The cultural struggle around female bodies in pop music: Songs about abortions


Illustration: Yella Roth

In the spirit of slow journalism, we are not giving in to the next and newest hype this month. Instead, we take our time and listen more closely, looking for the distinctly feminist perspective on pop culture.
The second text of the series curated by Aida Baghernejad, Julia Lorenz searches for traces: Songs about abortions are a reflection of the history of the debate on this complicated subject – including its voids. After all, the cultural battle for female bodies is also being fought out in pop music.

Before people could sing about sex, people were singing about parsley. And it went like this:

Rosmary and Thyme
are growing in our garden.
Our Gretchen is the bride
doesn’t want to wait.
Red wine and white wine,
tomorrow the wedding is supposed to be.
Parsley pot herb
are growing in our garden.
Mother give me a man,
I can’t wait any longer.

The ten verses of the German children’s song “Petersilie Suppenkraut” contain centuries of gynecological history. Women used rosemary and thyme as contraceptives long before the pill and condoms existed. What is particularly fascinating, however, is that parsley also grows in the garden this song is about, since it is regarded as a natural agent for abortion. Does the parsley indicate that Gretchen didn’t want to wait until the wedding night after all and has had an abortion already? Or does the lyrical I in the song so urgently need a man because she is pregnant herself and doesn’t want to bring disgrace upon the family?

People want to capture in their music what concerns them. If it is a taboo subject it is just double and triple coded. Abortion was such a taboo subject, and you could even say that it still is. Although we talk about abortions more openly than perhaps ever before, the subject still causes a lot of discomfort. Bad material for casual pop songs.

Although presumably no one can think of five songs about abortion as spontaneously as about separation or love, the pop history knows countless songs about unwanted pregnancies and abortions; from country to rap, from Joni Mitchell (“The Beat of Black Wings”) to the Sex Pistols (“Bodies”), but more about that later. Some songs deal with the subject explicitly, others in such an enigmatic way that the meaning remains hidden for a long time: For years Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac did not mention that their classic “Sara” was about her unplanned pregnancy with her then boyfriend Don Henley. Songs like this, which explicitly or implicitly deal with abortion, are mirroring the history of the debate on the subject, including its gaps. The cultural battle for women’s bodies is also fought in pop music.

From a taboo to a controversy

While during the pre-pop era garden herbs had to serve as a cipher, later on it was those who were not directly affected who spoke about abortion: Men. And they were particularly loud. Quite a few male rock or metal bands have a “Pro Life” song in their repertoire – for example Type O Negative or the Christian nu-metal band P.O.D. Slayer, on the other hand, were not above using the topic of abortion for a splatter track (“Silent Scream”), and the Sex Pistols also made a provocation song on the topic: In “Bodies” singer John Lydon describes a certain Pauline who has just had an abortion as a “bloody disgrace” (“She was a no-one who killed her baby /… / She was an animal / She was a bloody disgrace”) – which is why the song was often interpreted as a “Pro Life” statement. Lydon always made it clear that “Bodies” didn’t take sides and even claimed that probably no other song was more direct about the torments of abortion.

Especially musicians who otherwise aren’t exactly noted for their introspection, manage to find unknown emotionality when dealing with abortions. In his song “Abortion”, weapons-lover Kid Rock lets a potential father commit suicide after an abortion out of sorrow for his loss. Even though Kid Rock speaks out against prohibiting abortion ((„I am no fan of abortion, but it’s not up to a man to tell a woman what to do”)“, he told the “Guardian”), with this song he provides an perfect example of the strategy of many abortion “sceptics” or opponents to shift the discourse, away from the needs of women, towards “social responsibility” and the feelings of the progenitor.

But also female artists, for example the folk singer Julie Miller (“Dangerous Place”), supported the “pro-life” faction with morality and melodramatic songs. Mostly, however, they are rather unknown folk singers who otherwise operate in the usual circles.
And vice versa, there are men who tackle the topic in solidarity with women: With their song “Moral Majority” the Dead Kennedys condemned the Christian fundamentalist and anti-abortion organization of the same name; in “Don’t Pray on Me” the punk band Bad Religion found clear words against reactionarists who want to control women and their bodies. One of the most sensitive songs from the perspective of the bystander was written by Hamburg singer-songwriter Bernd Begemann: “Die Nacht vor der Abtreibung” (The night before the abortion).

