Books by Booklist Authors: Ada Wolin’s GOLDEN HITS OF THE SHANGRI-LAS

Ada Wolin headshot

Ada Wolin joined Booklist as an editorial assistant last year surrounded by a kind of hush: a recent Booklist intern and graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), she’d also already written her first book. An energetic kaleidoscope-spin through the Shangri-Las 1966 album, Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las, Wolin’s entry in Bloomsbury’s venerated 33 1/3 series will be published next week.

Wolin wrote about music for SAIC’s paper, which was how she found out that 33 1/3 was inviting writers under 22 to pitch a book for the series. “I knew I had to do it. I’d kick myself if I didn’t try,” she told me, at the same time acknowledging the pressure she felt to choose her subject wisely, and that she never thought she’d win. (“No one wants to read a 21-year-old writing about Led Zeppelin.”) Ultimately, it was an opportunity to think about the music she really loved, and once she landed on Golden Hits, she says, “I had no doubt. Which was good, because there was a lot of doubt early on.”

Wolin’s research for the book took her everywhere from endless (and sometimes endlessly conflicting) liner notes through a dark 1933 British novel. And the love that inspired her comes across in her infectious curiosity and her readiness to question what she thought she knew about the Shangri-Las, girl-group music, and pop music in general.

Over email and in person, Wolin and I talked about earnestness, feminism, and death in the Shangri-Las music, and how they got it all just wrong enough to be right. I guarantee that the book-inspired playlist Wolin made to go along with our interview, found at the bottom of this post, will make you smile before you even hit play. Our conversations have been condensed and edited.

Can you remember the first time you heard the Shangri-Las?

Yes! I first heard the Shangri-Las when I was a kid. Specifically, I heard “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” when I was in the car with my family at night. I should have been sleeping, but instead I was listening to this extremely sad/spooky/mysterious song, and it really affected me. I think a song is really special when it can speak to you at any point in your life; as a teenager, I had a whole new take on it when I understood more of the subject matter. Even as an adult, it still gives me goosebumps. But what I think I was always responding to is that there’s so much there, musically, so much loneliness and pain. The instrumentation is so bare and empty. At the same time, though, it’s beautiful. It feels like it encapsulates this existential wondering that manages to feel completely theatrical, yet honest.

How did you know they’d be the subject of your first book?

When I set about to write a book for the 33 1/3 series, I really agonized over which album to write on. I think, in part, I got really hung up on how hard it is for young women to have their voices heard and taken seriously in the realm of music writing. I was terrified to put my voice and thoughts on the page. I felt like I couldn’t possibly assert myself as an authority. But I was listening to the Shangri-Las one afternoon, and I just knew that I had to write about them—that I could actually use my experience to give voice to an untold story. There are so many groups that the music world considers “great bands.” But that canon is expanding rapidly, and that’s an exciting thing to take part in.

You arrange many other artists in the Shangri-Las sphere. Did any of the lines of influence you uncovered in your research really surprise you?

Absolutely. I set out to position the Shangri-Las in the context of rock ‘n’ roll, and I think I continued to do that throughout my writing process. But along the way, I actually learned so much more about pop music than I expected. Most of what surprised me was that though the Shangri-Las were an exceptional pop group, they had so much more in common with the music being produced by other girl-groups than I expected. So much of what people know of girl-groups is from oldies radio—and don’t get me wrong, that stuff is great, too. But some of the more obscure songs from big groups like the Shirelles and the Crystals are delightfully strange. Kind of off-kilter and funny and kitschy in a way that seemed so unexpected, and very much in line with what I love about the Shangri-Las. I’d listen to a song and be like ‘wow this song is completely ridiculous!’ But then the next day I’d listen to it eight more times and play it for everyone I know. There’s something about this music that gets under your skin. That’s the thing about pop music: if you’re a cynic, you could totally just say that it’s all formula and no heart. But it’s like baking—you need the ratio to be right to get the flavor to come through.

