It would be neat symmetry to think of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” as a rebuke to the previous number-one’s questionable sexual politics. But even if there had been a gap between the two records’ releases, you get the sense that “Boots” would’ve been too cool to pay that melodramatic throwback any attention. Whereas the conventional gender attitudes and Four Seasons-esque falsetto leaps of “Lightnin’ Strikes” fit squarely within the mold of early ’60s pop (even as its weirdness elevates it to some other dimension), Nancy Sinatra’s self-assured sexiness and tart, plainspoken vocals epitomized the increasing directness of the latter half of the decade. Even the fact that she was singing about boots – rugged men’s footwear co-opted as ultra-mod women’s fashion, both covering legs and emphasizing their form – felt hip and transgressive.
The tension between the masculine and the feminine recurs throughout Sinatra’s ’60s discography, particularly in her collaborations with songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood. Their duets emphasize the gender divide by casting them as extreme archetypes: him, the hard-bitten rambler; her, the dewy-eyed siren. (The 1967 single “Some Velvet Morning” even fluctuates between time signatures depending on who’s singing.) On “Boots,” though, Sinatra is left to inhabit both roles by herself. By wedding her girlish purr to Hazlewood’s terse, tough-guy phrasing, Sinatra both confirms and subverts conventional expectations of femininity, turning “Boots” into a cross between a come-on and a threat.
Any hint of danger in the record, however, is mostly defused by its sense of humor, from the childlike vernacular (“truthin’,” “samin’”), to the flamboyantly upbeat horns, to Chuck Berghofer’s heat-warped doublebass slide, at once foreboding and absurd. Even Sinatra’s warning that “one of these days, these boots are gonna walk all over you” is delivered with a wink. Is this playfulness meant to assure listeners that her forwardness is just role-playing, that they don’t have to take her seriously? Or is the song tripling back on itself, smuggling in a pro-feminist message in the guise of just kidding? (Sinatra’s wry delivery does suggest she’s telling a joke to someone who’s not getting it, and relishing the thought of how hard the punchline will land once he does.) Perhaps “Boots” and “Lightnin’ Strikes” aren’t so different after all. In an era where traditional gender roles were being questioned, both songs offer ambiguous answers, muddying the waters between what’s intended to be ironic and what’s just camp. 8
Hit #1 on February 26, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
155 of 1016 #1′s reviewed; 15.26% through the Hot 100