Childless pop: the lost voice of mothers and fathers

I recently watched a more or less lackluster documentary on Kate Bush which had the usual weirdly unconnected star-interviews, no interviews with the featured artist herself and probably a lot of footage from previous documentaries. However, one description by one of her closer musician-friends about Kate’s voice in a lot of her songs got me thinking. He said, how maternal songs like “Army Dreamer” or “Breathing” are and I had this sudden realization that the paternal/maternal voice in music is rarely visible.

This song is about a mother’s worries to send her kid (back then only the boys) into war at an age when no one should hold a gun. The beauty lies in the lack of “war is bad”-aggression. It is about a mother who wonders what her son could have been if he would have had more chances in life to avoid the army (a way out for many boys who didn’t finish school or had otherwise trouble to find a proper job).

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that it is not there, because I guess we all can cite songs like “Tears in Heaven” (sadly misappropriated for soggy background music) or the conflated “Glory” by Jay-Z that probably was a sign of love – but also a well-timed cash-cow if you ask me.

But if we look at the bigger picture, the pop stars that have kids (did you know that they do have kids? Crazy!), then hardly any one of them sings about them, at least not in single+music video-format and rather in the last-song-of-the-album-format that no one listens to anyway.

We have tons of songs about love and lost love and unrequited love and ex-boy/girlfriends and sexy time but those songs about being a parent, of having to care for a human being that is tiny and breaks easily (believe me, drop a mug and no one bats an eye but drop a baby and all hell breaks loose) – those songs are strangely absent.

Written for Shara’s son. It is about her always being there even when she one day will die. It’s a lovely, darkly humorous and heart-wrenching song. Could you imagine Beyoncé singing it?

This could have several reasons.

  1. Popstars don’t write their own music

Sure, that’s true. But that would imply that none of the people who write their music are parents which is hard to believe. Besides, songwriters sometimes can write incredibly intimate and emotive songs that just resonate with our experiences as human beings. I am not talking about “Toxic” or “Single Ladies” here. “The Great Pretender”, for example, is a great song that not only refers to putting on a happy face after a breakup but also relates to people who maybe have to hide heavier things (if you look past the mostly humorous interpretations, there is a real tragedy to being broken but not being able to share it with anyone).

We could also argue that maybe most songwriters are male but apart from the fact that some of the most infamous and prolific songwriters are (or have been) female (Carol King, Sia, Ellie Greenwich), this would be one heck of a sexist thing to say because men – or so I’ve heard – also have emotions for their kids. I know I know, we always say that men are aggressive brutes that only know lust and anger but there is a different side to them and probably know how it feels to hold their kid in their hands for the first time (at least, that’s what I want to believe).

And those songwriters (male and female) have the right songs for most topics even a popstar has to go through. I mean, after Miley Cyrus tried to keep her recent breakup with Liam Hemsworth from the press to use the news both for her new album and his already lagging movie career, some songwriter wrote her (or someone else, nowadays most pop songs go through several pitches to several pop stars before they get the final musician) a perfect breakup song. And that happens miraculously often. So couldn’t it also happen when a popstar is pregnant or adopts a kid or has a partner who has a kid? A lot of people have children and you would think that they would relate positively to someone addressing the joy, maybe the uncertainty and anxiety of becoming or being a parent.

This song is as bold – and hilarious – as it gets. A self-centered dad who struggles with the diverted attention after his son is being born. In recent years, he would sing it together with Rufus Wainwright – an amazing musician himself – after they apparently sorted out some major family issues (both privately and in their music).

  1. Children are too personal

Of course, no one wants to drag their private life into the spotlight. Unless it’s for Instagram or a million dollar magazine-cover-deal or Oprah Winfrey. But otherwise, no one wants to push their kids to the front of the red carpet. Unless it is a really important premiere or they have their own fashion line (kids and teenagers do the best fashion lines, y’all) or are about to play in a movie or record a single. Wait, where was I?

Ah yes. Maybe children are too personal to sing about (or hear about) and we rather prefer those lofty, airy and metaphysical topics such as breakups (“Somebody that I used to know”), drug addictions (“Rehab”), family drama (“Breakaway”) or abuse (“Janie got a gun”). There is a weird gap in the quite varied number of topics that are covered and that are popular on radio (or spotify). If nothing is too personal and Robbie Williams can sing about his depression, Britney can hint at suicidal thoughts in her music videos and Rihanna even hurls out a ballad about betraying a partner then why is the paternal/maternal angle so seldom the theme of a hitsingle? (I don’t doubt that they – as previously mentioned – can be found at the back of the tracklist of a few singer’s albums but seriously, in mainstream popmusic, the last songs on any album tracklist don’t count)

Ben Fold’s covers the difficulty that parents have to guide their kids through adolescence because that’s the time when kids pull away but still need the parental support to make sense of their emotions and the suckiness of the world. He also wrote a similar song for his daughter later on which is absolutely sweet.

  1. Being a parent is not sexy

Well…yes, probably. I can’t recall how many times I used to walk through the streets, spot a super hot guy and then recoiled in terror when the thing I thought was a weird tent-chair on wheels turned out to be a baby carriage. TERROR! Like, how gross are moms and dads am I right?