You actually call the Shangri-Las’ “earnest believability” the silver lining of their songs.

This came out of listening to the songs over and over. I never feel like I’ve been had by the Shangri-Las because you’re always kind of like, there’s something off about this. Something a little bit miscalculated. It just doesn’t achieve that kind of seamless transition toward a soaring, beautiful song. You’re so much more aware of the singers than the song. Especially because lead singer Mary Weiss’s voice is so distinctive, and in some ways it’s distinctive because of its flaws. You can feel all the emotion in her voice and she doesn’t try to sing that out, she makes it a part of the song. That’s where the earnestness really shines through for me.

You unearth some paradoxes, too. For one, that the Shangri-Las’ songs (and maybe girl-group songs in general) are categorized and written off as love songs—but the tragedy at the heart of Golden Hits is actually growing up. Was this in your mind before you set out to write, or did it emerge as you worked?

This did completely surprise me. Going into things, I knew what I thought about the Shangri-Las, and I knew how the music made me feel. But when you listen to a song (or album) a thousand times, and you learn every word, and every breath and drumbeat, so much more emerges. In art school, one of my professors made us stand and look at a single painting for an hour straight. I chose “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper. At first you’re like, Oh cool! I never noticed this thing before. And then your feet really start hurting. But somewhere around minute 45, you achieve this meditative kind of vision where you can see the greenish tint of every brushstroke and the way the light source makes the painting small and tinny, like the set of a play.

I listened to this album so many times, I began to hear a completely different narrative coming through. I could hear the pain of a group of teenage girls missing their prom to tour Europe. I could hear the ticking time-bomb that is teen pop groups. What happens when they grow up, and people lose interest? This uncertainty about what the future holds is buried deep in the music, but once you hear it, it suddenly seems to be everywhere.

I love your investigation into how the Shangri-Las got their name, and the concept of Shangri La. There were some real surprises for me.

I read in passing that they were named after a Chinese restaurant. And I was like, that’s probably true. I pretty much conclusively found that it is. I had this idea that “Shangri La” had something to do with a utopia—but I had actually no idea. I found that it was from Lost Horizon, a 1933 novel by James Hilton, which I read, and it is incredibly dark—the idea that you can stay young forever but at an intense cost. Immediately I knew that even if the Shangri-Las didn’t know about this, it makes so much sense.

In Hilton’s book, there are two paradigms: you can live forever, but you will have to give up the things you love and give up passion. And then at the opposite end, you have people who refuse to do that and they would rather live a flash-in-the-pan life. And that was really what the Shangri-Las were about. Every song was like, live the crazy life and then you’ll die. It was a big part of their persona.

When I had to (HAD TO) immediately listen to the Shangri-Las while reading your book, one of the top search results Apple Music gave me was the 100-song “Feminism Essentials” playlist (other artists: Leslie Gore, Bikini Kill, Dionne Warwick, Madonna, Missy Elliott, P!nk). Are you surprised, delighted, infuriated, bored by this development?

I am delighted by this rapidly evolving canon. I think sometimes people want to confine ‘feminist music’ within a really strict schema. Don’t get me wrong, I love riot grrl. But I think people see pop music as conforming—to mainstream culture and beauty standards, or to the role of women as singers only. But I think there is a lot more empowerment in the music of Madonna and P!nk than people give it credit for. Taste is always a factor, of course, but I think people often tend to disparage the type of music that women get into as being vapid. That is the least feminist thing of all. If it makes you feel good, if it empowers you as a woman, nobody should be telling you that it isn’t feminist.

Comments

comments

About the Author:

Annie Bostrom is Associate Editor, Adult Books, at Booklist. She is a cat person, but also really likes dogs. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Annie.

1 Comment on "Books by Booklist Authors: Ada Wolin’s GOLDEN HITS OF THE SHANGRI-LAS"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Lexie says:

    Awesome interview. I’m a huge fan of the Shangs – I preordered this book back in January! Can’t wait to read it

Post a Comment