“Four dead in Ohio.” “Paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.” “We’ll put a boot in your ass.” “What would you do if your son was at home, crying all alone on the bedroom floor because he’s hungry?” American popular music has a long history of politically provocative songs, some more artfully executed than others. In the last fifty years, popular music has played a large role in the United States’ broad conversation about politics; a role so pervasive that the entire premise of political popular music was sent up in a 2003 episode of South Park:
Like “I’m A Little Bit County,” many political songs go hand in hand with a given political issue: support or opposition to a war, pleas for increased environmental protection, plaintive calls to better understand the lives of strippers. But not every political song is so overtly an “issue” song containing a readily accessible policy stance. In fact, in January 1997 three rock songs were released— all addressing the same subject— with clear calls for empathy and understanding and lacking an implied imperative political action. And they came at the tail end of some of the most persistent domestic terrorism in the history of the United States. These songs were about abortion.
In December 1994, twenty two year old John Salvi walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, and shot two receptionists to death with a semiautomatic rifle. He also wounded five other people. Salvi then fled and cut his hair as a disguise, but was captured the next day in Norfolk, Virginia, after he opened fire on another women’s clinic. At his trial, Salvi pled not guilty by reason of insanity. This defense was not ultimately persuasive, however, and he was found guilty in March 1996. In November 1996, while awaiting an appeal of this ruling, Salvi committed suicide in his prison cell by putting a plastic trash bag over his head and tying it closed around his neck with a shoelace.
An often forgotten facet of the early 1990s, amid hazy, fond remembrances of the Dream Team, Jurassic Park, and a charming, not-racist Mel Gibson, is that it was an era of sustained anti-abortion violence and terrorism. Beginning in the mid-1980s groups such as Operation Rescue coalesced into the radical anti-abortion movement and began bending the tenor of their anti-abortion protests, based around their organizing slogan: “If you believe abortion is murder, act like its murder.” Operation Rescue originally organized sit-in blockades around women’s clinics, the best known of these taking place in 1991’s “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita, Kansas, around the clinic of George Tiller, a doctor who would eventually be shot twice in 1993, survive, and then shot to death in 2009.
As the Operation Rescue’s notoriety grew, they began branching out into political creative, most famously issuing FBI-style “Wanted” posters for physicians who performed abortions. Abortion had been controversially legal in the United States since 1973, following the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade. But anti-abortion protesters such as the members of Operation Rescue felt the practice should be outlawed, and used law enforcement imagery to give their politics official-seeming gravitas. Despite this appeal for authority, critics at the time noted that the “Wanted” posters invoked an anarchic and ominous threat of violence as, although the Operation Rescue posters omitted the phrase, most everyone who has ever seen a Western movie knows that those kinds of posters often read “Wanted, dead or alive.”
While official members of the radical anti-abortion movement maintained that they were only being provocative with their rhetoric and imagery, by 1993, anti-abortion zealots riled up by the violent messaging, confrontational tactics, and dire framing of the issue took the fateful step to full on terrorism. In March 1993, a doctor who provided abortion services was shot to death in Pensacola, Florida. In August 1993, Tiller was shot in Wichita, but survived. In July 1994, another doctor and a clinic escort were murdered in Pensacola, at a different women’s clinic. And Silva committed his double murder in December 1994. In addition to these murders and attempted murders, women’s clinics were bombed, set afire, vandalized, burglarized, and their staffs the regular recipients of death threats. The terrorist activity was so pervasive that the National Abortion Federation began keeping annual “violence and disruption” statistics in 1995. Salon reports that since 1991, there have been 17 attempted murders and eight successful murders of doctors who performed abortions and members of their clinic staffs.
