When Spotify offered me a throwback playlist of late-nineties hits, it started off fine (Macy Gray! Destiny’s Child!). But at some point, it took a turn.
I had to stop after the third consecutive song about pregnancy or birth that was either too coy (yes, mansplainers, “Closing Time” by Semisonic is actually about birth, with its reference to a room that “won’t be open ’til your brothers or your sisters come”) or dour (consider Brian Vander Ark’s girlfriend’s fictitious post-abortion suicide in The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshmen“).
Surely, I thought, there have to be some better songs out there about people’s reproductive lives. Everyone has some connection to pregnancy or parenting, whether that’s our own experience of wanting to be, not be, or stop being pregnant, or supporting a friend or loved one through their own experience.
I took to Facebook to crowdsource among my friends, most of whom are reproductive rights, health, or justice advocates. And it turned out that songs about reproductive experiences are everywhere: sometimes passing for songs about a lover, sometimes explicit, sometimes autobiographical, sometimes not.
So, courtesy of some of my favorite folks, here are a dozen songs (with some bonuses) that discuss the messiness and beauty of people’s reproductive lives. But do note this is a reproductive justice playlist, so we’re not including the reams of anti-abortion songs that exist. Most of them are really musically hard on the ears anyway and didn’t climb the charts.
“Brick” (Ben Folds Five)
Let’s get this one out of the way. This song was the straw on the proverbial camel’s back that started the quest for this playlist. Of all the songs that reference abortion, “Brick” is most likely the one with the heaviest radio airplay. The song hit the airwaves in 1997, which coincided with my most maudlin and romantic phase of adolescence, so I naturally assumed it was about a hidden teenage romance falling apart.
In a way, it was: Ben Folds eventually stated publicly that the song was about his teenage girlfriend’s abortion and its effect on their relationship.
In theory, the creative exploration of nonpregnant partners’ (particularly cis-men’s) emotional processing of the decision to end a pregnancy is intriguing. Part of moving sexual and reproductive health out of the marginalized realm of “women’s issues” is acknowledging that abortion doesn’t just affect people who can become pregnant. People who can get their partners pregnant have a stake in the matter, and the decision can evoke similarly complex sets of emotions.
A still from the music video “Brick” by Ben Folds Five (BenFoldsFiveVEVO/YouTube)
Emotional complexity is where the song starts, with the young couple failing to communicate with each another as they head to the clinic together. The narrator expresses his ambivalence about the abortion (“Can’t you see/ It’s not me you’re dying for”), but shows his support by buying flowers for his girlfriend. Afterward, they try to hide the abortion from their families, but the secrecy eventually wears on them and they admit it.
That said, the hook catapults the song firmly to the bottom of the heap, despite its popularity: “She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly/ Off the coast and I’m headed nowhere.” The chorus was written by the band’s drummer and allegedly pre-dated the song’s subject matter. Whichever came first, the blatant message is that the girlfriend’s difficulty processing and keeping the secret from her parents is bringing him down. There’s a line between dismantling the patriarchal confines that leave cis-men with a limited palette of emotional responses and centering their comfort over the well-being of others. That hook crashes right through it.
“Lightning Crashes” (Live) paired with “Girl Anachronism” (The Dresden Dolls)
This is a two-fer: These two songs are not exactly about reproductive issues, but get an honorable mention for their peculiarly specific passing references to birth.
“Lightning Crashes” begins in a hospital delivery room, where a young mother is giving birth. This is probably the only song to use the word “placenta” on mainstream radio, but it’s unclear what is going on that the mysterious, life-giving organ “falls to the floor.” Simultaneously, in a room down the hall, an old woman dies. Her spiritual entity (an “angel”) is transferred to the baby. The circle of life continues, very touching stuff for the angsty mid-nineties alternative rock set.
Moving from feely post-grunge to Brechtian punk cabaret, we have “Girl Anachronism,” which was suggested by certified professional midwife and Kentucky reproductive justice activist Aundria Radmacher (who has included this and many other songs in a more comprehensive playlist).
From the Dresden Dolls’ 2003 debut, the song is narrated from the perspective of a woman who, in today’s parlance, would be “messy.” She offers a host of explanations for destructive and dramatic behavior, mostly centering on the idea that she was born into the wrong time (“I might join your century/ but only as a doubtful guest”). She makes the anachronism of her birth more literal, saying that she was “too precarious, removed as a cesarean,” prematurely, “before the labor pains set in.” Even though this song wasn’t as mainstream as “Lightning Crashes,” it still gets props for incorporating the term “cesarean” into a song circus-centric art rockers might be snapping along to.
Not to mention that the lyric evokes ideas from before cesareans were survivable by the birthing person, that those delivered surgically are mystical or out-of-place in this world: Think Saint Raymond Nonnatus (literally “not born”), patron saint of midwives and childbirth, or Shakespeare’s Macduff, who has the power to vanquish Macbeth because he is “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.”
