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On Amanda Palmer's sunny, cheeky single about date rape and abortion

February 18, 2009 |  2:39 pm

Amanda Palmer

In 1997, Ben Folds Five released the album “Whatever & Ever Amen,” featuring the hit single “Brick.” The song -- a somber, piano-heavy tune -- was widely interpreted to be about a man accompanying his lover while she got an abortion. The lyrics are purposefully oblique, but its images of a male narrator buying flowers in a parking lot and his lover balled on a sofa in pain (on the day after Christmas, no less) made for an unlikely and deathly serious alt-rock hit.

More than 10 years later, Ben Folds co-produced another song about abortion, “Oasis,” for the Dresden Dolls’ frontwoman Amanda Palmer on her recent album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” The song and its accompanying video explicitly deal with a date rape that ends in an abortion, and on paper it’s a logical subject for the notoriously macabre singer-songwriter to tackle in her lyrics.

But the differences between “Brick” and “Oasis” are readily apparent as soon as the latter’s violently poppy Beach Boys harmonies begin. After each lyrical event is cheerfully acted out word-for-word in the aggressively whimsical video, the song ends with the girl instantly recovering from her ordeal because her favorite band, Oasis, sends her an autographed photo.

Obviously, the song plumbs new depths in the pitch-black humor that defines Palmer’s day job. "Oasis" drags up old questions about whether painful topics such as rape and abortion are ever funny, and if so, who has the credibility to make jokes about them. Palmer claims that many radio stations, TV networks and video sites are balking at the song because of its lightheartedness. But for our purposes here, let’s talk about the split between Palmer’s subject and her song. Is it our inherent reflex to value serious or sad art over “funny” art?

The juxtaposition with “Brick” is a useful one, as the same writer/producer (Folds) and general subject matter (abortion) apply to both tunes. The difference is, obviously, in the person delivering it and the tone employed. As Palmer writes on the Huffington Post:

“As I was walking over to the BBC the other day and my rep mentioned that they might not let me play "Oasis" on the air, I suggested that I might be allowed to play it if I just slowed it down and played it in a minor key. Think about it: if they heard the same lyrics against the backdrop of a very sad and lilting piano, maybe with some tear-jerking strings thrown in for good measure, would they take issue?… Would this make radio happy? Maybe. It would be within a context they could rely on, feel safe in, write off. "Of course she's sad! She had an abortion! Abortion is sad!"”

In other words, if it sounded like “Brick,” it likely wouldn’t be a problem. Palmer’s song doesn't mock rape victims or women who have abortions -- produced differently, “Oasis” could be hugely maudlin, the signed band photo a metaphor for a childhood permanently lost.

The problem seems to be that Palmer is a woman who, in this song, just refuses to be as sad about the topic as we as a culture expect (or demand) of her. The only available context for a woman in the established debate over abortion is to either be so sad about it that she doesn’t have one, or has one but is nonetheless quite sad about it.

The idea of a woman being raped or having an abortion and treating it with the kind of pop blasé of “Oasis” would likely prompt all sorts of shaming from a mainstream audience. The image of the hapless boyfriend secretly excited to be off the hook for raising a kid might go down easier in our culture than that of a woman who feels the same way, but there's likewise a cultural script for how the man is supposed to feel: sad but supportive, or at least quietly suffering in his distance from the proceedings (as in "Brick"). Either way, everyone's supposed to be uniformly miserable here, especially the woman, and for her to express any sort of humor about it is to invite the worst opinions of all ideological camps.

The date-rape element is similarly loaded. When men make rape jokes that get exposed to a wide audience, they become instantly (and rightfully) toxic. But what happens when a woman makes one, particularly a woman who has been through it, as Palmer says she has? I'm of the view that anything is fair game for withering humor in appropriate company, but Palmer's gender, age and our cultural expectations of her do affect the reception somewhat.

Anyone younger than their mid-30s has never known an America without (at least theoretical) access to safe, legal abortions. They have not known the severity of the moral conversation around Roe vs. Wade firsthand. One in three women will have an abortion by their mid-40s, and more of them are becoming willing to discuss it as one more-or-less difficult decision in a life full of them, and not the end-all wrenching moral problem of the ages. And growing awareness among young women of the unfortunate ubiquity of assault and "gray rape" could be changing the timbre of that conversation toward a more open and shared discussion, perhaps relieving some of devastating isolation and gravity. Maybe “Oasis” isn’t as wholly impossible a reaction as some might think. And even if the song is an exaggerated sentiment, don’t women have an inherent right to feel however they need to about these subjects, and employ ironic Wall-of-Sound production if that reflects some part of it?

Yet even the staunchest abortion supporter has to, on some level, view these topics as charged with something more weighty than a dentist visit. Palmer’s song is an interesting flip on the tone usually surrounding its subjects. But in this instance, is her artistic take on them any less cartoonishly extreme than the one held by someone bombing a Planned Parenthood office?

It’s one thing to explore the idea that dark humor is a valid emotional response, or to combat a culture that reserves special loathing for women who fit outside the sober-virgin/repentant-whore complex. But in shifting the tone of the conversation, Palmer runs with it to an equally unrealistic place. She has a right to process and depict these ideas however she sees fit, but as an artist, is it not a more laudable goal to give these ideas considered attention, even if the end result is funny, or at least not "serious" in the way "Brick" is? “Oasis” is a necessary change in the expectations of how we talk about these subjects, but it lacks in the kind of rapier wit that transgressive ideas need to kick-start an audience's own thinking. Deciding to treat abortion humorously is, in itself, a serious artistic decision, and "Oasis" just doesn't feel like it's working hard enough as a song to earn that complicated sentiment.

“Oasis” is a direct challenge to the sentiment that pop songs, especially pop songs by women, must have default settings for how they treat their subject matter. And because pop music is so inherently formulaic, any inversion of that formula is going to be alarming. A world dominated by the severity of songs like “Brick” certainly warrants a corrective that includes levity. Now, if only someone can get around to writing a song about all this that sounds true.

-- August Brown

Photo by Gabrielle Motola/AFP/Getty Images