Complex Feelings

Although pregnancy terminations are one of the most common procedures in the field of gynecology, and although pretty much every woman knows people who are affected, you have to look a little more closely for autobiographical songs on the subject. The American songwriter Ani DiFranco sang (“Lost Woman Song”), Nicki Minaj rapped several times about her abortion (“All things Go”, “Autobiography”). One of the most unusual first-person tunes on the topic was published in 1996 by Chan Marshall alias Cat Power. In “Nude as the News” she addresses the announcement of being pregnant (“Jackson, Jesse, I’ve got a son in me”) to the children of her idol as if she wanted to call them for help: Jackson and Jesse are Patti Smith’s son and daughter. Children, who the heroine once chose to have.

The song is also unusual because it resists a clear evaluation of the events. After all, when songs tell about abortions from a female perspective, whether autobiographical or not, the lyrics often express remorse, shame and trauma. Abortion is negotiated as a turning point, as the ultimate hardship in the life of a woman that often even means death:

In the song “Die Of Shame” from the US punk band Tilt, a girl dies trying to perform the procedure on her own. The same fate is suffered by the protagonists in Cindy Lauper’s “Sally’s Pigeons” and “Baby’s Gone”, a song by the Riot Grrrl band Heavens to Betsy. And in Shakira’s song “Se Quiere, Se Mata”, which was a hit in Mexico in the mid-90s, a young woman dies during the surgery.

The Berlin rapper Kitty Kat describes her abortion as a serious turning point in her life. In her song “Verzeih mir” (Forgive Me) she addresses the unborn child just as emotionally as the journalist Oriana Fallaci did in her 1975 “Brief an nie geborenes Kind” (Letter to a Child Never Born); Kitty Cat, however, apologizes for having followed the advice of her environment:

“Die Ärzte sagten damals, du könntest behindert sein
Und 17 Jahre konnten das noch nicht entscheiden
Und die Hälfte meiner Leute rieten mir, dich abzutreiben
Ich war so durcheinander, Mama hatte so viel Angst
Ich war so unerfahren, auf dass du mir verzeihen kannst”

(Back then, the doctors said you might be disabled.
And 17 years couldn’t decide that.
And half of my people told me to have an abortion.
I was so confused, Mama was so scared.
I was so inexperienced, hope you can forgive me.)

Even in the probably best-known song about an unplanned pregnancy, Madonna’s 1980’s hit “Papa Don’t Preach”, the people’s opinion plays a central role, but the outcome is completely different here: It’s not the abortion that is the sin, but the decision for the child. Papa, don’t preach, the daughter appeals to the hard-nosed father, I will have the child. No matter what everyone thinks. Whatever a woman decides: At some point in the unwanted pregnancy she has to repent.

Remorse as a stereotype

If abortions are the subject of pop music, there is a lot of suffering, and for good reasons. Because women who become pregnant unplanned are stigmatised, by society and in many countries by the law, by insensitive doctors, partners and parents. Many of them torture themselves, some even because they were not truly committed to the decision. But, some statistics are necessary: For the majority, the situation is different. According to a representative study made in the USA, 95 percent of women do not regret their abortion, neither immediately afterwards nor years later.

Anyone who concludes from this figure that women approach the subject lightly should probably listen to “My Truth”, the second album by Swedish pop singer Robyn. On the R’n’B pop song “88 Days” she lights a mourning candle for the child she didn’t want to have. And the ballad “Giving You Back” deals with the event as well:

“In another time
Another life
In another situation I
Would have made you mine
Would have taken time
To make sure you’d be fine
Right now, nothing can be right
Right now, nothing can be wrong
All I can do is keep believing”

For Robyn her fetus was not nothing either, but a you, the possibility of a human being. But unlike Kitty Kat, for example, Robyn sings about her melancholy instead of doubting the decision: Because she found the pregnancy enriching (“With you in me, I was beautiful / Two months of joy”) – but still didn’t want to have a child under the circumstances she was in. “Nothing can be right, nothing can be wrong”: That’s just how it often is in life, especially when it comes to pregnancy termination.

