Singing About Abortion Isn’t Quite Allowed Yet. But it should be.

Amanda Palmer
Oct 24 · 10 min read

(or: What Happened When I Tried to Play My Song About Abortion on Irish Television)

About a month ago, I was invited to appear on The Late Late show, a television chat show in Ireland,to promote my tour here. I played last night in Cork at the Opera House, and, as I publish this, I’m setting up for my show in Dublin tonight at the National Concert Hall.

Listen. In the same way that nobody actually wants to get an abortion, nobody really wants to talk about it. Good lord, why would they? It’s an extremely awkward, hyper-personal, stumbling subject. And I can tell you, from experience, nobody really wants to sing about it, either.

But I’ve been trying.

photo: Gabrielle Motola

I had my first abortion when I was 17 years old, and in high school. I tried to process the experience through songwriting back then, and I failed. I couldn’t find the tune, the words. Finding a way to put lyrics to a topic that was so deeply taboo felt impossible. I made a few attempts to write about abortion in my twenties (“Mandy Goes to Med School” and “Oasis”), but the songs had a hard time escaping the cynical realm, they were both defensive and over-sardonic.

Twenty years (and two more abortions, a miscarriage and a childbirth) later, I was finally able to pen a song that seemed to give the topic the emotional justice and nuance it deserved. I recorded it for my latest album, There Will Be No Intermission, and it features in my current touring stage show.

I don’t like singing about abortion. I don’t like writing about it. And like most people, I don’t even like talking or thinking about it.

I wrote the song shortly after returning from an accidentally inspiring trip to Dublin. I’d come to town to speak at the Literature Festival and play a piano gig at the National Concert Hall, but the timing landed me smack in the midst of the referendum. I landed the day of the vote. I watched history unfold when the people of the Irish Republic voted to legalize abortion, and I found myself being dragged, joyfully and tearfully, from pub to pub by incredible writers and activists like Róisín Ingle and Una Mullally who left me slack-jawed with their unapologetic and compassionate bravery. I felt like I was witnessing a contagious wildfire of truth-telling. After getting home from Ireland, I put my fears and shame aside, took a deep breath and wrote a song that had been waiting to emerge for decades.

The song, Voicemail for Jill, is a simple concept: a long voicemail is left by a woman for her friend, Jill, who is on her way to an abortion procedure. We don’t know why Jill is going, or what exactly happened; we don’t know whether Jill is married, single, a schoolgirl or an older woman, Catholic, Buddhist, or whether she needs this abortion for life-saving medical reasons.

All the song tells us is that going to an abortion — for any reason — can be an unfathomably lonely and complicated experience. “It’s a strange grief, but it’s grief”, says the woman leaving the message. This was the kind of brave, hand-holding I saw when I was in Dublin: one woman telling the truth of her experience to another, and then to another, as if passing along a torch of empathy, to be passed along again. You’re not alone. I’ve been there, too.

Photo: Stephanie Zakas

The song isn’t a political protest as much as an emotional one.

The song takes no sides, it doesn’t preach. It just says: This can happen. It can be lonely. It can be hard. Wherever people happen to be aligned politically or morally, they still sometimes find themselves going through the complicated experience of abortion. And usually in an unsupported, compartmentalized silence. (I also made a video for the song, you can watch it below.)

Official music video: Voicemail for Jill

I’m about to embark on the most extensive tour of Ireland I’ve ever done (Cork, then to Dublin, Belfast and Limerick). It seemed like the right thing to do, given Ireland’s connection to the album’s genesis and, especially, the unfolding progress around reproductive rights in Northern Ireland. I wanted to play these songs, and tell these stories, to the people who might want to hear them. So when The Late Late Show invited me to come promote my tour, I was thrilled. A date was set, I was put in touch with the show’s musical director, and I sent over a recording of “Voicemail for Jill”. I didn’t try to sneak around the subject. I explained the context of the song and why I felt it was important to play.

I heard back a few days later: the song was lovely but didn’t quite fit, could I play something else? I pushed back and said that yes, of course I could, but that I felt strongly that this was the song that made sense. Could we discuss it? No. I was soon told that the date we’d booked was going to be given to another artist. And unfortunately there was no way they could fit me into their schedule before the Ireland tour kicked off.

I called my manager. “Do you think they’re telling the truth?” I asked him. “Or is it because of the song?”

There was only one way to find out. I offered to return after the Irish tour, whenever they wanted. Pick any date. They regretted to inform me that they were booked for the foreseeable future, but they would have loved to have had me. That is when I knew I was getting ceremoniously uninvited forever, presumably for having pushed back about the material.

Here’s the thing: I’ll never really know what happened in their booking offices. Invitations get rescinded all the time, schedules shift, the music and media industry is full of this kind of stuff. And I’m clearly burning a bridge with this particular show by sharing this story. I can’t imagine I’ll be invited back anytime soon; my Twitter bio states “commercially-suicidal songwriter” for a reason.

But there’s something larger here than whether I — one artist — will or won’t appear on your television screen for five minutes. It’s this: what kind of space are these sorts of songs allowed to take up, and where? If not in Dublin on the eve of Northern Ireland’s move towards legalizing abortion, for heaven’s sake, when? I was dismayed at the resigned tone in the texts that I received from my Irish friends when I told them of my untimely TV-dismissal (“ha! of course”, “well obviously”, “i’m the opposite of shocked”, “sorry to say but that’s unsurprisingly typical”). One journalist friend texted a rolling-eye emoji and quipped astutely that the show would’ve had no problem airing a song about same-sex marriage (another issue that’s recently made progress in Ireland). Same-sex marriage is something to celebrate! Hooray! Abortion…? Not so much. Abortion isn’t something we celebrate. It is something we endure.

