, you didn't let me make out with my boyfriend and he's dead now.
The stakes are raised in "Give Us Your Blessings," which follows Jimmy and Mary (presumably a different Jimmy) to Mary's house to ask her parents' permission to get married. Her parents are terrible, though, and just laugh at them, so Mary goes out and gets in the car with Jimmy, and the best thing in the history of everything ever happens, lyric-wise:
As they drove off, they were crying
And nobody knows for sure
If that is why
They didn't see
The sign that said
The message: Congratulations, Mom and Dad, you didn't let me marry my boyfriend, and we're dead now.
Lest you believe that they only punished faithless parents who thwarted true love, consider the song "I Can Never Go Home Anymore." In this one, we first hear a girl vowing to run away from home, but she's interrupted by a wiser voice that says, "Don't."
Ms. Don't goes on to tell her own story, in which she was sad and lonely and "then a miracle: a boy." Her mother objected, so she ran away with him. But faster than you can say "16-year-olds don't know how to resolve conflicts in an adult fashion," they broke up, and she realized that she had damaged beyond repair her relationship with her mother. And her mother was so sad and heartbroken over the whole thing that, as the song says, "She grew so lonely in the end, angels picked her for their friend."
THAT IS A GREAT LINE, PEOPLE.
And so the teenager who once believed that thwarted love was the major cause of motor vehicle accidents is forced to carry a very different message: Congratulations, jerkface teenager; you hurt your mother's feelings and she's dead now.
This is part of the language of adolescence — the discovery of consequences, of big feelings, of the big world. There has always been something lurking in entertainment for teenagers that advocates the idea that nothing is more romantic than being consumed by fire in the arms of that dude in your geometry class. So while it may be maudlin — while it is maudlin — to set a show about teenagers in a hospital, it's definitely not something that girls in great boots didn't do first.
Note: Yes, we talked about the Shangri-Las in this space five years ago. Every five years, you need to listen to "Leader Of The Pack," or your boyfriend will fall out of a hot air balloon.