The lyrics to “I’m Sorry” are as simple as they come: Brenda just apologizes. There’s no hint in the song as to what her misdeed was, who she wronged, why she’s so self-flagellating even when the person to whom she’s apologizing tells her that “mistakes are part of being young.” “”But that don’t right the wrong that’s been done,” she replies, her voice softly betraying depths of sadness. The nonspecificity of the lyrics could be interpreted as a maneuver to allow for listeners to plug in their own interpretations, but also adds an air of mystery. Is this some simple romantic snag, or is it something so sinister that Lee cannot bring herself to utter it aloud? “I didn’t know love could be so cruel,” she sighs, shaking her head in dejection. It’s a wonder David Lynch hasn’t used it in a movie yet.
The lyrics, although enigmatic, are still rather simple and repetitive on paper. But where lesser singers might have descended into histrionics or insipidness, Lee makes you believe in the sincerity of every apology. The restrained production – muted guitar, minimalist strings, backing singers barely audible except in the spoken interlude – allows for the specter of her voice to fill the record. The unaffected catch in her voice, as in nearly all of her songs, adds an emotional note to the song that feels real when so many others just sing the words on the page. “I’m Sorry” is often considered Lee’s signature “straight” song, although “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” will be around as long as there are winter holidays. But despite her usual brilliant performance, “I’m Sorry” never really lives up to its promise. It’s not a great song, but it’s a good one, and she’s superlative. 7
Hit #1 on July 18, 1960; total of 3 weeks at #1
32 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.32% through the Hot 100