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What We Sing About When We Sing About Motherhood

This was my Mother’s Day gift to myself  – spending (wasting?) hours researching and putting together a playlist of songs about being a Mom. It’s my 60TH blog post – whoa & thanks everyone for reading!  And my first playlist on Spotify, which has only recently appeared in Hong Kong. I hope that makes it easy for you to listen to these tunes.

Here’s the Spotify link: Mother’s Day Music. And I’m adding vids for a few songs so you’ll have something to listen to while you’re reading.

I wasn’t looking for songs about how great or awful Mom is. So no need for John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Tupac, Kanye or Snoop Dogg. (Nothing personal, boys) I wanted to find songs that spoke to being a Mom, in all of its colors and shapes. Songs that touched on the range of complex emotions that come with motherhood: passion, ambivalence, confusion, heart break, anger, love, ferociousness.

Each of the singers on my list has children. Loretta Lynn tops the group with six kids. She had three by the time she was 19 and was a grandma by the age of 29. Imagine that!

So thanks again for joining me and read on to find out more about these wonderful tunes:

1. “Thumbelina” by Pretenders / Chrissie Hynde (2 daughters).

This song comes from Learning to Crawl, the Pretenders third full-length album and the first one Hynde made after becoming a Mom and after the deaths of band mates James Honeymoon-Scott and Pete Farndon. The whole album is filled with gorgeous, bittersweet tunes about love and loss. “Thumbelina” is about a cross country journey with a young child, and you can feel the lonely southwestern landscape pass you by as you listen.

2. “Tell Mama” by Etta James (2 sons)

Hard livin’ Etta James once said, “The hours before noon have never interested me.” Right on. In this song she’s either addressing a potential lover or a son – not quite sure. But I love the fierce confidence and the horns.

3. “Mother Stands For Comfort” by Kate Bush (1 son)

Is it inspired by Hitchcock? Or about an abortion? Or maybe it’s about how far we’d go to protect the ones we love. I like the mystery. Bush has also written a lovely song about her son called “Bertie” where she uses Renaissance-era musical instruments. (Are you surprised she’d do that? I thought not.) It’s from the beautiful double album, Aerial, A Sea of Honey, A Sky of Honey.

4. “Hormones” by Tracey Thorn (twin daughters & a son)

Your’s are just kicking in / Mine are just checking out

Count on Thorn to capture motherhood with a mixture of wit and wistfulness. Here she sings about her daughters growing up and hitting puberty while she experiences a life change of her own. I hear her recent memoir is fantastic.

5. “What Makes You Happy” by Liz Phair (1 son)

As you may know, I’m a huge Liz Phair fan, and I challenge anyone to match her first three albums for pop songwriting brilliance. Written before she became a mom, this song is just a wonderful conversation between a mother and her grown daughter, filled with love and hope:

I’m sending you this photograph

I swear this one is gonna last

And all those other bastards were only practice…

6. “One’s On The Way” by Loretta Lynn (6 kids)

God Bless Loretta Lynn. The queen of songs about feckless men and the women stuck at home who are fixing to kick ‘em out.

7. “Love Has Come For You” by Edie Brickell (3 kids) & Steve Martin 

Brickell has kept a low profile for the last two decades while raising a family with Paul Simon. But she’s returned this year with a lovely country album where she writes and sings, and Steve Martin plays banjo. So on the bluegrass side of things. This song tells the story of a young girl, in a relationship with a married man, who decides to keep her baby and the lifelong love between (single) mother and son. Martin has said how affected he was by the phrase ‘Love Has Come For You’ with its feeling of hope and its sense of dread. And there are two other songs on the album that tell tragic, often redemptive, stories of mothers. Brickell is a fantastic storyteller – well worth a listen.

8. “Motherless Children” by Roseanne Cash (4 kids)

Not the happiest of songs, obviously. But Cash’s voice is so pained and beautiful, and the spare acoustic guitar so poignant. You feel for those children left behind.

9. “Three Babies” by Sinead O’Connor (4 kids)

Another song with a mysterious meaning – could it be about abortion, miscarriage, abandonment? You never know with the emotional, mercurial O’Connor. What you do know is that it’s about loss:

No longer mad like a horse

I’m still wild but not lost

From the thing that I’ve chosen to be

10 “Little Star” by Madonna (4 kids)

So now let’s move on to something a bit more uplifting: from Ray of Light, Madge’s first album as a Mom. Accompanied by William Orbit’s gorgeous production, she sings a dreamy love song to her daughter. I’ve played this for my girls since they were babies. Celestial.

11. “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” by the Dixie Chicks (7 kids between them)

I’ve always liked this country lullaby because it avoids that treacly greeting card sentiment you hear in so many I-love-my-kid songs. I think it’s because Natalie Maines’ voice stays grounded and strong, not precious. She’s just released her first solo album, called appropriately Mother. It’s a collection of mostly cover tunes, including the famous Pink Floyd song of the title, and I’m just starting to get in to it.

