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Why don't songs about dead moms make me sad?

Mama's boys: Lennon, McCartney, West

Mama's boys: Lennon, McCartney, West Associated Press

Happy Mothers Day. Let's talk about some dead moms.

On October 31, 1956, Mary McCartney of Liverpool died at the age of 47 from an embolism after surgery to prevent the spread of her breast cancer. Her son Paul, who was 14 at the time, later recalled his initial response: “What are we going to do without her money?” Soon afterward, he wrote his first song, “I Lost My Little Girl.”

Two years later, on July 15, 1958, an off-duty constable drove into 44-year-old Julia Lennon, sending her body flying 100 feet and killing her. For several years after that, her son John, who was 17 at the time, fucking lost it. He and McCartney would later bond over their motherlessness and write some songs together. After achieving their goal of becoming bigger than Elvis Presley, whose mother Gladys coincidentally had died almost exactly a month after Julia Lennon at 46, their work increasingly glanced backward, toward pre-rock culture, their childhoods, and their mothers.

On November 10, 2007, Dr. Donda West died of complications following cosmetic surgery at the age of 58. Her son Kanye, who was 30 at the time, responded with an album of Auto-Tuned compositions that helped expand hip-hop’s emotional palette in ways that have been both liberating and excruciating, while escalating a shift in his public persona toward sometimes artful and sometimes rank assholery. As recently as 2015, Kanye was continuing to blame himself for the death, saying his mother would never have felt the need for surgery if she hadn't followed him to L.A.

On May 3, 1992, Judy Harris died in her sleep when a neuromuscular disorder caused her gag reflex to fail. She was 49, about six months older than I am now. I was 22 at the time, and in response I drank for the next six years with a greater sense of commitment than I’ve brought to any endeavor before or since, I dropped out of grad school (there’s always a silver lining), and, 27 years later, I wrote this essay, in part to determine why I rarely connect on a personal, gut level with songs about grieving, particularly songs about dead moms.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of the music I’ll talk about today is powerful, on its own terms, even psychologically profound. What I’m saying is that songs about dead mothers rarely reflect my own personal grieving process, rarely trigger an involuntary emotional response. Because pop music is a sixth sense through which I explore the world around me, this disconnect is rare. Love songs? They best express feelings and sentiments that roughly correspond to the feelings and sentiments I’ve had and expressed when I’m in love. Driving songs? That’s how I feel when I’m in my car. Songs about being unable to precisely articulate your rage at the way your imagination is corrupted and limited by an oppressive political system? They are unable to precisely articulate my rage at the way my imagination is corrupted and limited by an oppressive political system in a way I fail to do as well.

I still hold grudges against the music, TV, books, and movies that didn’t move me in the first few years following my mom’s death, such as Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss, which felt like an evasion and mystification of grief, and I still hold grudges against those that did move me, such as Steven Spielberg's sappy Peter Pan reboot Hook, because it’s always humiliating to be reduced to tears by a truly mediocre movie, especially when you pay to see it in the theater.

After my mother died, I set out, as emotionally stunted young men will do, to explore the new terrain of my altered feelings not by communicating with actual humans, but through music. If nothing else, I told myself, at least now I get to feel like John Lennon.

Lennon’s 1970 album Plastic Ono Band, particularly the opening and closing tracks, had already shaped my idea of what loss felt like. Recorded while Lennon was undergoing primal scream therapy with Arthur Janov, the album leads off with “Mother,” an attempt to address his unresolved feelings about Julia’s death.

That’s not how I felt at all.

Of course it wasn’t. Because this was the work of a man grappling with loss more than a decade old, and with his refusal to address it sooner. The whole (dubious) concept of primal scream therapy is that buried pain must be deliberately recreated. My pain was still very much on the surface. I was seeking a shortcut to catharsis just months after my trauma.

Most songs about dead mothers aren’t nearly so autobiographical. While I was writing this, I put a call out on Twitter for songs on the subject. There are, as you might guess, a few. Suggestions ranged from parlor ballads to country weepers the more idiosyncratic work of rock and rap auteurs. But many consistent themes recurred, and I found several of the major ones encapsulated in Bukka White’s “Strange Place Blues,” which I can thank Chris Bahn for recommending.

First, there’s a sense of disorientation. White makes the psychological concretely geographical: He literally can’t find his mother’s grave. Second, there’s a comparison between the dead mother and the remainder of the female population, who tend to fare badly in the singer's estimation. Finally, there’s the permanence of the loss: The world will always be worse than it was until the singer is dead as well.

If living mothers often figure in pop as women beyond compare, the dead mother is something even more: the perfect woman. Dead moms tell no tales; they fall completely within the imaginary control of the surviving child.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Take Lennon’s bandmate, McCartney, who famously related a vision of his dead mother, by name, at the start of “Let It Be,” where her spirit returns to console and advise him. From a therapeutic standpoint, what more could the son of a dead mother ask than her presence as a voice of comfort?