Back in the Boston area in early 1995, amid the anxiety in the wake of Salvi’s attack, a group of local musicians collaborated on a series of nine shows in February 1995 benefitting the National Clinic Access Project, a non-profit dedicated to keeping clinics open in the face of terrorism and intimidation by radical anti-abortion activists. In October 1996, they released a compilation CD titled “Safe and Sound: A Benefit in Response to the Brookline Clinic Violence.” Among the sixteen tracks were cuts by Letters To Cleo, Aimee Mann, and Morphine, all well known members of the Boston alternative rock scene. Also included was the first appearance of a song by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones: “The Impression That I Get.”
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are a third wave ska / ska-core band formed in 1984 in Boston. (They’re actually still around, but on a part time schedule. Their most recent album, “The Magic Of Youth” came out at the end of 2011.) Combining the walking bass lines of more traditional iterations of ska with power chords and the gravelly vocals of former hardcore singer Dickey Barrett, the Bosstones would go on to be one of the most widely heard ska-core bands, a sub-genre fusion of ska and punk rock / hardcore, with roots going back to 1980s bands such as Fishbone, Operation Ivy, and later Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, and Sublime. Underground during the 80s and early 90s third wave ska and ska-core blossomed in the latter half of the decade, led by the bright, distinctive opening chords of “The Impression That I Get.”
Officially released as a single in January 1997, “The Impression That I Get” would go on to be a number one hit on the Billboard modern rock chart and peak at number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song’s album, “Let’s Face It,” was released in March 1997 to generally positive reviews. The AV Club encouraged listeners to play “The Impression That I Get” “as loud as you can get away with.” Punknews.org called it a “masterpiece.” Rolling Stone, withered husk of solipsistic Baby Boomer cant, did not review the album (1997 was, after all, a year in which Bob Dylan put out yet another record for them to fawn over). A personal anecdote, the author having been a high school freshman in 1997: the distinctive white disc of “Let’s Face It,” with a dark suited Dickey Barrett off to the bottom right, was in many, many CD wallets at the time, along with Sublime’s drunk clown, Blink 182’s six shooter, and Third Eye Blind’s alien eyes. “Let’s Face It” would end up certified platinum, selling more than 1,200,000 copies.
While it was clear from the additional success of Sublime, No Doubt, and others that third wave ska was having its moment out of the underground in the late 90s, an important part of the Bosstones’ sound that separated them from many of their peers on the modern rock charts in 1997 was the lyrical content of their songs. Introspective, thoughtful, and proscriptive songs like the title track, “That Bug Bit Me,” and “1-2-8” addressed racism, alcoholism, and the problems with speaking up at all. “A dash of honesty in the recipe / That’s the first mistake you made,” Barrett sings on “1-2-8.” At the same time, the catchiness and effervescence of the Bosstones’ music prevented these tracks from becoming plodding “issue” songs. This fusion gave the Bosstones’ music a celebratory quality, so when Barrett, chastising the listener for not being accepting of others on the title track, sings, “If we don’t, then who will? Shame on us / Let’s try to erase it; it’s time that we face it,” the message doesn’t come off preachy or pedantic but rather as a joyful exhortation that we can all do better.
Nowhere is the power of this marriage of message and medium more apparent than on “The Impression That I Get.” On the surface, “The Impression That I Get” is a song about empathy for another person going through a hard time— that much is clear from the spirit of what is probably the song’s most memorable line, from the chorus, where Barrett bellows “I’ve never had to knock of wood / But I know someone who has.” But probably the most pondered lines in the song— the lines that get at what it is actually “about”— are from the bridge:
I’m not a coward;
I’ve just never been tested
I’d like to think that if I was, I would pass
Look at the tested and think, “There but for the grace go I”
Might be a coward;
I’m afraid of what I might find out
And the word that has been focused on the most is the second instance of “tested,” which many people mishear as “test” in the song. There was a line of understanding, disputed by the Bosstones themselves, that The Impression That I Get” was about a literal HIV test, as evidenced by the misreading of that line as “Look at the test and think, “There but for the grace go I.”” But on close listening, one can clearly hear the additional syllable that places the focus not on a test, but on the person going through the test, a reading much more in line with the overall narrative arc of the song. And given the context in which the song was first released, it seems reasonable to believe that the trying experience Barrett is actually addressing is an abortion.
