The music scene of the 1990s in many ways defies definition — it’s just too heterogeneous — but lyrics from this era do share a common feature: a tendency toward misdirection. Fraught topics were handled with a lyrical obliqueness. In Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” what seems like a frothy celebration of American patriotism actually masks a harrowing story, told through the eyes of a child whose mother burned her father alive to escape domestic violence. TLC’s “Waterfalls” hinted at the AIDS epidemic. The Cranberries’ “Zombie” subtly deplored terrorism in Northern Ireland. Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” took us, blithely unaware, on a speed-snorting bender, and “Jumper” wistfully wrestled with homophobia and suicidal ideation. In fact, it’s become something of a running joke among millennials to dramatize their adult-aged realization that their generation-defining music was bleak as hell — and that it papered over cultural conflicts and psychic wounds with ebullience.
If you trace the thematic patterns in popular music from this time, you can see a constellation of songs — including “Pennyroyal Tea” (Nirvana, 1993), “The Freshmen” (The Verve Pipe, 1997), “Brick” (Ben Folds Five, 1997), “Retrospect for Life” (Common, 1997), “Slide” (Goo Goo Dolls, 1998), and “What It’s Like” (Everlast, 1998) — that touch on a particularly unlikely topic: abortion.
These tracks left such an impression that many people who came of age during that decade can still reel off lyrics at the drop of a hat. But why did several music artists suddenly release songs about abortion — and why did these resonate so profoundly in that moment?
The skeleton key is, I think, masculinity. All these songs are about abortion as a threat to manliness. In “Slide,” the singer can no longer imagine becoming a man. In “Brick,” he’s reduced to a state of lonely desolation. In “The Freshmen,” he’s left guilt-stricken and unable to form relationships. In “Retrospect for Life,” he recounts that his maturation into manhood and fatherhood got short-circuited by his girlfriend’s abortion. There’s a feeling of being adrift in all these narratives, as though men experienced abortion as a disorienting loss of control and displacement from their role as guardians of the family. They had come to feel obsolete, downranked, superfluous.
On the one hand, this self-pity is, well, pathetic — men making abortion about them and whining about having to cede power. But granting that, it’s also true that these songs aimed to remake masculinity. They signaled a shift to a more expressive, more vulnerable emotional register and swerved away from masculinity as something daring and aggressive, successful and domineering.
I reached out to Brian Vander Ark, songwriter and lead vocalist for The Verve Pipe, a post-grunge band from East Lansing, Mich., that formed in 1991. They struck platinum in 1997 with their first studio album, “Villains,” which sold more than 3 million copies, powered mostly by their abortion-centered song, “The Freshmen.” I asked him why he penned a song about a topic that for decades seldom had anyone touched.
“I didn’t set out to write 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 after the fact that she’d had an abortion. She’d been seeing someone else, so none of us knew who the father was. And growing up in a very conservative Reform Christian home, I struggled with guilt. It just felt cathartic to release the lyric into the world as a way to half-admit my participation, because I struggled to process it.”
In the song, the girlfriend dies by suicide — there’s a line about how she took “a week’s worth of Valium and slept.” If he could do it over again, he’d cut that line, because it didn’t happen in real life. But he’s also frank that not all the lyrical pieces of the puzzle fit together. Case in point: Writing the song from a cabin on Gull Lake near Kalamazoo, Mich., he cast his gaze on a VHS tape he’d rented the night before, a movie starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick. “The Freshman” became the “The Freshmen,” expressing the vague sense of reckless innocence that he was straining to capture. Later, he glanced 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, spills imaginative power over a psychic wound, and emerges with something bold and fraught with angst. But broader cultural and political forces were also shaping the moment.
Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision invalidating most restrictions on abortion, had failed to shatter the silence that extended over the music industry on the topic of abortion. Even Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” was banned from radio on its release in 1975, a signal that, whatever else was changing about gender roles in America, not even prophylaxis was suitable for the airwaves. A decade later, Madonna’s 1986 single “Papa Don’t Preach” — in which she defies parental pressure by vowing to keep her baby — was enough to trigger howls of moral panic. So why, in the ’90s, did that iron curtain suddenly lift?
It’s telling that it didn’t lift for women. The Swedish singer Robyn had her second album, “My Truth,” blocked from release in the United States in 1999 because she refused to bow to pressure from her international distributing label, RCA Records, to rewrite lyrics in two songs that dealt with the abortion she’d had in her teens.
RCA Records also represented Brian Vander Ark and The Verve Pipe.
“RCA did not put up any roadblocks, never talked to us about changing a lyric, never seemed to even care,” he says now. “And I’ve always felt like ‘The Freshmen’ was pretty obviously about abortion. Look, I’d bet that it had to do with me being male and her running afoul of a certain code of femininity. It’s sad, too, especially on an album called ‘My Truth,’ when you have this gutsy openness, to then get silenced by male gatekeepers in the industry.”
Vander Ark has thought about this a lot. He knows it’s jarring in 2022 to relisten to his narrative about abortion, which spotlights only his male perspective and which strenuously offloads responsibility. “I would never dare today to go out and say, ‘Hey ladies, let me tell you my story about abortion.’ I would never in a million years do that, but back then, no, I never asked her if I could write about it, never gave it a second thought. And I think we all just might be guilty of being prisoners of the times that we’re in, ambitious to score a hit — and you kind of ignore everything else. It didn’t feel bad back then. It feels bad 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 greenlit new restrictions on the practice. Opposition to abortion became a litmus test for Republican candidates. On top of all that, “we saw ramped-up bombings of clinics and targeted murders of providers — an orchestrated effort to terrorize women seeking abortions and shutter the facilities providing them,” says Sisson, who is a member of the University of California San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health research group.
Meanwhile, Sisson says, the cultural scripts for female artists didn’t give them room to represent the reality of abortion. “You had female pop stars like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson building their sex appeal on the myth — true or not — of their unspoiled virginity. Women remained desirable so long as they weren’t tainted by actual sex.”
With support for abortion rights waning, Clinton-era Democrats retrenched around the mantra that abortion should be “safe, legal, and” — here’s the watchword — “rare,” like a tragic necessity. TV shows such as “Dallas,” “21 Jump Street,” “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Melrose Place,” and “Roseanne” featured storylines tracing an agonizing decision, with lots of hand-wringing over whether to have an abortion — but a spontaneous miscarriage or a that-was-close false positive would often avert the need to end the pregnancy. In TV shows and films in which women went through with an abortion, the outcome carried a morbid undercurrent of fatalism. In “The Crime of Father Amaro,” for example, a woman terminating an unwanted pregnancy dies of a uterine hemorrhage. In other narratives, women survive the procedure but endure a sort of cosmic comeuppance by dying by some other accident of fate.
This cultural backdrop helps to explain the tragedy and angst that pervades ’90s music about abortion. In retrospect, Vander Ark’s famous song refrain — “I won’t be held responsible” — pretty accurately describes a media culture that was evading the reality of abortion.
Now, a quarter-century later, abortion rights are threatened to a much greater extent. As the Supreme Court considers whether to end the constitutional right to abortion, Vander Ark worries he was too cavalier back then — and that his song added to the cultural narrative of abortion as doom-ridden and guilt-inducing.
“Ah, man, I have a visceral reaction of sadness,” he says. “It’s upsetting to me that this is where we’ve ended up today.”
Tom Joudrey is a Pennsylvania-based writer who covers politics and culture. Follow him on Twitter @TomJoudrey.