Reachin’ Not Drowning: Songs in Conversation About Abortion

n.b. Songs in Conversation is a series of posts in which I write about two songs together. Sometimes the artists or thematic concerns makes the pairing obvious, for others, the songs have somehow fallen together in my mind, answering each other in unexpected ways despite being from different times or genres.

According to Wikipedia, there is a pretty long list of songs about (or that mention) abortion. I was surprised there were so many, but I was not surprised that most of them were not really very popular songs. It seems that the potential consequences of all that sex and love that pop songs are obsessed with does not make for as catchy and as upbeat a song as many of us would probably prefer. Abortion makes even the saddest of popular love songs into too much of a bummer. Of course, there are always exceptions. Recently skipping 1997’s “Brick” by Ben Folds Five during a re-listen of the band’s Whatever and Ever Amen album, and the fact that I never skip the other song about abortion that I know well, “La Femme Fétal” off of Digable Planets’s debut album, 1993’s Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), got me thinking about abortion as a song topic. I decided they’d make a good pair for my “Songs in Conversation” series.

As the list I referred to above makes clear, these are not the only two pop songs about abortion by far, but as two that pierced my consciousness in the 1990s I can’t but think about them together. They both came out in the 90s, both tell stories, and both are by men (while Mecca the Ladybug was part of Digable Planets, neither she, nor the other member of the band, Doodlebug, appear on the track, which was written and produced by Ishmael Butler (aka Butterfly)). Yet while “Brick” was Ben Folds Five’s breakout hit—the kind of Top 40 song that makes fans of the first album decry that their favorite band has sold out—“La Femme Fétal” is an album deep cut, a song that is probably unknown to many fans of DP’s one hit, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat).”

I love Digable Planets and that first album, Reachin’, has been in some kind of steady rotation for me for the last 26 years. Despite the fact that not one of the three members of the band are from New York City, their lyrics and attitude capture a sense of that fly city as I like to remember it. I had been planning to write a post about this entire album (kind of like I did for Prince’s 1999), and maybe I still will, but it is suffice to say that DP’s reflective and intelligent raps, seamless appropriation and transfiguration of jazz samples, and playful integration of funkadelic cosmic sensibilities makes Reachin’ a stand out. Listen to “Where I’m From” for an example of what there is to love.

“La Femme Fétal” makes use of the band’s soulful jazz funk approach—sampling multiple elements from The Last Poets’ “Jazzoetry” (1976), and suturing it to a bit of the outro to “O.D.” by Jimi Hendrix, Lightning Rod, and Buddy Miles (1969) for a loop that provides a smooth electric piano and bass groove—but instead of a roving discourse tied loosely by theme like most of the other tracks on the record, this one tells a story. In the song, the speaker, Butterfly, visits Nikki, a friend that called him over because “a problem of great magnitude has arose / and as we speak it grows.” She explains, “You remember my boyfriend Sid, / that fly kid who I love? / Well our love was often a verb / and spontaneity has brought a third.”  Part of the strength of this song is how it blends the lyrical with the literal. That lovely phrase about love and spontaneity is followed with the matter-of-factual: “But due to our youth and economic state / we wish to terminate / About this we don’t feel great / but baby, that’s how it is.”

In doing this the song turns from the personal to the explicitly political, as what should be a simple choice for Nikki to make—perhaps consulting her boyfriend Sid or her doctor—is complicated by the chilling discourse around abortion and the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overruled. Butterfly continues to relay Nikki’s thoughts, “But the feds have dissed me / They ignore and dismiss me / The pro-lifers harass me outside the clinic / And call me a murderer / now that’s hate / So needless to say, we’re in a mental state of debate.”

It is this connection between the personal circumstances and the broader social and political context that make “La Femme Fétal” a standout song. Butterfly puts himself in the role of supportive friend who helps contextualize the experience Nikki is having. He pulls no punches calling out pro-life hypocrisy and referring to the anti-choice people in power as fascists. Better yet, he makes clear connections between reproductive rights and race/class issues and is very specific about the Supreme Court justices who might be hostile to abortion rights. He raps,

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
But baby that ain’t nothin’
They just want a male finger on the button
Because if you say war,
They will send them to die by the score
Aborting missions should be your volition
But if Souter and Thomas have their way
You’ll be standing in line unable to get welfare
While they’ll be out hunting and fishing