I’m not an idiot. I could write catchy songs about boys and break-ups and have a much easier life. But I chose a different path, and I’ve been making a decent living for nearly two decades singing songs about the darker side of being human.

There is a long lineage of women songwriters who have turned away from the territory of break-ups and broken hearts, and dared, instead, to walk further into the dark: Yoko, Joni, Patti, Nina, Sinéad, Tori. Every single one of them has struggled through her career confronting slamming doors and mockery from a media that is not particularly keen to hear what they have to say. Lyrics about rape, racism, domestic abuse? Songs about miscarriage? Oh my goodness. No thank you, dear. Can’t you sing about something nice?

But these writers kept forging their songs nonetheless — sometimes whispered, sometimes howled — and they cut like a machete through society, hacking a path for other women to stumble along, into a clearing where they could pull free from thorny thickets of shame and unvoiced, frightening experiences. These songs were rarely sung on television (and when they were, the consequences could be brutal).

I can say from experience, having now played “Voicemail for Jill” for tens of thousands of people in dozens of cities, that certain songs can heal. Heal not just the singer, but the audience. Singing about abortion and miscarriage has helped me process, let go, make peace. And the women (and, importantly, people of all genders) who find me after shows to whisper, through tears, “thank you for that song, I needed it” are the proof that the healing is certainly not mine alone.

Coco Karol and Amanda Palmer. Photo: Kahn & Selesnick

I still get a small, scared jittery feeling in my gut every time I begin playing “Voicemail for Jill” at a show. I don’t actually want to play it. But there’s a cost/benefit at play: and the benefit of seeing relief in peoples’ eyes is worth the uncomfortable cost of treading into the awkward subject territory.

Songs like this may never land me invitations from the mainstream media, but honestly, what was I expecting? I know my history, and I know the struggles of the women who came before me.

I sing on the shoulders of giants, and there will be more of us to come, following the road less written.

Someday our society will be ready not just to legalize abortion, but to actually talk about it. And if we can truly evolve: to write about it. To sing about it, without fear. To use our vast and palliative powers of art and storytelling to mollify the stings and scars of the human experience.

It could be that the Late Late show has a different story and there’s information I don’t know. I‘d be happy to hear from them. But even they dismissed me because of my squeaky-wheel attempt to get this song and subject airtime, I have no wish to say “Shame on you, Late Late Show”. For as one who’s been on the receiving end of the shame for too many years, I have little desire to add to the cycle of misery and the Net Shame Index of the universe.

All I can do is remind people never to forget that artists have always been the canaries in the cultural coal mine, trying to sing humanity out of its darkest places. That sometimes singers walk into the darkness in order to show people the light. Our job — when we do it well — is to give a voice to the hidden complexities and strange griefs of this life.

And if some people would rather stay in the darkness, and not listen to our stories, then that’s the real shame.


Thank you to Neil Gaiman, Gabrielle Motola, and Hayley Rosenblum for their editorial help on this post.


For updates from the road, be sure to follow my new Medium publication, We Are The Media which will have beautiful long form writing and striking photographs from my foreign tour correspondents Jack and Gabrielle soon.

All the art I’ve been making over the last four years has been funded by my patrons on Patreon. People there support me, my staff, and my collaborators so we can draw a sustainable salary to make things. Please join, for as little as $1/month:
http://patreon.com/amandapalmer


Tickets for the THERE WILL BE NO INTERMISSION TOUR are available at https://amandapalmer.net/shows

Thu Oct 24 — Ireland — Dublin — National Concert Hall
Sat Oct 26 — Ireland — Belfast — Ulster Hall
Sun Oct 27 — Ireland — Limerick — University Hall
Thu Oct 24 — Ireland — Dublin — National Concert Hall
Sat Oct 26 — Ireland — Belfast — Ulster Hall
Sun Oct 27 — Ireland — Limerick — University Hall
Fri Nov 1 — UK — Dunfermline — Carnegie Hall
Sat Nov 2 — UK — Glasgow — City Halls
Sun Nov 3 — UK — Manchester — Albert Hall
Mon Nov 4 — UK — York — Opera House
Thu Nov 7 — UK — Newcastle — Tyne Theatre
Sun Nov 24 — Portugal — Braga — Theatro Circo
Thu Dec 5 — UK — London — Union Chapel (SOLD OUT)
Fri Dec 6 — UK — London — Union Chapel (SOLD OUT)
Fri Dec 13th — UK — London — Union Chapel (SOLD OUT)
Sat Dec 14th — UK — London — Union Chapel (SOLD OUT)

THEN DOWN UNDER:

Dec 30 — Jan 1 — WOODFORD, QLD — Woodford Folk Festival
Jan 16–18 — LAUNCESTON, TAS — Mona Foma Confessional
Jan 20 — LAUNCESTON, TAS — Princess Theatre, Mona Foma
Jan 22 — MELBOURNE, VIC — Hamer Hall
Jan 31 — BRISBANE, QLD — Brisbane Powerhouse
Feb 1 — BRISBANE, QLD — Brisbane Powerhouse
Feb 7 — CANBERRA, ACT — Canberra Theatre
Feb 8 — SPRINGWOOD, NSW — Blue Mountains Theatre
Feb 14–15 — ADELAIDE, SA — Bonython Hall, Adelaide Fringe
Feb 20 — SYDNEY, NSW — Enmore Theatre
Feb 22 — PERTH, WA — venue and show info TO BE ANNOUNCED
Feb 29 — DARWIN, NT — Darwin Entertainment Centre
Mar 12–13 — AUCKLAND, NZ — Auckland Arts Festival: Hollywood Avondale

An Amanda Palmer Presentation

Amanda Palmer

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