The Transcontinental Disability Choir: Popular Songs That Get Disability (Mostly) Right

Since my last post on the Bitch Social Commentary blog was a (rather long) analysis of Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" video and the problematic representation of disability contained therein, I thought I'd take this post to focus on some popular songs that get disability and representations of persons with disabilities (mostly) right. There are, of course, some issues with these songs, but overall, I'm of the opinion that the musicians profiled in this post are doing something right with their respective songs. One caveat: This is by no means a complete list of songs that portray disability and people with disabilities in a positive light.

First, we have Morrissey's 1990 song "November Spawned a Monster," the video for which features Moz, in a see-though shirt, dancing around in the desert and hiding near some awesome rock formations:

Lyrics are available here; of course, there are some issues that come with this mostly positive portrayal of a young woman with a physical disability. The first few verses seem to fall into some well-worn ableist traps--namely, that this young woman will never find love because she's "just so ugly;" that she is to be pitied; that she is a monster with "useless limbs"; in some live performances, Moz later replaced the lyric "this frame of useless limbs" with the assertive "YES, I am a freak," thereby instilling some disability pride that seems a bit more progressive. However, I would argue that the traps that these lyrics fall into early in the song are refuted by the end; though the protagonist will "never be rich or beautiful" (which probably describes many of us), she has made a conscious decision to be in the world as she is, "people discussing" her be damned.

The Dresden Dolls are a Boston-based "punk cabaret" outfit famous for their high-energy live performances, Marcel Marceau-meets-M.A.C.-inspired makeup, and usually surreal song subject matter. One of their b-sides, "Ultima Esperanza," [lyrics here] released on their 2008 demo/b-side compilation No, Virginia, was described by one reviewer as "compassionately depict[ing] a legless woman who tries internet dating."

Here is a somewhat consistent YouTube clip of the duo performing the song in 2008:

At first listen, the issues with this song seem rather obvious, particularly to a feminist audience: It seems to implicitly reinforce heterosexuality as the norm with all of the references to fairy tales and marriage, and most of the lyrics address Ultima's would-be paramour rather than Ultima herself. Ultima, in some sense, seems to be the object of her potential "rescuer's" affections, rather than a subject. At the same time, she uses the internet in her attempt to find love, though "she doesn't get around much"; she is not entirely a person to whom things happen, though she may be "waiting for someone to take her away." Though much of the song seems to set her up as somehow "trapped" and wanting someone to take her away (potentially reinforcing the cultural trope of the disabled person/person with a disability as pathetic), Ultima still has the power to act and influence her own life in some ways--it's just on her own terms, and exists within power structures that are already there; some feminist scholars have termed such a complicated, perhaps contradictory capacity to act "embedded agency." In short, this song--like Ultima herself--is complicated; it also seems to embrace its own complications and contradictions.

Antony and the Johnsons' "Epilepsy is Dancing" (link goes to lyrics) is a song off of their most recent album, The Crying Light (2009). Here is a clip of the band performing the song--with a different instrumental arrangement than the studio version's--for France's Canal Plus:

Usually, I am highly suspicious of songs or other pop culture artifacts that seem to presume, from the outset, that disability is somehow magical. Title (and Jesus name-check in the first verse) aside, however, this is an incredible song that is more subtle than the dichotomous thinking that pervades so many attitudes about disability; in particular, the line "I'm finding my rhythm" seems to suggest that disability, for some, is part of the "rhythm" of life rather than a defect or tragedy (as popular cultural myths about disability might have us believe). Antony's voice has the perfect balance of vulnerability and toughness, and this comes through rather spectacularly. [If you're so inclined, you can also download the song for free from this page.]

Next up is Alanis Morissette's 1995 song "Mary Jane," which seems to be about a woman with severe depression (please note that I am talking about depression as a long-term psychiatric condition here). Lyrics are available here. There isn't an official video for it, but here is a fairly recent live performance with awesome Spanish subtitles:

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a huge Alanis fan (even though some people think she's so 1995 or something equally ridiculous) and have been for a long time. "Mary Jane" is one of those songs that, I think, gets things right, and is pretty damn powerful in its execution. Although the fact that Mary Jane does not speak for herself--she is spoken to by the song's narrator--could be construed as problematic, this narrative is also notable for what it lacks: significantly, Mary Jane is not blamed for her condition, which is a powerful rebuttal to the cultural myth (at least in North America) that people with depression should just get over it because they are, somehow, to blame--as if a psychiatric condition like depression is just something that can be turned on and off like a light switch! Interesting, too, is the narrator's encouragement of Mary Jane to "be honest" and, effectively, not hide her illness or its effects.

Again, this is definitely not a complete list of songs that get disability "right," so to speak; feel free to discuss your selections in comments.

Comments

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great post Anna - thanks for

great post Anna - thanks for highlighting that there are lots of artists who get this right.

one of my classic favorites in this genre is Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression," in which not only the lyrics ("manic depression is a frustrating mess") but the swirling guitar solos are evocative of the disorder itself.

Musicians With Disabilites (not just the mainstream stuff)

How about highlighting some of the lesser-known bands & musicians with disabilities? The Ouch Talkshow from the BBC does an amazing job with this, highlighting a new unsigned musician in every episode, some of them REALLY great!

A really great post! It made

A really great post!
It made me remember about one more great song that both enchants me and rubs me the wrong way, at the same time- " The wrong Child".
Although I do respect the lyrics of the song for its message and its amazing ability to convey the loneliness of being different then others, it really is a hard song to to enjoy and love. Don't get me wrong, it's not because this song is bad or poorly written, but because it is emotionally very difficult for me.