Pointing out the hypocrisy of simultaneously holding pro-war and pro-life positions really makes the incoherence of the anti-choice position clear. Despite claiming to value life, what so-called Pro-Lifers fail to see is that their own formulations determine that some lives are more important than others, and they get to broadly choose which is which regardless of circumstances. They value a potential/hypothetical life over the life of a realized human being who should have some choice over what their body can be made to do. As Butterfly says, “Aborting missions should be your volition,” lyrically tying military imagery with choice. In other words, aborting missions can also save lives. As he says later in the song, “…life don’t stop after birth /And to a child born to the unprepared / It might even just get worse.” He even calls the use of language that obscures those ethical ruptures around the “sanctity of life” Orwellian, while bringing up images of “H-Bombs” and “fire-bomb[ed] clinics.”

Ultimately, “La Femme Fétal” brings together the idea of choice and freedom in its echoing last line “Land of the Free / But not me…not me…not me…” linking reproductive freedom and gender equality with broader liberatory causes, but keeping the woman’s choice at the center, even as he, a man, provides simple support: “Whatever you decide / make that move with pride / Sid will be there / and so will I.”

Ben Folds Five’s “Brick” is about as different as you can get from this in intent and execution. It does not even mention the word “abortion.” Ben Folds has famously explained while introducing it on his album Ben Folds Live, that the song is based on his experience with a high school girlfriend, saying “I didn’t really want to write this song from any kind of political standpoint, or make a statement. I just wanted to reflect what it feels like. So, anyone who’s gone through that before, then you’ll know what the song’s about.” He meant the song to convey an experience of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, in particular the affective experience, rather than the material consequences.

As such, “Brick” is all affect and most of it belongs to the speaker. The song tells the story of teenagers using the girl’s parents’ absence on the day after Christmas to secretly get her an abortion. It is told ostensibly autobiographically from Ben Folds’s point of view—the teenaged boy. Setting the song in that melancholy lull between Christmas and New Year’s along with the song’s forlorn vocal delivery, the brushed drums, and the use of a bowed stand-up bass delivers a somber impact but is nearly schmaltzy in how it lays it on. It reaches the melodramatic limits of the earnestness that makes so much of Ben Folds’s music appealing to me. The song even structures the telling of its narrative to evoke the greatest pathos. It moves the medical complications related to the abortion (and possible resultant regret) that come weeks after the termination to the middle of the song, bookended by the start and end of the day the abortion was performed. This makes that regretful sadness pervade the entire experience.

At its best “Brick” provides a perspective on the tumultuousness of secrets and intimacy, which the veil of adulthood can hide from adolescents. The complications force the teenaged couple to come clean and tell their parents about the abortion. We don’t know exactly why “she broke down” but he breaks down because he was “tired of lying.” The song never comes out and says it explicitly, but the lyrics— “As weeks went by / It showed that she was not fine”—suggests that the young woman’s complications are due to the terminated pregnancy. I always read this as surgical complications but have come across many people online claiming the complications are psychological. The song lyrics themselves are ambiguous enough that it could be a reference to depression or the like, though I am not sure it matters much. We can’t know for certain because her feelings are secondary to the speaker’s.

A popular 1990s pro-choice ad campaign that is most often seen in meme form today.

The male speaker’s feelings about the abortion are at the heart of “Brick.” The chorus, which includes lyrics the band’s drummer, Darren Jessee, provided —“She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly”— reinforces this focus by likening the pregnant girlfriend to a weight that holds down the drowning speaker. The image is an effective metaphor for describing a sort of obliged responsibility, feeling its burden, and fearing the repercussion of your young choices. But it still makes the poor girl into something instrumental in the boy’s drowning. Lest we forget, the brick ends up at the bottom of the river, too. This sense of denying a role is exacerbated by the speaker’s insistence, when presumably addressing the fetus, “It’s not me you’re dying for.” This lyric— perhaps unintentionally—depicts a psyche that wants to have it both ways, acting responsibly while inwardly exonerating himself from the choice to terminate the pregnancy. He seems to be laying the blame on her. It also resonates with Butterfly’s claim in “La Femme Fétal” that “they just want a male finger on the button,” in that there is an unspoken assumption in so-called “pro-life” discourse that men should have power over life and death, and the resistance to abortion is wrapped up in male dominance. The claim that “Brick’s” speaker is not choosing the abortion suggests that perhaps the choice should be up to him. There is a popular ad from the 90s that claims “77% of anti-abortion leaders are men.” I couldn’t find confirmation of that statistic, but even if skewed high, it tells us something.

