It has become abundantly clear in the last few days how painfully out of touch certain older, white, and in some cases, celibate men are with middle American culture and the unwashed, fornicating masses. Out of touch with reality, actually.
But if they're looking for some clues about what's going on in the world, I would advise them to check out popular music, which has always been the voice of everyday people. Rock, pop, and country are genres which tell the stories of - and articulate the yearnings and hardships of - those who seem to be forgotten in the hallowed halls of Washington and the incense-scented inner sanctums of the male-dominated Catholic church.
The tales told in the songs here are most likely fictional, yet they speak to experiences shared by millions. Poverty, youth, ignorance, unplanned pregnancies, unwanted children, broken lives. I guess you can make the argument that these things were and are happening despite the fact that birth control and abortion are legal - at least for the moment. But that just convinces me even further that what we need is more education, more access, more availability, and to remove the stigma associated with them.
Here is some musical testimony to support my case.
Annie Had a Baby (1954 - Glover, Mann)
This was the second installment in the "Annie" series by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. The first was Work With Me Annie (let's get it while the gettin' is good). Of course, all that workin' resulted in a baby, and also resulted in this record being banned from the radio. I'm proud to say that my parents had both of these records, part of a large collection of 78s. They were teenagers in the 1950s and big fans of so-called "race music". I grew up listening to these songs. This one is more than a little sexist - I don't know why he can't help her take care of the baby - and the "naughtiness" of it is probably lost on the modern listener. The singer here bemoans the fact that, ever since the baby came along, Annie has no more time for him. I guess they found out the hard way that babies are a lot of work and can put quite a strain on a relationship. Tough nuts, the Catholic bishops would say. You wanna' play, you gotta' pay.
Love Child (1968 - R. Dean Taylor, Frank Wilson, Pam Sawyer, Deke Richards)
It would be hard to find a catchier tune about a young woman's painful memories of growing up as an out-of-wedlock child, and having to balance the desire she shares with her boyfriend against the possibility of having a child of her own go through the same thing. I can't even imagine how controversial this song was in 1968.
Performed by Elvis Presley, released the year after his huge "comeback" special, in the "white jumpsuit" phase of his career, one might be tempted to dismiss this song as a bit sappy. But I challenge you to find a more heartfelt, even poetic, description of generational poverty and despair.
There is supposedly some mystery surrounding this song, but it's always been obvious to me what the song's narrator and Billie Joe McAllister were throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge that day.
There was always a line in this song that stuck with me. "The dream has gone, but the baby is real." I found it so incredibly sad. And I was very surprised to hear that line many years after I first heard the song, in a film called A Taste of Honey, a British movie, based on the play of the same name, that was part of the "Kitchen Sink Realism" movement of the early 1960s. Watching it, I could easily see how the story, setting, characters and cinematography influenced Morrissey's view of the world. It's not completely clear what is happening in this song - the imagery is somewhat abstract. But the feelings of loss and regret are tangible.
The title pretty much says it all. And although the song ends on a somewhat happy note of resignation, you just know that things aren't going to get any easier for this family.
Loretta Lynn visited this same theme in some other songs, most notably "One's On the Way" and "The Pill", as well as singing about her daddy raising eight kids on a miner's pay in the autobiographical "Coal Miner's Daughter", so I think it's safe to say that she knows this subject matter pretty well.
Ladies and gentlemen, you are now entering the camp portion of our program. Over-the-top teen melodrama in the tradition of Leader of the Pack and Teen Angel, this is the story of Joey and Julie. Joey gets Julie pregnant, which enrages Julie's father, who beats up Julie and comes after Joey with a gun. Julie tries to intervene, and is accidentally shot by her own father. No wonder Joey now suffers from nightmares! This song is so kitschy, it was even covered in an episode of Glee! Still, I think it speaks to the very real fear that most any teenager would feel about parents finding out about a pregnancy.
Like In the Ghetto, this song begins and ends with a birth, continuing the cycle of poverty, especially among a group of people considered as "the other" by "respectable" society.
Update: My brother-in-law, who knows just about every song ever written, just now told me about this one, and I have to include it. Absolutely haunting. Thanks, Bill.
Madonna at her absolute cutest. The song and video seem to send mixed messages. Some criticized it and felt that it encouraged teenage pregnancy. (If it ends happily for Madonna, it'll work out for me too!) Others were just glad she defiantly decided to "keep my baby". While I think the video is beautifully done, I wish that we could see this fictional couple five or ten years later. This perky little girl with her "Italians Do It Better" t-shirt and her Catholic school uniform, and her hunky mechanic boyfriend with the artfully-placed grease smudges. Starting out with a baby to take care of before you even finish high school and a husband with a minimum-wage job is not exactly glamorous. To quote the song, maybe they'll be alright, with some sacrifice, but the odds are against it.
(Note: The clip below only contains the audio for the song, as I can't embed the original video. If you want to see that (you'll have to watch an ad first), and get a real blast from the '80s, click here.)
Some really strong imagery in this song. "Six a.m. Day after Christmas. Smell of cold. Car seat is freezing. The world is sleeping." "Now that I have found someone, I'm feeling more alone, than I ever have before." And the chorus is...perfect.
Ben Folds describes the song this way: "People ask me what this song's about... I was asked about it a lot, and I didn't really wanna make a big hairy deal out of it, because I just wanted the song to speak for itself. But the song is about when I was in high school, me and my girlfriend had to get an abortion, and it was a very sad thing. And, 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."
In the end, I think that's probably the strongest statement of all.