But that control, as any child of a dead parent knows, is illusory. By contrast, in 2013 McCartney took a sad song and made it bleaker, when he revealed that he’d come to realize that he’d written “Yesterday,” in part, as a song about Mary’s death. (“I think the psychiatrist would have a field day with that one,” he quipped McCartneyishly.) This hardly reduces an all-purpose ballad of loss to a simple confessional, but it does make the bridge especially heartbreaking. You can hear a child’s bafflement (“Why she had to go/I don’t know”), the silence of the dead parent (“she wouldn’t say”), and, in “I said something wrong” an element of self-blame on the part of the child.

If it’s been impossible to discuss these artists without recourse to some kind of potted psychoanalysis, well, to quote Al Jolson (whose mother Naomi died in childbirth in 1895 when Al was 10), wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet, because now it’s time for Kanye. There has never been a pop star whose head it is as impossible to resist shrinking as Kanye West. When your mom’s a professor and you center your art and persona around your rejection of a college education, and when immediately following her death you embark on a second career of multimedia supervillainry, people will make assumptions.

At the heart of 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye’s first album after the death of Donda West, isn’t just that loss but the end of Kanye’s engagement to his on-and-off fiancée Alexis Phifer. And the work ties together much of what I’ve been talking about: An album where an artist mourns his mother by badmouthing his ex while electronically lacerating his own voice is some kind of toxic male pop apotheosis. It’s like Kanye wanted all at once to achieve his Plastic Ono Band, his Blood on the Tracks, and his “I’m ‘n Luv (Wit a Stripper).”

But to get to the core of Kanye’s mama issues, let’s jump ahead to a Donda-centric track I talked a little bit about here last Mother’s Day. It’s fitting that Paul McCartney guests on “Only One,” because it’s in some ways West’s “Let It Be”: When Ye finds himself in times of trouble, mother Donda comes to him, speaking words of wisdom, “You're not perfect but you're not your mistakes,” a sentiment I personally find more insightful and therapeutically useful than “let it be.”

But for all the reassurance Kanye puts into his mother’s mouth on this track, what I respond to here is not grief but lack, the expression of an unfulfillable emotional need. And “Only One” reaches another emotional level when Kanye-as-Donda sings of the granddaughter she never lived to meet, “Tell Nori about me.” That’s the only moment in any of these songs that chokes me up consistently, and there’s one simple reason for that: It’s the most concrete example of the effects of a mother’s absence. We’ve seen other emotional repercussions, yes, but a grandchild who will never know her grandmother is living a representation of that loss.

Which will, I hope, give me an opportunity, like so many of the artists I’ve discussed here, to be guilty of both oversharing and furtive caginess. One nice thing about writing about John Lennon and Kanye West is that no matter how overboard you go, you will never appear to gaze as deeply into your navel as they do. At least that’s my hope.

So what does any of this have to do with Judy Harris, who regretted that her father never spoke Italian in the house and insisted on baking pork chops after frying them (because trichinosis) and thought Audrey Hepburn "had no figure" and Telly Savalas was gross and worked out her class resentments through compulsive Who’s the Boss? viewings and got so addicted to Atari Ms. Pac Man that my brother and I used to come from school every day and find her in his room, joystick in hand and ashtray piled with stubbed-out Vantage cigarettes beside her, and for an entire year I swear wore a yellow California Raisins T-shirt more often than not and was so inexplicably terrified of people in costumes she once refused to go into a Shop-Rite because there was man outside dressed as a Twinkie but who nonetheless white-knuckled her way through a dance with Donald Duck at Disney World because she didn’t want to disappoint her 7-year-old son, who was dancing with Mickey?

Well, not much, probably. But thanks to a very patient licensed professional I pay $150 a week to listen to me say the same things over and over, I’ve learned my mother’s death now feels less to me like a loss than an interruption. When your parents die, you’re not free of the weight of their expectations, your need for their approval; they’re simply displaced onto the larger world. And so, whatever psychological avenues I needed to travel through in my relationship with my mother when she died I now have to navigate in my encounters with adult women. (In case you’re wondering why I’m still single.)

And really, isn’t a significant strand of pop music just that: emotionally needy young men working out their relationship issues, through their songwriting and their performances, by creating imaginary women to woo, fuck, abandon, idealize, abuse, blame, and apologize to? And aren’t the mothers they create no less imaginary?

Because, as you've probably already figured out, I haven’t been talking about dead moms at all. I’ve been talking about the sons who survived them, and the stories they tell themselves, the art they create, to contain their grief, to work through it, to mythologize it, to dodge it. Try as I might, pop music will never direct me to the core of my relationship with my mother. But I can learn how others have tried. To return to Lennon, and paraphrase the song he named for his mother but was, fittingly, just as much about his future wife, Yoko, I cannot yet sing my heart. But I can speak my mind.