ROUGH TRADE - One Of The Most Controversial Songs In Canadian Music, “High School Confidential”, Trailblazes Into The Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame
September 9, 2020, a month ago
The Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame (CSHF) has announced the song induction for the breakthrough hit, "High School Confidential", written by Carole Pope and Kevan Staples, founders of the band Rough Trade. Written as an anthem to teenage hormones, it was the song’s openly gay and sexually explicit lyrics, paired with their captivating live shows and a controversial television moment, that propelled Rough Trade from the underground Toronto club scene to the national spotlight. "High School Confidential" ushered in a new era of sexual openness for LGBT and women artists.
The Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame will present the song induction for "High School Confidential" to Pope and Staples on Thursday, September 10, airing on CTV’s Your Morning at 8:45 AM, ET. Following the virtual presentation, the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame will be adding the song to its permanent and interactive exhibition at the National Music Centre in Calgary, that features a celebrated catalogue of inducted songs that fans can listen to, as well as displays, exclusive artifacts, and one-of-a-kind memorabilia celebrating Canada’s greatest songs and songwriting Inductees.
As one of the first openly gay Canadian pop stars, Pope was confident in her sexuality and pushed her provocativeness on stage and off, incorporating bondage and overt sexuality in their performances, and penning lyrics with songwriting partner Kevan Staples that were unapologetically explicit and unabashed. "High School Confidential" was originally written for a male lead to sing, but Pope decided to take on the song herself, recalling, “I didn’t think it would be a big deal that I would be singing about a woman. But when I sang it, it was full of innuendo - a lesbian love song. Quite frankly, we were surprised at how successful we were.”
“Carole Pope and Kevan Staple’s 'High School Confidential' was ground-breaking in so many ways - empowering a generation to express love and sexual desire, no matter what orientation - and turning the tables for women to sing about sex, in a way that only men were allowed to at the time,” said Vanessa Thomas, CSHF Executive Director. “Our mandate at the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame is celebrate the songs and songwriters that have not only contributed to the Canadian musical landscape, but that have also influenced the cultural zeitgeist.”
Pope and Staples first collaborated in the ‘60s, with Carole on vocals and Kevan on guitar (and later keyboards), performing at clubs in Toronto. They quickly gained an underground following of fans who flocked to see their avant-garde performances; and eventually caught the attention of record producer Jack Richardson, and signed with Bernie Finkelstein’s indie label True North Records in 1980 to release the sophomore album, Avoid Freud. Rough Trade recorded "High School Confidential" at Toronto’s Manta Sound studio and borrowed its title from the 1958 film; which like the film, is fraught with teenage hormones and jealousies.
True North released the single despite concerns about its very explicit lyrics. CHUM radio’s music director called Finkelstein to ask if the band could record an edited version to remove one particularly over-the-top lyric: “It makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way.”
Finkelstein remembered, “I took the idea to Carole and Kevan and although they were somewhat reluctant, they were willing to give it a shot.” After some experimentation, they simply bleeped out the offending words.
CHUM aired this edited version, and as Finkelstein explained, “The phone lines lit up. For a while, it was the most requested song on the station. The ‘bleep’ was like honey to a bear.” Listeners rushed out in droves to buy the album in order to hear the uncensored version, driving album sales to platinum. Pushed by the controversy, the single rose to Top 10 on radio stations RPM’s Top 100.
Rough Trade infamously performed "High School Confidential" at the 1980 JUNO Awards, when Pope, on live national television, made a gesture to touch herself that was considered obscene. The impact was felt across the music world. Staples later told the CBC that, “The appearance on the JUNOs was a life-changing moment.” Her performance garnered praise from fellow female artists, and trailblazed the path for the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna to take risks on live mainstream television.
At the 1982 JUNO Awards, Pope and Staples were nominated for Composer Of The Year and Single Of The Year for "High School Confidential"; with Pope winning Female Vocalist Of The Year in 1983, following up her Most Promising Female Vocalist win in 1981. The song was recognized by the CBC as one of the 1980s’ 50 Best Songs; and was re-recorded for TV’s Queer as Folk. In 2017, "High School Confidential" was honoured with a SOCAN Classic Award.
After recording six albums together and a farewell tour in 1986, Pope and Staples went on to pursue separate and successful careers. Staples continues to compose music for television and film. Pope released solo albums including Transcend (2005) and the critically well-received Landfall (2011); and published a bestselling autobiography Anti Diva in 2000. Her latest EP, Music For Lesbians (2015) culminated with a live performance with Peaches on season two of the television series, Transparent.
(Photo - Library & Archives Canada)