The Shangri-Las Week: Day 2 – The Strange Afterlives of Child Musicians

This week, Ada Wolin, author of the new 33 1/3 The Shangri-Las’ Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las will be taking over our blog!

Today, Ada talks about the consequences of being a child celebrity, and how she found kinship with The Shangri-Las through their parallel experiences as young artists.

The notion of child celebrity was a tricky one to tackle in my book on the Shangri-Las. Technically all members were teenagers, making them, in the eyes of the music biz at least, basically adults. That’s an idea that we’re rapidly outgrowing nowadays, thankfully, because in most ways, there is no distinction between being a child performer and a teen performer—either is ripe for exploitation, or subject to derision in very much the same ways. Like many other girl-groups, the members of the Shangri-Las went on to live remarkably normal lives post-stardom. They didn’t pursue other musical careers, and until Mary Weiss’s 2007 album Dangerous Game, all remaining members had vanished from the music business entirely. This is a weird quirk of child celebrity, a mode that, for obvious reasons, has a brief shelf life. What comes after the curtain falls?

For around five hectic years, from age eight to age thirteen, I was in a band called Tiny Masters of Today. While most of my friends were playing guitar hero in their basements, my brother and I spent our school breaks touring in Europe and playing festivals and meeting our heroes. As I get older, I am increasingly able to remember the positive experiences—but there were times when music became work, when we had early flights and late sets in UK clubs just before the smoking ban. There were times when I felt my distance from my peers. When I wanted to do normal things. When I just wanted to be bored. More than anything else, my time in the band is supremely difficult to put into words. To explain to someone who can’t possibly get the strangeness of it all. The way it simultaneously has everything and nothing to do with who I am today.

When I settled on writing about the Shangri-Las, it didn’t immediately occur to me that I felt a kinship for these young women and their experiences in the music business. We tend to assign to female artists, more than their male contemporaries, a responsibility to be confessional, or truthful. But Mary Weiss missed her own prom during her time in the Shangri-Las. As is the ultimate irony in many girl-group songs, Weiss was living a completely different existence than the average teenager. Perhaps that is the ultimate cognitive dissonance of girl-group songs, which sing of and to the everygirl.

      There are, of course, extreme examples of the warping effect child celebrity has on young musicians and actors. This feels all the more apropos in the wake of the recent documentary Leaving Neverland, which addresses the longstanding allegations of sexual abuse against Michael Jackson. Lurching into adulthood without the mooring that the average childhood provides, former child stars live the sordid lives we love to gawk at, feeding our schadenfreude with divorces and DUIs.

     But sometimes, child celebrity is a fiery blip in an otherwise normal life. As is the case for the Shangri-Las, (if not Britney Spears or Michael Jackson), and as I often feel as I look back on my childhood, those days are just a fever dream. A crazy story to tell. A past life. And that’s the strangest part of it all—the emergence, like Dorothy, out of technicolor into a dusty sepia world.

Some required listening:

S&M Party – Red Cross (Redd Kross)

Tjet – Tappi Tíkarrass

Kate – Chandra

Why Do Fools Fall in Love – Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers

School Days – The Runaways

Philosophy of the World – The Shaggs

Jupp Pütta – Bottroper Hammerchor

Angel Baby – Rosie and the Originals

The Shangri-Las’ Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las is out on April 4th! Pre-order your copy today.

Tomorrow, Ada will be writing about the dark, sinister side of pop music…stay tuned!

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