Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Abortion in Music

Last summer, I wrote a series of posts for Feminists for Choice about how abortion and unplanned pregnancy have been represented in film and television. This was a rather time-consuming project, and as a result I ended up talking about it a lot with my husband Рranting or raving about particular films, pontificating about the TV clich̩ of Conveniently Timed Miscarriage, and discussing general theories and ideas. During one of these conversations, my husband Рwho knows very little about film but a ton about music Рsuggested that I devote some time and energy to researching representations of abortion in popular music. And it took me a while Рokay, months Рbut I finally did.

Google “abortion music” and one of the first hits will be the Wikipedia page “List of Songs About Abortion.” And man, is it extensive – much more so than I was expecting. I hadn’t heard – or heard of – a lot of the songs listed; my tastes run towards rock and alternative, and Christian pop was pretty heavily represented on the list. So, no big surprise there. What did surprise me, however, was seeing songs that I knew pretty well but never made the connection that they involved abortion.

For instance, “The Freshmen” by the Verve Pipe. That song was huge when I was in college. Like, inescapable to the point that I didn’t even like it that much, yet I recognized it instantly. I thought it was about a bad breakup, but as the band’s lead vocalist Brian Vander Ark explained in an interview, “… I used a dramatic license to have the girl commit suicide when she is actually still alive and well. But, for the most part, yeah. She had the abortion and that’s about the whole story.” So I went back and read the lyrics – and discovered that the line I always heard as “stomp on baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice,” which I interpreted as failed dreams of marriage, was actually “Stop a baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice.” Hunh.

Then there’s “Slide” by the Goo Goo Dolls, which I’ve listened to far too many times and still can’t tell if it’s pro- or anti-choice. After all, the line “Do you love the life you killed" sounds pretty harsh, but the following lyrics, about the girl being disowned by her angry parents and the narrator recognizing that he can't change what happened, coupled with the overall sense that the narrator and the girl really love each other ("What you feel is what you are/And what you are is beautiful") hint at a more complicated situation.

I’ve long known that “Brick” by Ben Folds Five is about abortion, but I was still interested to read this interview that Folds did with Paste magazine, that includes some background on the song. “Folds wrote the song about taking his high-school girlfriend to get an abortion, and on a live CD released in 2002 capped off a rehashing of its backstory by noting, “It was a very sad thing, but I didn’t really want to write the song from any kind of political standpoint or make a statement. I just wanted to reflect on what it feels like.”

Marilyn Manson was making a statement with his song “Get Your Gunn,” as he explains in this 1999 article he wrote for Rolling Stone. "The title is spelled with two n's because the song was a reaction to the murder of Dr. David Gunn, who was killed in Florida by pro-life activists while I was living there. That was the ultimate hypocrisy I witnessed growing up: that these people killed someone in the name of being "pro-life."

Cyndi Lauper’s song “Sally’s Pigeons” also deals with abortion and death. The lyrics tell the story of the narrator’s friend, who becomes pregnant and seeks an illegal abortion: “She left one night with just a nod/was lost from some back alley job.”

Other artists on the list that caught my eye include Kid Rock, whose song “Abortion” drew the praise of the anti-choice Rock for Life. My opinions on the song are mixed; after all, I’m automatically going to dislike anything that Rock for Life supports, but it is interesting to hear a male perspective on abortion.

And then there’s Tammy Lynn Starlite and her song “God Has Lodged a Tenant in My Uterus.” Starlite is the creation of singer/actress Tammy Lang, who was inspired to develop the character as a reaction to the mid-90s resurgence of conservative Republicanism. “Uterus” is a satirical song, and a response to Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any lyrics to “Uterus,” but this Salon profile does a brilliant job of setting up the song.

I was also interested to read about singer Peggy Seeger’s song “The Judge’s Chair.” The song was written for NARAL, but as Seeger recounts, “They didn't like [it] at all. It's not what they wanted. On the other hand, it stops people in their tracks. And it stops me in my tracks when I sing it. What they wanted was an anthem that everybody could join in and sing on.” The song is pretty amazing, and I think this was definitely NARAL’s loss.

And of course, no discussion about abortion in music would be complete without including Ani DiFranco. In an interview last year, DiFranco discussed her views on abortion. "Women have a specific experience in society that is not specifically addressed in the law of our land. I think the state-by-state, case-by-case quibbling over things like abortion is very much used as a tool to divide people. … In my new songs I'm trying to find a way to sing the word patriarchy, to sing the word abortion. For me, they are as important as love and skies and rain and angels … the things you hear every day, all day long.”

DiFranco’s song “Hello Birmingham,” about the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, is one of the most powerful songs about abortion – and choice and love and politics and pain – ever written. I listened to it over and over when writing Generation Roe – sometimes I couldn’t even start working until I’d had a listen. It’s almost impossible to pick out a favorite verse, but the one that always sticks in my mind is this: “a bullet came to visit a doctor/in his one safe place/a bullet insuring the right to life/whizzed past his kid and his wife/and knocked his glasses/right off of his face.”

Equally as powerful as “Hello Birmingham” is DiFranco’s “Lost Woman Song”. I have to confess that it took me a while to realize that it was about abortion; for a long time I thought it was just a beautiful song. And it is – and really, I think that the best songs that address abortion, either pro-choice or anti, are the ones that make you think about what you’re hearing. It’s more difficult to address politics in a three-minute song than in a two-hour film or even one-hour TV show – not just are you dealing with a very short amount of time to tell your story, you often don’t have the benefit of a lot of context for that story or those words. I know there are a lot of songs on that Wikipedia list, and beyond, that are just as moving or thought-provoking or passionate as the ones I’ve discussed here. But for now, let me leave you with my favorite words from “Lost Woman Song.”

mine was a relatively easy tragedy
now the profile of our country
looks a little less hard nosed
but that picket line persisted
and that clinic's since been closed
they keep pounding their fists on reality
hoping it will break
but i don't think there's a one of us
leads a life free of mistakes


  1. I'd be really interested in reading your piece on abortion on TV. I'm annoyed that unwanted pregnancy is such a common fixture in sitcoms and in movies, yet female characters always make the "right" choice to keep their babies, and are subsequently depicted as living easy, happy lives with never a care or regret. It's a not-so-subtle message that tells girls that teenage motherhood isn't all that difficult or stressful, and that everything will magically fall into place for them. Which would be great, if it were even remotely true.

  2. Also, since your blog is so successful and long-standing and I've been having some trouble getting mine off the ground, I was wondering if you would "follow" me and include me on your blogroll.


    Give it a look, and of course feel free to delete this comment afterwards. Thanks!