(I do think, though, that this is an actual point because one of the first things a new mom is doing when she is a musician, is lose those extra pounds and shoot a sexy music video – or don’t lose her extra pounds and still do a sexy music video to prove that she is…more than a repulsive mother, I guess? I don’t know what guys do, when they become dads. Maybe sing a song for the mother?)

Speaking of the dads, it is a little peculiar that those known popsongs that are about the child of the performer are mainly sung by the dads. Jay-Z was already mentioned but also Stevie Wonder (isn’t she lovely), The Rolling Stones and Lenny Kravitz have doted some songs to their kids. So why no Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, Madonna or Celine Dion? Because dads are sexy and moms are not?

I think the oversexualisation of modern pop stars has been covered often enough (and might be highly exaggerated if I think of the steamy videos of 80s starlets) but for every sexy song, there is also a vulnerable one. And what does the vulnerable song deal with? Inner demons, being pretty despite not being perfect shown in a stripped down video and perfect “natural” make-up, getting over a breakup and sometimes – unfortunately – broadly stated political views. And given that “Dear Mr. President” really erased all sexy thoughts I had of Alicia Moore till then, I would say that the loss of sex appeal is not the reason why the topic is not covered often enough by popstars.

Besides, and this is one of the biggest conundrums of this question – the motherhood is a major topic in the marketing of female popstars. Look at any interview of a female (pop-) star shortly before/after she had a kid – no matter what she has also achieved – and you’ll find that the majority of questions deal with motherhood, mother-weight, kids and family. The social role of the mother is plastered over those magazines and nearly every pregnant star does a sexy photoshoot to emphasize “hey wait, I STILL am sexy”. Some, on the other hand go the pastel coloured route of housewife-heaven, admitting to the guilt they have of juggling a career and a family (as if the partner is incapable of taking responsibility) or giving great tips how to celebrate a birthday party for under $10,000. So, they are visible, these mothers. They are highly visible – but not in their music.

Joni Mitchell gave up a kid for adoption and this is a song about her which might or might not be what she dreamt for her daughter and it shows that mother- and fatherhood – maybe even more than the usual romance stuff – is incredibly rich when it comes to stories, life decisions and emotions.

  1. Teenagers don’t care for it

Oh yeah, I forgot. The popmusic market is dominated by teenagers and a.) they totally think that babies are gross and b.) don’t even care about those poop-machines, plus c.) no one wants to make them believe otherwise or they all get preggers and overpopulate the already overpopulated earth!

But I call BS on that. First of all, teenagers don’t rule the market of pop music. It’s actually old people aka 45+demographics that hurl in the cash and as these largely consist of the famously named “baby boomers”, we might assume that kids and family are a topic that is quite known to them and maybe even pull some heartstrings on the way (but not too hard, those oldtimers can’t risk a heart attack).

A kid growing up with odd parents usually turns out to be a charming little oddball him/herself. And that it’s difficult (and that the proud father knows it) is the message of this pre-Stardust Bowie incarnation. Yeah, he was a real hippie before he flew to space.

  1. Creative freedom?

You might have noticed that, instead of the examples I give of non-paternal/maternal-related music, I delicately placed beautiful songs by mothers and fathers inbetween my broadly written blog entry. That’s because below the mainstream-level, there’s a pop-level of fantastic singer/songwriters who not only write their own music but also cover topics that are generally ignored by the mainstream (mental illness and death/grief being some of them but maybe I cover those in another post). Those artists usually have full control over their output but still have the kind of mass-appeal to be favourites for soundtracks and radio stations. And yes, Kate Bush is one of them (if you don’t believe me, ask yourself whether you would really equal Madonna-fame with Kate Bush-fame).

Back in the days just as now, there’s a big machinery behind the mainstream artist with a major label at his heels. Taylor Swift didn’t decide individually to pull her songs from Spotify and Miley Cyrus didn’t rub her butt against a married creepo during the VMAs because she was so outrageously rebellious. Justin Timberlake’s switch from being Rahmen-dude to sexy back? That’s a well oiled machine of smart people who make very smart decisions and know great musicians, producers and songwriters to sell as much as possible. But this machinery sometimes takes a lot of time to change its course. And because it is easy to stick with the run of the mill-song topics (love and fun) and maybe the odd (but not really odd) one out (like a drug-song or a song about suffering kids in a random third world country), they probably never even think about the possibility to let someone write not just a song but a first of the album hit-single about mother- or fatherhood.

And these are – after all – the people that choose the songs that the songwriters hand over to them, that make the choice which topics fit the fan-demographic, the current image of the popstar, the “theme” of the album (although the really big pop albums never have a theme, let alone a convincing tracklist). So if we have to ask one question then it should be: on what account do the producers/managers pick the song? It’s probably not on account of the brilliance of the song (most of Rihanna’s songs are well produced but badly written once you take a closer look at the lyrics) but given that nearly every female popstar at some point has sung a song about feeling pretty no matter what, we could assume that there is a certain process in the choosing of topics. But why are those topics open to so many things these days but not to motherhood? Does it simply not occur because it never occurred before?

And, you know, writing this as someone who probably (hopefully) won’t have kids for quite some time, it’s only fitting to add a song about wondering whether that is alright or not.

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