“Amendment” (Ani DiFranco)
I have to admit that when I heard this song, I felt like it was a little too on the nose for the playlist. In this 2012 release, DiFranco calls for “an amendment/ to give civil rights to women,” and tells the listener, “If you don’t like abortion/don’t have an abortion” (a slogan I’ve always felt to be tired and unpersuasive, even if satisfying to hurl).
The song eventually moves out of the traditional ambit of civil equality and reproductive rights to a perspective that more closely resonates with the demands of reproductive justice. The amendment would protect all family structures and “lay a web of relationship” over the power structure and “the illusion of autonomy on which it relies.”
But it’s the final verse that got me. As someone who identifies strongly with the birth justice movement and communities’ struggles to reclaim their traditional healing practices, my jaw dropped when I heard: “And the birthing woman shall regain her place/In a circle of women, in a sacred space/ Turn off the machines, put away the knives/ This amendment shall deliver from bondage midwives.”
Darn it, she’s right: Any law that would guarantee true equality on the basis of sex would also have to stop figuratively and literally criminalizing midwives and guarantee that people have access to a variety of options for their reproductive health care. Thanks to Nicholle Perkins of Austin, Texas, for this recommendation.
“What It’s Like” (Everlast) and “Breathe (2am)” (Anna Nalick)
Another two-fer, these songs both present a series of vignettes about people experiencing struggles and include a woman facing abortion stigma. The songs share a basic structure and a dim view of people who judge people having abortions, but that’s where the similarities end.
“What It’s Like,” recommended by Drake University Professor Renee Cramer, came out at about the same time as “Brick,” but even I wasn’t naive enough to miss the abortion story. Who would have thought that the onetime frontman of House of Pain would have anything worthwhile to say about abortion?
He sings a verse about a “girl named Mary” whose partner impregnated her and then ghosted. When she goes to a clinic, she is met by clinic protesters who call her a “sinner,” “killer,” and “whore.” But the narrator points out the hypocrisy of the protesters, admonishing that, “God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in her shoes/ ‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like to have to choose.”
Anna Nalick’s “Breathe (2am)” came out during the early 2000s’ proliferation of female singer-songwriter hits. It opens with a friend reaching out for help to “unravel [her] latest mistake,” a pregnancy by a man she doesn’t love. The narrator accompanies her friend to an abortion clinic, where this time it’s the other people in the clinic who are judging, even though they are there “for the very same reason.”
“Push It” (Salt-N-Pepa)
After abortion stigma, we need something a little more lighthearted. “Push It,” Salt-N-Pepa’s 1987 breakout hit, was a popular pick, recommended by two All-Options’ board members, OB-GYN Carolyn Sufrin and Latishia James (who helms the group’s Faith Aloud program).
OK, so what if it isn’t really about giving birth? More than one doula has mentioned having this on their birth playlist, and Jo Greep has set it as her ringtone for her doula clients. Pregnant folks dancing to this song and singing the “oooh, baby, baby,” including during labor, is practically its own Youtube subgenre. And for good reason: Every midwife and doula (and this smooth-moving Brazilian OB-GYN) knows that dancing can help move labor along. So all you fly birthing folks, get on out there and dance!
“This Woman’s Work” (Kate Bush)
This tearjerker was recommended by Denise Tomasini-Joshi, an attorney and feminist working in philanthropy. A sleeper hit that was originally featured in John Hughes’ 1988 film She’s Having a Baby, the song explores (in much better taste than “Brick”) the experience of childbirth from the perspective of a nonbirthing male partner who has to “stand outside this woman’s work.”
The song focuses on the fear and helplessness involved in becoming a parent (“Now starts the craft of the father”) through the threshold of childbirth, a process over which he has no control. The male narrator laments the limitations on emotional expression imposed by the patriarchy (“I should be crying but I just can’t let it show”). The life-and-death nature of birthing is on his mind as he “can’t stop thinking of all the things I should’ve said that I never said,” but still comforts his partner (“I know you have a lot of strength in you yet”).
A still from Kate Bush’s music video “This Woman’s Work” (KateBushMusic/YouTube)
If you ever need an overwrought cry-fest, watch the official music video with Kate Bush’s dramatic interpretation of labor and a maternity waiting room.
“Little Green” (Joni Mitchell)
“Little Green” is the rare autobiographical song about placing a child for adoption. Joni Mitchell’s 1971 song recounts her own experience of placing a daughter she named Kelly (as in green) for adoption in her early 20s during the “Baby Scoop” era.
During this time, after World War II but before birth control and abortion were widely available in the United States and Canada, millions of young white women placed newborns for adoption under pressure to avoid unwed motherhood. At the time, virtually all adoptions were “closed,” meaning that the birth parents would have no contact with the child, and the adoptee might not have any record of their birth parent. The prevailing philosophy was that an adoption should be seamless and the birthing parent invisible, which led to shaming and stigma of women who chose adoption.