12. “The Sweetest Gift” by the Judds (2 kids each)

When EO was born I started singing to her a lot, especially at night. I’m not a singer at all, but I enjoyed having those moments with her: show tunes, pop songs, “On Top of Spaghetti,” you name it. But what worked really well (because I could remember all the lyrics) was the Judds’ “Mama He’s Crazy”.  I sang that to her every time I tucked her in to bed, and she still remembers it. So I’ll finish with this old gospel tune, sung by a mother & daughter, with Emmylou Harris on harmony. About the depths of a mother’s love.

Happy Mother’s Day from therockmom, x

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To Beyonce or Not To Beyonce?

That’s the question on my mind this week as I ponder what life has in store for America’s most famous new Mom, Beyonce Knowles Carter. I wonder what kind of nanny she’s going to hire. A drag queen, as suggested by some pseudo-reality-celeb? A reformed thug aka Memphis Poppins, from mediatakeout.com?

It’s a crucial hiring decision – one of the most important she and Jay Z are likely to make this year. So, in the spirit of rockmom solidarity and experience, I’ve drafted a sample want ad. Bee, feel free to use this verbatim. I believe it conveys your Super Couple lifestyle needs and requirements while conveying the aspirational ethos you live by.

Tell me what you think:

I can also help with interviews. Call me!

Much has been written about the low sales figures of Beyonce’s latest album, 4. Some speculate that marriage and pregnancy have been a natural pull on her ambitions, and after fifteen years in the spotlight who can blame her? I’ve never felt that Beyonce was anything more than a professional, and I mean that in the sense that she doesn’t betray any desperate need to be loved (yo, Britney) or to spread the ‘Beyonce’ message a la Madonna or Lady Gaga. You get the feeling she would do a great job at anything she tried – business, politics, teaching – and that the Beyonce we see and hear is nothing more than her public persona, not a window in to a tortured (Je suis une artiste!) soul.

I’m not ragging on her by any means. I’d prefer that my daughters listen to a true vocal talent like Beyonce or Adele, rather than a cartoonish, cynical vamp like Katy Perry or Ke$ha. It’s funny how you can watch Beyonce’s videos, with their full-on displays of sexuality, and yet not be offended by them. To wit:

I wonder why this is so. Is it because she is so physically superior that we can accept her bodaciousness the way we marvel at and appreciate the talents of a great athlete? Maybe it’s related to the lack of scandal in her private life. She works hard. She sings for Obama. She’s a humanitarian in stripper heels! Again, I think the key word here is professionalism. Beyonce covers all the bases: a feminist with an all-girl backing band and girl-power anthems; a woman who honors her roots by sporting afros and playing Etta James in Cadillac Records; yet edgy enough to appear in a weird ol’ Lady Gaga video. Not much there to cause insult or injury. So while we might prefer our rock stars to speak to and for our inner selves – Radiohead seems to fill that role for me these days – we can also swim at the shallow end of the pool and enjoy a good beat and an amazing voice.

Just once I'd like to be this fabulous. Photo courtesy thirstyroots.com

Yet I still can’t answer the question: is Beyonce a good role model? Since my girls reached an age where pop culture is a part of their lives, I feel I have to consider these things, whether the girls understand the lyrics or not. Maybe I’m overestimating the power and influence of Sasha Fierce here. Who knows? My litmus test for tween music has always been: what’s the message and is it a good one? Is it harmless and fun like Camp Rock or spunky and friendly like Taylor Swift? If it’s subversive, is it rebellious in a healthy way (think Pink or Kelly Clarkson)? Are the women on equal footing with the men? Or are they being degraded, exploited or abused in the name of so-called sexual freedom? Rihanna, I’m talking to you! The funny thing with Beyonce is I’m still not sure. Back in the ’80s, Madonna grabbed her crotch, sang out ‘Express Yourself’ and we teens thought: right on! These days, Beyonce grabs her breasts and hollers, ‘Girls! We Run This Mother!’ and I honestly don’t know what to think beyond: well, I can’t put this on our Beyonce playlist because she’s basically saying ‘mofo’ in the chorus.

There was a rock critic named Ellen Willis; she wrote for The New Yorker from 1968-75, covering the heydey of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Sex Pistols, Lou Reed, etc. I’ve been reading a collection of her writing called Out of The Vinyl Deeps and have been struck by so many of her insights in to rock stars, especially one of her favorite performers, Janis Joplin.

Putting multiple rings on it. Photo courtesy musiqueray.org

She writes, “unlike most female performers whose act is intensely erotic, (Janis) never made me feel as if I were crashing an orgy that consisted of her and the men in the audience. When she got it on at a concert, she got it on with everybody.”

Willis wrote those words over thirty years ago. Now how many female performers can you name who are truly like that?

It’s a short list.