Ringo Starr’s great drumming and affable personality earned him a place in the musical pantheon, but even legends misfire from time to time. On his third album Ringo, Starr included a cover of the song “You’re Sixteen.” The content of this song wasn’t as glaringly problematic when it was released, but the notion of an adult man signing about the beauty of an adolescent girl only gets creepier with time.
The incorporation of a young Carrie Fisher into the promotion of the song is also uncomfortable, given the significant difference in age between her and Starr.
Starr’s cover was the last big hit of his career
Released in 1973, Ringo is a notable record for several reasons. It is one of the few occasions where all four of the Beatles collaborated on the same project, albeit on different songs. It was also the commercial peak of Starr’s solo career.
The album is certified platinum in America, with “You’re Sixteen” becoming one of the artist’s two number one hits. That fact is weird both because the song isn’t very good and because the lyrics are glorifying unethical behavior.
The song, originally performed by rockabilly singer Johnny Burnette in 1960 and written by the Sherman Brothers, is the protagonist’s ode to their relationship with a teenage lover.
Burnette was 26 when he released the original version of the song, but as Tom Breihan wrote in a review for Stereogum, it was created during an earlier era of pop music where musicians were more upfront about inhabiting characters to appease certain audiences.
But Starr choosing to bring this song out of the past when he was married at 33 years old remains a bizarre choice. (Starr and his first wife Maureen Cox divorced in 1975.) Perhaps the cover was just the result of uncomplicated nostalgia.
Starr’s cover of “You’re Sixteen” came out during a renaissance for ’50s music in mainstream culture. The song would also appear on the soundtrack of American Graffiti in the same year. Whatever Starr’s reason for making the song, “You’re Sixteen” has no merit in modern times.
Starr worked with Fisher for a duet and the music video
Four years after the song peaked on the charts, Starr included a music video for “You’re Sixteen” as part of his 1978 variety special, also titled Ringo. Like most vanity TV programs of the time, the special, which was based on the story of The Prince and the Pauper, is a cheesy time capsule at best, attempting to mythologize Starr with a forgettable narrative and a ton of song and dance numbers.
The updated version of “You’re Sixteen” was now a duet between Starr and Carrie Fisher. Fisher was a breakout star at the time, having made her debut as Princess Leia in Star Wars: A New Hope the year before. She was 21 at the time, but she was still playing a 16-year-old, while Starr was 37. The creepiness factor was still firmly intact.
As the years go by, the concept of ‘You’re Sixteen’ gets more and more discomfiting
Judging older media by the standards of the present is often an unfair position, but when it comes to subject matter like the sexualization of young girls, there’s no justifiable way to ignore the improper nature of the concept. It is true that at the time when Starr released the song, most people didn’t consider it weird that a fully-grown man would sexually pursue someone less than half their age.
Marvin Gaye famously had a child with 15-year-old Denise Gordy and married 17-year-old Janis Hunter. There are plenty of stories of other beloved stars engaging in similar behavior. But those choices should’ve been criticized then and must be curbed now.
As this Huffington Post piece from 2016 points out, an adult having sex with a 16-year-old wasn’t considered statutory rape or criminal in 1973, which fed into the acceptance of such inappropriate dynamics at the time.