Mitt Romney vs. The Shirelles
I recently had occasion—I can imagine you can guess what it is—to think a bit on two separate versions of the Carole King-penned* "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow", the original by the Shirelles and the cover by Amy Winehouse.
I like both, of course, but what's interesting to me is the gulf between these performances of the same song. The Shirelles sing it cleanly and powerfully, but there's not a lot of melodrama to it. If you aren't paying close attention to the lyrics, you might not even notice how heart-breaking they are. Winehouse turns in a highly dramatic performance where the heartache is emphasized in every note she sings. Now part of the reason Winehouse made the choice to sing it that way was that was just her style. But her perfomance on this is especially heart-breaking, even for her, and I think the reason is that she's trying to take a familiar song and remind the audience of how sad it really is by exaggerating the drama in it. The original didn't need you to bring the drama to it; it dropped in an era when the context was enough to remind the audience of how fraught the young woman in the song's dilemma is. In fact, the song struck such a chord with its intended audience of teenagers that it was the first #1 hit for a girl group, coming out as it did in 1961.
1961: pre-pill, pre-legal abortion. When Winehouse is singing this song, the audience implicitly understands that the worst that can happen to the narrator is a broken heart. She'll cry. She'll maybe be depressed for awhile. She'll probably pick herself and love again, though. But in 1961, the context brought the drama. Audiences knew that the young narrator is taking a risk that could lead to social ostracization, loss of freedom, or even death.
It's this that I was thinking about while reading this article by Justin Elliot at Salon about Mitt Romney's relative who died of a septic abortion in 1963, and whose grieving parents asked only that donations to Planned Parenthood be given in the name of the victim of this tragedy, whose name Ann Keenan. Keenan was one of up to 5,000 women a year who died of botched abortions in the years when abortion was a crime; some of them went to illegal abortionists but mainly they died because they, alone and afraid, desperately tried to take matters into their own hands. (This is something I still struggle to wrap my mind around; I barely know how big my uterus is, much less how to manipulate it in any way. I imagine most self-aborters know even less.) Romney cited the loss of Keenan when he was trying to establish his pro-choice bona fides; he has dropped the issue now that he's trying to establish himself as a supporter of abortion bans.
It's tempting to just horse-race this one—will it hurt Romney to be a flip-flopper (invariably it will)—but I'd like to take a moment to remember that this is what we've overcome as a society, and what anti-choicers want to return us to. It's not just that they're widely supportive of a regime that makes sex ridiculously dangerous and even deadly for young women, in order to punish them for being, well, human. That would be enough to condemn them, but it's also that they long for a time when women's lives were pinched and strained by sexual expectations that were too high for the vast majority of women to meet: that you never make mistakes, that your desires are always perfectly in line with what's best for you, that you know exactly what's best for you because you possess the power of prophecy and can easily predict what man is going to be a loving husband for life and which will abandon or abuse you, that you have nothing else to live for but to marry and have children. And should you be a human being—fallible, unable to predict the future, unlucky, or simply desiring of more than a life lived just for others—they want a world that treats this like a failing that should come complete with the destruction of your life and perhaps even death.
It's trendy now for anti-choicers to pretend that they want this for women for women's own good. Sandy Rios on Fox News even tried to argue that withholding contraception would be good for young women, because an unwanted baby or two would teach them not to have "multiple" sex partners (remember, that just means "more than one"), and that having multiple sex partners is the worst possible fate for young women. This is ludicrous from a purely logical standpoint, but it's also incredibly heartless, even as it's framed as somehow being charitable. I think about this song and I can't help but think that the lack of options experienced by the narrator isn't really doing her any good. A world where she can pick herself up and love again is a better world. Even more importantly, a world where she can wonder not just if he'll love her tomorrow, but whether or not she'll feel the same is better for women. Above all other things, what anti-choicers are asking for is a world where women can't contemplate their own desires, and decide as free people whether or not it will be this man at this time—knowing what you want is hard to do when your main focus is on surviving, and in a world without real reproductive choice, women's social and even literal survival often depends on whether or not a man chooses them. They don't have as much space to decide what they're choosing for themselves.
I think it's useful to step back from the weeds of having these fights a little and think these things through: the context that made "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" so poignant, the completely unnecessary deaths of young women like Ann Keenan, who sounded like she was a bright spot in the lives of people around her:
"She was so intelligent, beautiful and a friend to everyone," Marilyn Frey, a classmate and friend of Keenan in the 22-member class of 1959 at the all-girls Liggett School, recalled in an email to Salon. In high school, Keenan was active in theater, performing in "The Importance of Being Earnest" and serving for three years on the drama board. She was a scholarship recipient and class president her sophomore year. One of Romney's sisters was quoted in the press in 1994 recalling that Keenan "was a beautiful, talented girl [whom] we all loved."
*The older I get, the more I appreciate the way King was routinely willing to explore the dark recesses of American attitudes towards sex and gender in her lyrics to what were meant to be radio-friendly pop songs. "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" is by far the most notorious example, by way of being obvious, but there's darkness in "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow", "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby" and even "Natural Woman" always struck me as songs with dark undertones indicating a deep dissatisfaction with gender norms.