Discourse without nuances

Such nuances are rare, in social debate as well as in pop music. Talking about contradictory feelings is challenging for unintentionally pregnant women. After all, if a woman admits to having experienced pain over the course of her abortion, she somehow agrees with the “pro lifers” – at least from their point of view. The fact that sadness and feelings of guilt are not the same; that there is a huge spectrum of emotions ranging from trauma to indifference, from melancholy to pure relief, all of this is of little interest to abortion opponents.

The ground on which is discourse is held is very fragile, even and especially in music. From Warsaw to Washington, women take to the streets to demonstrate for their right for self-determination, yet there is still no mainstream anthem for the pro-choice faction, no “Respect” or “Survivor”. Songs such as “My Body, My Choice” by the English all-girl punk band Pussyliquor have not yet reached a wide audience.

But even rarer than slogans are songs that describe abortions as what they have been for centuries: Everyday life. Not every abortion is a drama. Every day countless women decide to have abortions, on a social level the intervention (note: when I talk about “intervention” here, I mean the abortion up to the 3rd month) has long been normality. But law and morality are reversing the formula “simple intervention, tricky feelings” to the opposite, turning routine intervention (yes, for some very painful ones) into a big deal – and suppressing the discourse about the complex feelings that follow.

Abortions as part of everyday life

The New York artist Amanda Palmer describes this contradiction in her song “Voicemail for Jill”. Both in interviews and in songs from her former band The Dresden Dolls, Palmer openly talks about the fact that she herself has already had three abortions. But the song is addressed to a friend:

“Jill, it’s Amanda, just waving from London
I know that you’re going tomorrow, the hardest decision
And I’ve been on the side of the phone for a month
And I know you’re in hell and you know that I know what you’re feeling
Life’s such a bitch, isn’t it?
When you have a baby, they throw you a party
And then when you die they get together for a cry
But no one’s gonna celebrate you
No one’s gonna bring you cake
And no one’s gonna shower you with flowers
The doctor won’t congratulate you
No one on that pavement’s gonna
Shout at you that your heart also matters”

Palmer poses the legitimate question of why people throw roaring parties for pregnant women and the deceased – while no one thinks about getting a cake or using strengthening words for women who decide to have an abortion. As expected, the mere idea of an “abortion party” turned Christian media against Palmer. Only a few articles cite that she calls Jill’s choice “the hardest decision”.

A song that takes the horror out of abortion still seems revolutionary today. Even though one of the most direct, most crass, and even funniest songs on the subject was released in 1978: When Nina Hagen released her song “Unbeschreiblich weiblich” (Indescribably Female) it had only been seven years since the famous “Stern” cover had 374 women proclaiming: “I’ve had an abortion”. The silence was broken, then Hagen came and sang in theatrical phrasing:

“Ich war schwanger
Mir ging’s zum Kotzen
Ich wollt’s nicht haben, musste gar nicht erst nach fragen
Ick fress’ Tabletten
Und überhaupt, Mann
Ich schaff’ mir keine kleinen Kinder an

Nein, nein, nein
Warum soll ich meine Pflicht als Frau erfüll’n?
Für wen?
Für die?
Für dich?
Für mich?”

(I was pregnant
I felt like puking
I didn’t want to get it, didn’t have to ask
I eat pills
and in general, dude
I won’t get any children

No, no, no
Why should I perform my duty as a woman?
For whom?
For them?
For you?
For me?)

As strong as she is in the song, as bad are Hagen’s experiences. In her biography, she described how her environment urged her to terminate for the second time – and how her attending doctor sexually harassed her. “Unbeschreiblich weiblich” is a brash plea for self-determination, interpreted by a traumatised person. Demonstrating to the world that this doesn’t have to be a contradiction is the achievement of this song. And Hagen also shows the “Pro-Life” faction another self-evident fact: decisions are momentary snapshots. You can advocate abortions – and still love children above all else. Because three years after Hagen so defiantly announced that she didn’t want children, she gave birth to her daughter Cosma Shiva.

Julia Lorenz is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. She writes for taz, Musikexpress, Zitty, Tip Berlin and others. Recently she asked herself why she can spontaneously think of a hundred songs about feminism – but not one about abortion or physical self-determination right away.

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