That time when abortion songs were big hits
These tracks left such an impression that many people who came of age during this decade can still spout lyrics at a glance. But why did several musical artists suddenly release songs about abortion – and why did they resonate so deeply at this time?
The skeleton key is, I think, masculinity. All of these songs are about abortion as a threat to manhood. In “Slide”, the singer no longer imagines becoming a man. In “Brick”, he is reduced to a state of lonely desolation. In “The Freshmen”, he is guilty and unable to form relationships. In “Retrospect for Life”, he recounts how his maturation into manhood and fatherhood was short-circuited by his girlfriend’s abortion. There is a sense of being adrift in all of these narratives, as if men experience abortion as a disorienting loss of control and displacement from their role as caretakers of the family. They had come to feel obsolete, downgraded, superfluous.
On the one hand, this self-pity is, well, pathetic – men having abortions their and complain about having to cede power. But admitting that, it’s also true that these songs were about remaking masculinity. They signaled a shift to a more expressive and vulnerable emotional register and moved away from masculinity as something bold and aggressive, success and dominance.
I contacted Brian Vander Ark, songwriter and lead singer of The Verve Pipe, a post-grunge band from East Lansing, Michigan, which formed in 1991. They went platinum in 1997 with their debut album studio, “Villains,” which sold over 3 million copies, fueled primarily by their abortion-centric song, “The Freshmen.” I asked him why he wrote a song about a subject that for decades had rarely been discussed.
“I had no intention of writing a song about abortion,” he said. “As a songwriter, you kind of go where the muse takes you, and I found a phrase — ‘stop a baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice’ — that grounded the song . I mean, at the time I was going through a crisis. The girl I was dating got pregnant, and she told me afterwards that she had an abortion. She had seen someone else, so neither of us knew who the father was. And growing up in a very conservative Reformed Christian home, I struggled with guilt. It was just cathartic to release the lyrics into the world as a way to half-acknowledge my participation, because I struggled to process them.
In the song, the girlfriend dies by suicide – there is a line about how she took “a week of Valium and slept”. If he could do it again, he would cut that line, because it didn’t happen in real life. But he’s also candid that not all of the lyrical pieces of the puzzle fit together. Case in point: Writing the song from a cabin on Gull Lake near Kalamazoo, Michigan, he glanced at a VHS tape he’d rented the night before, a movie starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick. “The Freshman” became “The Freshmen”, expressing the vague sense of reckless innocence he was striving to capture. Later, he looked up and saw the Divinyls’ music video for “I Touch Myself” on MTV and simply transcribed the image on the screen for a line in the song: “She was touching her face.”
On one level, this is a satisfying, albeit typical, origin story. The artist broods in isolation, pours imaginative power over a psychic wound and emerges with something bold and angsty. But broader cultural and political forces were also shaping the moment.
Roe v. Wade’s 1973 Supreme Court ruling overturning most abortion restrictions had failed to break the silence that hung over the music industry about abortion. Even Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” was banned from radio when it was released in 1975, a signal that whatever gender roles were changing in America, not even prophylaxis was airborne. A decade later, Madonna’s 1986 single “Papa Don’t Preach” – in which she challenge parental pressure by swearing to keep her baby – was enough to trigger howls of moral panic. So why, in the 90s, did this iron curtain suddenly lift?
That is to say that it did not work for women. Swedish singer Robyn had her second album, ‘My Truth’, blocked in the United States in 1999 because she refused to bow to pressure from her international distribution label, RCA Records, to rewrite the lyrics to two songs dealing with of abortion. she had in her teens.
RCA Records also represented Brian Vander Ark and The Verve Pipe.
“RCA put up no roadblocks, never talked to us about changing a lyric, never even seemed to care,” he says now. “And I always felt like ‘The Freshmen’ was pretty obviously about abortion. Look, I’d bet it had to do with me being a man and her breaking some code of femininity. It’s sad too, especially on an album called ‘My Truth’, when you have this bold opening, to then be silenced by the male gatekeepers of the industry.
Vander Ark put a lot of thought into this. He knows it is shocking in 2022 to re-listen to his abortion story, which only highlights his male perspective and emphatically unloads his responsibilities. “I would never dare to come out today and say, ‘Hey ladies, let me tell you my abortion story.’ I would never do this in a million years, but back then, no, I never asked him if I could write about it, I never thought about it and I think we could all be guilty of being prisoners of the times we live in, ambitious to score a hit – and you kind of ignore everything else. He didn’t feel bad then. It hurts now.
Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist who studies media representations of abortion, points out that the 1990s “were a huge inflection point for abortion politics”. A 1992 Supreme Court case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, upheld the right to abortion under Roe v. Wade, but brought to light new restrictions on the practice. Opposition to abortion has become a litmus test for Republican candidates. On top of all that, “we’ve seen intensified bombings of clinics and targeted killings of providers — an orchestrated effort to terrorize women seeking abortions and shut down the facilities that provide them,” says Sisson, who is a member of the University of California San Francisco Research Group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health.
Meanwhile, Sisson says, cultural scripts for female artists left no room for them to portray the reality of abortion. “You had female pop stars like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson who built their sex appeal on the myth – whether true or not – of their intact virginity. Women remained desirable as long as they weren’t tainted by actual sex.
With support for abortion rights waning, Clinton-era Democrats retreated to the mantra that abortion should be “safe, legal and” – here’s the watchword – “rare”, as a tragic necessity. TV shows such as “Dallas,” “21 Jump Street,” “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Melrose Place,” and “Roseanne” featured storylines retracing an agonizing decision, with much hesitation about whether to abort. – but a spontaneous miscarriage or near false positive would often obviate the need to terminate the pregnancy. In TV shows and movies in which women have had abortions, the outcome carried a morbid undercurrent of fatalism. In “The Crime of Father Amaro”, for example, a woman who terminates an unwanted pregnancy dies of a uterine hemorrhage. In other tales, the women survive the procedure but endure some sort of cosmic reward by dying by another accident of fate.
This cultural backdrop helps explain the tragedy and angst that permeates 90s music about abortion. In retrospect, the famous refrain of Vander Ark’s song – “I won’t be held accountable” – fairly accurately describes a media culture that evaded the reality of abortion.
Today, a quarter of a century later, the right to abortion is much more threatened. As the Supreme Court debates whether to end the constitutional right to abortion, Vander Ark fears he was too cavalier at the time – and that his song added to the cultural narrative of the abortion as pessimistic and guilt-inducing.
“Ah, man, I have a visceral reaction of sadness,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking to me that this is where we ended up today.”
Tom Joudrey is a Pennsylvania-based writer who covers politics and culture. Follow him on Twitter @TomJoudrey.