Origin Stories: Carole Pope on Rough Trade’s “High School Confidential”

In Toronto during the early 1980s, Rough Trade was already a local cult legend.

With fiercely audacious Carole Pope at its helm, the group’s racy live show, which combined rock and R&B with raw, unabashed sexuality and often featured Pope sporting bondage attire, was one of the city’s most popular weekly draws.

A far cry from where she and Rough Trade co-founder and keyboardist Kevan Staples began in the late ’60s as members of a folk group called O, it was that envelope-pushing appetite for the outrageous that landed them a record deal with Bernie Finkelstein’s True North Records.

The band’s sophomore album, Avoid Freud, released by True North in the fall of 1980, featured the controversial track “High School Confidential,” which took Rough Trade from underground Toronto chic to critical national acclaim.

At the time of its release, “High School Confidential,” which Pope had originally written for Mink DeVille to perform, was unquestionably the most overt and sexually explicit track to have ever garnered airplay on Canadian mainstream radio.

For longtime fans of Rough Trade, the song’s cheeky, explicit nature was exactly what they had come to know and love about the group. And yet, although quite clearly sung by a woman to a woman, not everyone seemed to get it.

“I think at the time the song was released, the general public interpreted the lyrics as being written from a male perspective,” says Pope. “I guess probably because most people didn’t know I’m a lesbian, but I think that’s what made it work. I mean, I was definitely a woman thinking about a woman,” she adds with a laugh, “but everything was so androgynous in the ’80s. There weren’t so many politically correct terms for things. So, in a way it was way more sexually wide open.”

Though the song reflected both Pope’s identity as a gay woman and the spirit of the culture at the time, the group initially went up against quite a bit of backlash from mainstream radio, particularly in relation to the song’s most infamous lyric: ‘It makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way.’

“CHUM-FM asked us to record a cleaned-up version of the track, but we never really got with the program,” says Pope. “We pretty much went into the studio and pretended to do it. I recorded a few versions, one that said, ‘She makes me want to order Chinese food,’ and another one where I was just making a bunch of sounds, but eventually they had enough of us and just bleeped it.”

But, it didn’t matter; “High School Confidential” went platinum in Canada anyway. Pope had dared to say something at a moment in time when most people weren’t yet accustomed to hearing it, and coming over the airwaves and through the crackle of their speakers, it hit big.

Controversy followed when Rough Trade performed at the 1980 Juno Awards.

“When we performed at the Junos it was this whole scandalous thing,” she says. “I performed with a drag queen and I grabbed my crotch on live TV. I didn’t do it during rehearsal but I knew that they couldn’t stop me during the show so I went for it. Anne Murray actually sent me a note afterward congratulating me, and I still have it––it was pretty funny.

“I’d also like to point out that I grabbed my crotch before both Madonna and Michael Jackson,” adds Pope jokingly. “We did a show in 1983 and Madonna was hanging around there so she probably saw me grab my crotch and put the move in her Madonna rip off file to use later.”

But, looking back on the moment now, Pope feels the whole thing was pretty tame.

“Today, everything is so in your face that it’s totally not sexual. Sure, people who knew us back then were used to seeing me do things like wearing the bondage gear on stage or masturbate on a mic stand, but I still think we were a bit more mysterious. Plus, we had a sense of humour.”

That year Pope took home the Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist and went on to win Best Female Vocalist in 1982 and 1983.

Reflecting on the song almost 30 years later, Pope is modest though not unaware of the influence she’s had.

“Some people have always said, ‘Yeah, it’s a song about high school,’ but others have actually told me that they came out to that song. I know artists like Peaches and k.d. lang have both expressed that they were influenced by me, and I’m a huge fan of them both, so that makes me really happy.

“Being an artist is absolutely about being true to yourself, and I think that when you do that people pick up on it and can relate to it. The idea of doing that and being able to influence other people, I think I’m prouder of that than anything.”

The greatest thing about Rough Trade was that they had a raw fervor that was no-holds-barred, but their message was both smart, and even a bit highbrow. Being a Rough Trade fan was kind of like being in a secret club for the less uptight, and Pope’s appeal was the way in which she both directly and intentionally stood up to the conservative establishment and spoke unapologetically to and for those who were capable of tapping into the cultural subtext of the time.

By being her truest self, Pope came to represent a generation of young people that were soul searching for their sexual identities, and she left a door wide open so a new crop of bold, young artists could walk through it with their heads held high.

[This article was originally published via the National Music Centre.]

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