Twisted sister

© naoe27 - Fotolia.com
© naoe27 - Fotolia.com

In a recent post, I pointed out how The Beatles changed the face of popular music when they exploded on the world scene in late December 1963.

As evidence for the Beatles' complete takeover and makeover of the record charts, I contrasted the rock they brought with them to the milquetoast pop that characterized the Hot 100 of that year, epitomized by the last #1 hit of 1963: “Dominique” by The Singing Nun—a reverential ode to Saint Dominic. A top-selling song in America being sung in French by a Belgian member of the Dominican Order was thought by some to be a sign of the Apocalypse.

In one sense it was. “Dominique” was considered the last gasp of the old hit parade before the Second Coming of Rock & Roll, ushered in by the Four Horsemen of Liverpool—and followed by hundreds of artists who picked up where The Beatles left off. These acts brought us funk, punk, metal, alternative, hip-hop, and every micro-genre you could imagine. Fifty years later our #1 hits are—not surprisingly—“Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus (who, you may be surprised to learn, is not a Dominican nun).

But in doing a little research on The Singing Nun—whose real name was Jeanne Deckers and whose stage name in Europe was Soeur Sourire or “Sister Smile”—I found a treasure trove of biographical data indicating that Sister Smile was anything but a status quo symbol, who in time became a different kind of sister. This erstwhile songstress of innocuous religious ditties blossomed into an independent thinker and a serious threat to the establishment.

After Sister Smile became a worldwide sensation in 1962-1963 (she even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in January, 1964, one month before the Beatles) her songs underwent censorship by her mother superior who was worried that Sister Smile, now writing more personal songs, might dare to express authentic emotion. (Sister Smile had to remove any verses she wrote about “feeling sad.”) But the good sister was developing the autonomous spirit of a budding artist smacking up against the institutional hierarchy of a religious order—inside the larger patriarchal system of the Church. This uppity sister had to be smacked down.

Eventually her battles with ecclesiastical authorities over her freedom of expression—not to mention doctrinal matters—got her booted out of the congregation and her liberation was underway. Unfortunately it turned out to be a painful one.

Deckers moved in with her childhood friend, Anne Pecher, and continued to write and record her music, but subsequent recordings were not met with the same success as previous ones, in part because she was not allowed to use her former stage names. (Apparently Sister Smile and The Singing Nun were the property of her former recording company.) In time Deckers also grew alienated from church teachings and came out in support of contraception, a revolutionary move for a former nun in 1967! (She even released a song “Glory Be to God for the Holy Pill,” though it didn’t sell.) Her public backing of John Lennon’s controversial comment that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus would also qualify as radical (and perhaps ill-advised!).

In the 70s Deckers continued to struggle financially, but the crushing blow was a tax bill she received in 1979 from the Belgian government for $63,000, based on recording income from “Dominique” a decade and a half earlier. Having taken a vow of poverty while in the convent at the time, she didn’t see any of the record royalties because they were kept by the religious order. But when the Dominicans refused to take responsibility for it, Deckers remained on the hook.

Finally in 1985, pushed to the brink of poverty, Deckers—and her partner Pecher—committed suicide together from an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. A sad ending, but one befitting a rock star.

A subsequent French-Belgian biopic painted Deckers as a rebellious and unstable troublemaker from the beginning—“a punk before her time.” Whether that description is accurate or not, The Singing Nun was a genuine iconoclast—more so than many rockers, rappers, divas, and fashionistas who have become known for their sensationalistic but trivial brand of defiance. (Hello, Miley Cyrus.) Ironically, Sister Smile turned out to be the real wrecking ball.

If there’s a business lesson here, it’s a simple one. If you’re a free-thinking creative, working inside an autocratic or patriarchal organization is a true spiritual test!

To read an earlier post on a famous band of women who rebelled—and triumphed—check here.


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11 Comments

  1. a) I want more lesson. Expound please sir. (I have never found the balance; either became a doormat or got myself thrown out. Is there a balance? Enlighten, O wise one.)

    b) The first Miley Cyrus joke made me, literally, laugh out loud. Not a Dominican nun indeed.

  2. Joe & Gary: In the spirit of John Lennon’s birthday today, let me advocate for not bending on principles, and not putting up with despotic leadership. But if you have that common stomach condition that requires you to eat, you may have to put up with “bad bosses” (as referenced in my last post) and/or bureaucratic suppression—at least while there’s a tight job market. Yet when it gets to the point that you’re making yourself (and those around you) miserable and your creative juices are dried up, you've got to get yourself free. Whether you’re a change agent in a stuffy corporation or an emerging artist in a cloistered religious order.

    This is one reason I’ve worked for myself for so long. But in working with companies as an independent consultant some of the same conflicts can arise. If I feel like I’m banging my head against the limiting beliefs and behaviors of the workforce (or leadership team or CEO)—and I can’t get them to re-examine those beliefs—I have to move on and forgo the income. It’s called firing the client.

    1. One time Jonathan Fields was giving free coaching advice at this blog (he's good; he's expensive.)

      I told him my business just wasn't taking off; it had been 5 years and we were really struggling.

      He said "There's no shame in taking a job. Lots of entrepreneurs take jobs until they get their dream built on the side."

      And I thought "That's the worst thing anyone's ever said to me."

      We gave up our expensive rented house in California and lived 2 years as nomads, house-sitting all over the US and Canada.

      During the time we weren't spending a nickel on housing, the business finally reached the point people are tracking me down instead of the other way 'round.

      So, in my life, working for a corporate suit is about as likely as hitting a hole in one. And I don't work with clients I don't like. Ever.

      Which means I won't have to put up with too much nonsense other than that of my own making, which is kinda fun.

      1. Congrats, Joel. In LA and NY I used to run into a load of aspiring actors who were waiting tables. I'm just consulting until I get my dream job pumping gas. But in the meantime I'm met a lot of suits who are a ton of fun to work with. I really can't work with folks who aren't enjoying themselves. That's the Tom Peters' legacy.

          1. If I'm working in a corporate environment I just have to mention rock & roll. Then the fun suits come out of the woodwork. I wound up doing two additional years of consulting in one company because a senior manager was a huge Beatles' fan and invited me to lunch several times to talk music. (People get to know each other quickly when they're engaged in things they're excited about.) A month or two later I was coaching his project team, then several other teams in the region. I don't remember if either of us was wearing a suit tho.

            I don't think these folks are in the minority. Most corporate leaders are dying to have fun in their work lives. R&R is just one of several ways to draw this out of them. R&R hooks us into an earlier period of our lives (often adolescence) when life seemed more spontaneous and joyful. The trick is to get organizational leaders to realize that they can improve their BOTTOM LINE RESULTS by reviving that rock & roll spirit and adopting a more spontaneous, creative, passionate, audacious, and defiant approach to their business.

            As one my favorite management gurus (Plato) once said, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."

  3. Hey, this was really fascinating...interesting too how some of the first to 'rock the boat' actually open the gateway for the 2nd or 3rd to be remembered for it...Thanks John!! :)

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