Mitchell, who refers to herself as a “child with a child” in the song, became pregnant by a “non-conformer” who left Canada for California. Realizing she is unable to give the child “a happy ending,” she sings her own complex feelings after signing “all the papers in the family name”: “You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed.” Mitchell eventually met her adult biological daughter, Kilauren Gibb, in the late 1990s.
“The Tower”/Demo Version of “Goodbye Baby” (Stevie Nicks)
Next on the list is a deep cut recommended by Marcella, Juris Doctor/Juris Diva of NYC, advocating for women by day, constructing a comprehensive theory of Stevie Nicks’ life as reflected in her lyrics by night.
Stevie has revealed in interviews that she has had four abortions and that her song “Sara” is, in part, dedicated to the person who would have been born from a pregnancy with singer Don Henley.
But a less-acknowledged song about her abortion experience is this heartfelt 1976 demo, “The Tower,” which eventually became “Goodbye Baby” on Fleetwood Mac’s Say You Will 27 years later.
This version includes lyrics that more clearly allude to abortion (“and when you hold yourself and know that there were two and only you remain”) that were cut from the final track. Another interesting change between the demo and album version is that the latter includes lyrics about being together again (“You were with me all the time/ I’ll be with you one day”), which could either represent resolution years later; a belief that their spirits will be reunited, a common theme in songs about abortion or pregnancy loss; or an attempt to obscure the song’s meaning.
“So Hard” (Dixie Chicks)
This recommendation comes courtesy of Carrie Murphy, a Rewire.News contributor and doula. “So Hard” initially sounds like a description of the challenges of being in a long-term committed relationship and the work it takes to make a relationship last.
But sister-singers Martie Maguire and Emily Robison have revealed that, while the song started out that way, it became a window into their struggles with trying to conceive and seeking fertility treatment. They describe societal pressure for married heterosexual women to have babies (“It felt like a given/Something a woman is born to do”) and the guilt they feel when they are unable to conform to those pressures (“And I’d feel so guilty/If that was a gift I couldn’t give”), regardless of the source of the challenge with fertility.
The singers were only able to address this painful part of their lives after it had passed: By the time the song was released in 2006, Maguire and Robinson had five children between them.
Tannis Fuller of the Blue Ridge Abortion Fund recommended this relatively obscure Beyoncé track. Both Bey and Jay-Z have been open about the fact that she experienced multiple miscarriages in their efforts to build a family, with Jay-Z referencing miscarriages in “Glory,” his ode to Blue Ivy, and “4:44” off the album of the same title.
Beyoncé tells her side in this 2013 unreleased song, “Heartbeat.” It is one minute of pure, concentrated heartbreak as Beyoncé sings, “I guess love just wasn’t enough for us to survive.” Her grief (“I’m so unlucky I can’t breathe”) and apparent self-blame (“I swear I tried”), are even more wrenching amid the recent revelation that she suffered a life-threatening complication during the birth of twins Sir and Rumi, showing yet again that even wealth and celebrity don’t insulate Black women from the maternal health crisis.
“The Mother” (Brandi Carlile)
“The Mother,” released earlier this year, was added to this list by Katie Garaby, a new mother herself. It is a raw-hearted look at how simultaneously beautiful and painful it can be to become a mother, and the great rewards and sacrifices involved. It means “the end of being alone inside your mind,” of leisurely reading the newspaper in the morning and evening conversations with friends over wine, but also means getting to see the world afresh through the eyes of a child.
The song is explicitly autobiographical, and the official video features Carlile singing to her daughter, Evangeline. It is also infused with the politics and struggle of Carlile’s experience as a queer parent who did not give birth to her daughter (“She doesn’t look like me”). This makes the repeated refrain, “I am the mother of Evangeline,” a quietly radical claim to a status that has until recently been under legal threat with nongestational same-sex parents treated as strangers or nonfamily in hospitals within this decade. She explains the struggle to her daughter in a gut-punch of a verse: “You are not an accident where no one thought it through/The world has stood against us, made us mean to fight for you/ And when we chose your name we knew that you’d fight the power too.”
If you’re not crying, check your pulse.
“Bye Bye Baby” (Noname)
My favorite of the bunch, recommended by my SIA Legal Team colleague Kebé, is “Bye Bye Baby” off Noname’s 2016 album Telefone. The narrator discovers that she is pregnant (“got the flu with the tea remedy for my boo thang”), and almost decides to carry the pregnancy to term, but ultimately changes her mind.
The song takes a spiritual view of abortion, saying “God will help you spread your wings.” The next verse is sung from the perspective of the spirit the narrator released, who expresses understanding for the decision to end the pregnancy (“He reminds me, some give presents before they’re even ready/ I could see that she loves me, I know her heart is heavy”).
Noname explained the song to the FADER, saying, “It’s a personification of a mother who has had an abortion and the baby. What I tried to do is make a love song for them. I feel like whenever I hear people talking about abortion, they typically take the love out of it, as if it can never be a loving act—as if it’s only done out of hate or desperation. I know women who have gone through that experience. And there hasn’t been like, a song for them, or a moment of catharsis and healing for them in music.”