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 – ranting or raving about particular films, pontificating about the TV cliché of Conveniently Timed Miscarriage, and discussing general theories and ideas. During one of these conversations, my husband – who knows very little about film but a ton about music – suggested that I devote some time and energy to researching representations of abortion in popular music. And it took me a while – okay, months – but I finally did it.

Google “abortion music” and one of the first hits will be to 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 back story 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 “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.”

As powerful as “Hello Birmingham” is, DiFranco’s “Lost Woman Song” is equally compelling. 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. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments – 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

This post originally appeared on the blog Generation Roe.

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.

Comments

  1. A really great song by Digable Planets called “La Femme Fetal” is about abortion.

    “Hey beautiful bird,” I said, digging her somber mood
    “The fascists are some heavy dudes
    They don’t really give a damn about life
    They just don’t want a woman to
    Control her body or have the right to choose

  2. Those two Ani DiFranco songs are powerful and beautiful.

  3. Amanda Palmer’s song “Oasis” is also about her experience with an abortion, following her rape at a party. It’s a surprisingly upbeat song, melody-wise, which she’s stated before is intentional.

    People have actually gotten mad at her for being so light-hearted about it. I’ve heard that a thing she likes to do is to start the song off very slowly and morosely at concerts… and then dash right back into the beach party-like beat of the recording.

    • That sounds like a powerful juxtaposition of words and music. And it’s interesting that Palmer has been criticized for her approach, as though there’s a ‘right’ way to talk about abortion.

  4. Kristin Newman says:

    There is a verse in Anna Nalick’s song Breathe that alludes to taking her friend to an abortion clinic, I believe:
    2 AM and she calls me ’cause I’m still awake,
    “Can you help me unravel my latest mistake?,
    I don’t love him. Winter just wasn’t my season”
    Yeah we walk through the doors, so accusing their eyes
    Like they have any right at all to criticize,
    Hypocrites. You’re all here for the very same reason.”

  5. Great post!

  6. Great article. Thanks for an interesting run-down!

    The song “Rapid City, South Dakota”, by satirical country singer Kinky Friedman, has lyrics about a young man leaving a good-bye note for his girlfriend and hitching a ride out of the country town he grew up in. It doesn’t seem to be about abortion, but it has just one cryptic line in it: “There’s a doctor in Chicago, I know she’ll be alright”. Friedman has called it “the world’s only pro-choice country song”, and explains that his own uncle was the “doctor in Chicago” – who performed safe abortions for women in need before it was legal.

    • Thanks, Kevin! I need to check out Rapid City. I didn’t know that about Friedman’s uncle, that’s an interesting layer to the song.

  7. Wow, I had no idea that people sing about abortion so much! I hope we can get out more pro-choice voices!

  8. “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.”

    Yeah because we don’t hear enough of those.

  9. Wendy Lyon says:

    Heavens to Betsy- “Baby’s Gone”
    It’s about the narrator dying from an illegal abortion.
    Heavens to Betsy were an Olympia band from the early ’90s. They played this at the original Riot Grrrl Convention in DC in 1992, it was immensely powerful.

  10. eve massacre says:

    Jello Biafra & Mojo Nixon – ‘Will the fetus be aborted’
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cz_AvMGge48

    Peggy Sue
    Got pregnant
    And was addicted to fifteen drugs
    She went down
    To the abortion clinic
    And was accosted
    By right wing thugs

    Oh will the fetus
    Be aborted
    By and by Lord
    By and by
    There’s a better
    Home awaiting
    In the sky Lord
    In the sky

    Little Mary
    Was just eleven
    And she was raped
    By her own dad
    Danny Quayle said
    Have that baby
    But another choice
    She had

    Oh will the fetus
    Be aborted
    By and by Lord
    By and by
    There’s a better
    Home awaiting
    In the sky Lord
    In the sky

    Annie’s pregnancy
    Would kill her
    Doctor’s warning
    Gave her strife
    Fundamentalists
    Said Jesus take her
    She said, I want
    My right to life

    Oh will the fetus
    Be aborted
    By and by Lord
    By and by
    There’s a better
    Home awaiting
    In the sky Lord
    In the sky

    Kathy had two
    Kids already
    And an abortion
    Is what she chose
    Christian showed her
    A bloody fetus
    She said That’s fine
    I’ll have one of those.

    Oh will the fetus
    Be aborted
    By and by Lord
    By and by
    There’s a better
    Home awaiting
    In the sky Lord
    In the sky

    Tanya lived for
    Revolution
    Wanted to overthrow
    The state
    She had fifteen
    Commie babies
    Phylis Schlafly
    Ain’t that great?

    Or will the fetus
    Be aborted…

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