The same month “The Impression That I Get” was released as a single— January 1997— two other rock songs concerning abortion were released: Ben Folds Five’s “Brick” and The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshmen.” Both would go on to be hits on the modern rock charts, with “The Freshmen” also achieving the number one spot (“Brick” peaked at number six) and both becoming late 90s classics. But like “The Impression That I Get,” both “Brick” and “The Freshmen” were not prescriptively political. Each documented the profound sadness of an abortion; bearing witness without passing judgment.
The distinctive piano riff at the beginning of “Brick” is somehow both lilting and wounded at the same time, and pared with lyrics that are more narrative that “The Impression That I Get” and deeply personal; the pathos of the final scene in the song remains one of the most haunting to come from 90s rock:
Driving back to her apartment
For the moment we’re alone
But she’s alone
And I’m alone
And now I know it
“Brick” deals literally with the experience of a couple who have had an abortion. Folds has said that the story described in the song is not fictional. His girlfriend in high school had an abortion and his intention was to describe what that experience felt like. The song was a departure from the band’s other material, which was more up tempo, but nevertheless it became their biggest hit. But tonally, “Brick” shared a kinship with “The Impression That I Get” in that it called for compassion and understanding amid difficult circumstances.
“The Freshmen” was actually a rerecording of an acoustic song that had been on the band’s 1992 album “I’ve Suffered A Head Injury” (which really was the title of the album, and not satire of early 90s rock). The new version of the song was produced in true rock ballad style—down to the drummer’s brushes—but also made use of relatively spare and plaintive guitar work, preventing the song from mushrooming into an overwrought mess. The emotional quality of the vocal performance of Brian Vander Ark, the lead singer of The Verve Pipe, is at the forefront of the song, undergirded by the rolling, warm fuzz of heavily distorted guitar at each chorus. With each repetition of the chorus, Vander Ark’s growl becomes more urgent:
For the life of me
I cannot remember
What made us think that we were wise
And we would never compromise
Reciting a passage that could easily serve as the other side of the Bosstones’ line
Look at the tested and think, “There but for the grace go I.”
The chorus of “The Freshmen” addresses a sense of disbelief at the disparity between the capriciousness of the time before and the high contrast of the time after the abortion. But rather than clucking disapproval, the song, like “Brick,” like “The Impression That I Get,” bears witness to the pain of the situation. This theme, in addition to their subject matter, ties these songs together in a unified, and distinct, voice of empathy.
In the seventeen years since 1997 and the twenty years since 1994, the politics of abortion haven’t really changed, though the means of the debate have. The pugnaciousness of the spirit of the “Summer of Mercy” has largely receded (though it may be poised for a comeback) and though incidents of violence still occur from time to time, the murderous insanity of the early 90s has not become the status quo. Abortion remains legal, though anti-abortion activists have been successful in using the courts and state legislatures to choke off access to clinics in many states. Maybe the most lasting impact of the Operation Rescue era is the lens, codified by their slogan, “If you believe abortion is murder, act like its murder,” though which much of the modern abortion debate is viewed by anti-abortion activists. This stance animates much of the urgency anti-abortion activists feel drives their protests.
This political stasis makes the politics of these three songs—especially in comparison to the strident proclamations of many other “issue” songs— even more strikingly conciliatory. A point often lost among abortion partisans is the deep sadness most every woman feels when exercising her right to have an abortion. These songs make clear that in a very visceral sense no one is “pro” abortion. However, they acknowledge the realities of human existence and the hard choices that must be made during periods of profound upset. And when these three songs are placed in historical context, following the outbreak of early 90s anti-abortion terrorism, they represent an underrepresented but nonetheless important reaction to the entire abortion issue: compassion, empathy, and kindness for the individuals who are undergoing going through a difficult time, a lesson that is often totally lost among the choppy detritus of ongoing pro-life / pro-choice debate.