An alternative and perhaps more generous interpretation of that lyric takes advantage of “Brick’s” non-linear narrative. The speaker could be addressing not the fetus but the ailing girlfriend and the “dying” is a reference to the consequences of the aforementioned complications, and now keeping the abortion a secret has become dangerous. I prefer this reading because it reveals the possible reasons that secrecy is required by these young people. The attentive listener must ask, why is physical danger being weighed against letting her parents know? Remember, he is the one “tired of lying.” We aren’t told what her situation is or what her feelings are except that she is “feeling more alone than she ever has before.”

It probably bears mentioning that I am not trying to read this song as a direct reflection of Ben Folds’s experiences or attitudes but as a song whose meaning within a cultural context potentially reflects positionally invisible ideologies, including patriarchy. It is not that his feelings don’t matter or that the song is not a competently constructed and effective portrait of a well-meaning-but-self-centered male adolescent dealing with this issue. However, it makes me ask why such a take on the experience of abortion made for so popular a song that it hit the top 20 of several Billboard charts. I must especially ask this given that the kinds of threats that Butterfly raps about in “La Femme Fétal” were no less a reality four years on. Then again, maybe they felt less threatening during the Clinton presidency than during the George H.W. Bush presidency when Butterfly was writing his song. Nevertheless, reproductive rights and access remain under attack, even as I write this 22 years after Folds’s song, suggesting DP’s outlook is still the relevant one. Without overvaluing the “true to life” aspects, the fact that Butterfly’s song is also loosely autobiographical highlights the difference in the political outlooks.

Of course, “La Femme Fétal” also includes elements of affect, as when it describes Nikki as “looking some kind of sad with tears falling from her eyes” and being in a “somber mood.” Butterfly expresses worry about “sounding macabre” when he mentions the threat of botched abortions if and when legal access is banned. But the affect is not the point. As Nikki says, “About this we don’t feel great / But baby, that’s how it is.” If the video for “Brick” explicitly sells what the song alludes to—that sadness is the only legible attitude towards having an abortion, a position Folds himself reinforced in a 2016 interview when he said the song was meant to have people “feel that sadness of the experience with no opinion on what you should do or be allowed to do”—then “La Femme Fétal” contends that these feelings are inseparable from the political reality. DP’s song avoids decentering a pregnant person’s voice, by describing a political context that explains why Nikki might be feeling “some kind of sad” without assuming some kind of universal feminine pain. As Adrianna Widdoes explains in her essay “My Abortion Wasn’t Like Ben Folds Said It Would Be,” not all abortions are tragic.

Ben Folds may have been trying to write an apolitical song about the experience of having an abortion, but the very fact that he thought he could do that reveals a politics. In the setting he describes—of kids driving themselves to a clinic, of having Christmas presents to sell to pay for the procedure, of post-abortion romantic gestures like flowers—there is a political world of assumed access and privilege. Of course, it is not that he cannot write a song about those experiences, but what does that image of abortion mean in the broader context of its cultural weight?

I can’t help but feel that songs like “Brick” sentimentalize abortion in a dangerous way. While they claim to not “take a side,” they nevertheless reinforce and reflect attitudes about abortion in the culture at large. If there was room in 1990s for two songs about girlfriends’ abortions by alt-rock dude bands to chart—the other being The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshman” (1997) which replaces an autobiographical abortion with guilt over a girlfriend’s suicide, because sure, those things are equivalent—suggests that the sentiment in these songs resonates with its audience. This perspective on abortion, the kind that goes hand in hand with the moral notion of “minimizing abortion” and treating it as a “necessary evil,” betrays a bourgie attitude that protects access for the middle-class while judging poorer women for their choices. If abortion is to be minimized let it be because preventative medicine is always preferable to surgical procedure but not because there is a moral element to terminating a pregnancy that insists it be done grudgingly. At the risk of repeating myself: “Whatever you decide, make that move with pride” is actually less of a political claim than “you can have an abortion if you want, but you will feel sad about it.” When not telling women what to do with their bodies, the culture loves to tell them how to feel their feelings.

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