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On a long drive through central California last week I listened to two new records: Sharon Van Etten - We've Been Going About This All Wrong, and Florence and the Machine - Dance Fever. I had recently seen Florence Welch on the cover of a Tidal playlist entitled Grown Pop, slightly offended that the 35-and-up were getting separated into their own sub-genre. Listening to both records back to back, however, I realized how notable both of them are for their reflection on that era of life. As women, specifically. It seems a perfect moment, the world grappling with both a long-term health crisis and climate change, for two of rock and pop's fiercest women to release music processing their relationships to motherhood, or the choice to take another path.
Dance Fever opens (opens!) with the lyrics:
We argue in the kitchen about whether to have children
About the world ending and the scale of my ambition
And how much is art really worth
The very thing you're best at is the thing that hurts the most
But you need your rotten heart, your dazzling pain like diamond rings
You need to go to war to find material to sing
I am no mother, I am no bride, I am king
True to her mythic form, she continues the warrior imagery through the rest of the song, planting a sword firmly in the king category, at least for the moment. In a recent interview in Vogue, Florence elaborates on her interest in potentially changing course to have children and the interviewer wonders why she thinks she can't have both. Personally, I wonder why having "both" is always the expectation or assumed goal. I don't think it's really about having it all, but whether or not you want to try to be it all.
“The whole crux of the song is that you’re torn between the two,” she says. “The thing I’ve always been sure of is my work, but I do start to feel this shifting of priorities, this sense of, like,” she drops to a whisper—“maybe I want something different.”
She goes on to explain the emotional courage it must take to have children along with her complicated relationship with her body and battles with disordered eating - the parts where parenthood is not just a question of means and desire but potentially an emotional and physical reckoning.
It's an emotional battleground that, coincidentally, Sharon Van Etten dove into on her new record, We've Been Going About This All Wrong. Admitting that everyone is releasing COVID records at this point, she acknowledges that the darkness on this one reflects the past few years of isolation and change. Themes of uncertainty, disconnection, occasional chainsmoking, and motherhood are present throughout - once a less likely combination for mass appeal in a pop record, but here we are.
In the song Home To Me, she sings:
The only child, don't turn your back, don't leave
You're on my mind, do you not see?
I need my job, please don't hold that against me
You are my life, ooh, don't that sting?
Thinking of her son and a work/life balance isn't always as lyrically obvious. The following is from a recent interview with Rolling Stone:
“There’s a few hidden messages to my son in there, just reminding him that I tried my best. I hope that when he gets old enough to listen to the songs and read between the lines, that he knows that I did everything I could. But the message is also to people that feel the same way.”
Feeling the same way may look like navigating the responsibilities of parenthood, negotiating relationships during quarantine, or being a musician in this new age of touring. Everyone is trying their best. But as she put it in an interview with Loud and Quiet, in relation to her son, "Hopefully it feels like an apology or an explanation of some kind." The choice to be an active, touring and therefore traveling parent can't be an easy one, especially when you see the consequences (good or bad) reflected in a tiny human.
The type of ownership Sharon takes of her emotions and choices on We've Been Going About This All Wrong is beautiful and admirable. Though it's a far cry from Florence's declared sovereignty, I'm struck by how she wrestles with contemporary motherhood and her humanity with such confidence, but then with longing at the same time. How both records, released just days apart, have distinctly vulnerable takes on what exactly the choice to "have it all" looks and feels like in what might be a slowly crumbling world.
It feels like a significant and empowering feminist moment for two such notable artists to be weighing in with their personal experiences on this topic. Especially in a music industry that often values one's proximity to childhood rather than parenthood. The world children are growing up in right now is a terrifying one. All the more important for artists to express what a challenging time it is to even think about being a parent, let alone already be one.
I agree with Florence that it must take so much courage.