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A Soundtrack for Survivors

Music can move us as survivors. Rick Dougherty shares his ultimate playlist of songs that have helped him with his past abuse and how they will also help him when walking across Ireland in June to raise money and awareness for BTSADV.

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The iPod

To be honest, I didn’t even know they still made iPods.  As many of you know, I am gearing up for a 620-mile pilgrimage along the Ireland Way to raise money and awareness for Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence.  There has been a lot that has gone into my preparation.  I have had to save money for my gear and travel; research different aspects of the journey; and get into the appropriate physical shape to handle this unique test of my body.  There have also been logistical considerations. 

One thing that has worried me is keeping a charge on my cell phone for emergencies.  There will be times when I will be in very rural parts of Ireland, and I am the type of person who sometimes likes to listen to college lectures, audiobooks, or music while I hike.  Certainly, I do know the cathartic advantages of being in nature with no distractions.  There will be a therapeutic aspect to my walk, but sometimes a distraction is welcome to make it through long stretches.  These can drain cell phone battery and storage, so I decided to purchase a brand-new iPod for the express purpose of providing me with entertainment on the trail.  If the iPod loses battery and I am without it for a few days, no harm; no foul. 

Now that I have the iPod in my possession, it is time to put together that playlist.  It is time to find some songs that will be particularly meaningful for my purpose and my location.  There are some particularly Irish songs and artists that will have to be on the list.  I know I will want to hear the angelic voice of the late Dolores O’Riordan and her band the Cranberries.  Obviously, there will be some U2, Sinead O’Connor, and “Galway Girl” from Steve Earle.  There are also some hiking and nature related songs that will surely be inspirational.  In the Pearl Jam song “Drifting,” I love the line, “my road it may be lonely just because it’s not paved.”  There will also be some artists that I just love, and have little to do with the particular task at hand.  Lorde, Alanis Morissette, Everclear, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are some of my favorites. 

Still, there is one last category of songs that will need to be included since I am doing this to raise money and awareness for Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence.  The music world has provided us with some tear-jerking, emotional, powerful, and even funny songs for survivors of abuse.  For different parts of the healing process, these songs may have helped you.  They may still inspire you to this day.  You may even be hearing about some of them for the first time, and this will open you up to some really incredible tracks.  I will include the official YouTube link to these songs, whenever it is possible.

Trigger Warning: All of these songs reference abuse, but some of them also contain mentions of self-harm, violence, weapons, and other potentially upsetting situations.

Kesha “Praying”

This is the most recent offering for the playlist.  Being released in 2017, I was actually working as a disc jockey at a radio station in Phoenix, Arizona, and I broke down crying in the studio the first time I played it on the air.  After making credible accusations of sexual, physical, emotional, and verbal abuse after her former-producer Dr. Luke, Kesha fought to get out of her recording contract.  After all of the legal battles, she returned to the world of pop music with “Praying.”  You can hear the absolute torture in her voice, as she is still coming to terms with what happened to her.

Some of the lyrics do strike the wrong chord with me.  “After everything you’ve done, I can thank you for how strong I have become.”

Kesha is going to heal in her own way, and it is absolutely not my place to judge her process and her artistic choices.  Too often, however, people try to tell survivors that they were made “stronger” by making it through the abuse.  Kesha is working through things in her own way, but every survivor had to be strong in the first place to ever make it out of the abusive situation.  It also implies that people who don’t make it out of abusive situations are weak.  That is not the case. 

Impressively, Kesha continues this empathetic tone towards her abuser.  She pleads that her abuser finds peace, and changes.  When you combine that compassion with the force of her emotions being belted out for us, “Praying” is a powerful statement about not letting the abuse get the best of you.  There are going to be other songs on this playlist that take a different approach, and they are all valid.  We all make it through these things in different ways.  On different days, I feel different emotions surrounding the abuse I experienced.  That is common. 

There is one final reason that the video for this song, in particular, is so important to me.  It is filmed at and surrounding Salvation Mountain and the Salton Sea in Southern California.  This location is very significant for me.  First of all, it features prominently in the story of Chris McCandless, who is the subject of the book and movie “Into the Wild.”  His sister Carine also wrote a book “The Wild Truth.”  McCandless grew up in an abusive household, and went on his own journey through the Southwest, Midwest, and eventually up to Alaska.  Both of the books and the movie have all been inspirational for me.  While my journey is way more organized, and I hope to have a better outcome than the one Chris made in the early-90s, I understand his need to process the abuse by temporarily detaching from the trappings of the modern world.

Secondly, I have visited Salvation Mountain on two different occasions.  Once, on a cross-country road-trip with my best friend, Matt.  The second time was right after my wife and I moved to Arizona.  We made the journey on Thanksgiving to drop off art supplies to help with the continued maintenance of the structure, and to experience it another time.  It is one of the most spiritually-impressive places I have ever stepped foot.  To me, the religious aspects aren’t necessarily what make it special.  It is the focus on love as the prevailing purpose of life.  It is not a coincidence that Kesha picked this place for the video for this song. 

The Chicks “Goodbye Earl”

Alright, that first one was heavy.  The second song on the playlist takes a whimsical look at a revenge fantasy for the titular character, Wanda.  After marrying Earl, Wanda initially tried to her hide the abuse that she was suffering by wearing baggy clothes and sunglass.  That is something to which a lot of survivors can relate.  Of course, covering for her abuser only incentivized him to continue with this horrible treatment, and he eventually beat her to the point that she ended up in the hospital. 

As the song continues, Wanda’s friend since youth, Mary Anne, arrives for moral support.  “She held Wanda’s hand; and they worked out a plan; and it didn’t take them long to decide that Earl had to die.”

Of all of the songs on this list, this one sounds like it deals with the darkest subject matter, but The Chicks turn it into a comical adventure.  Healing is hard work, but that doesn’t mean that survivors can’t enjoy a good laugh.  The comedy doesn’t dimmish the seriousness of the subject matter.  It is only by accepting the fact that Earl deserves his fate that they are able to turn his demise into a joke. 

“They don’t lose any sleep at night, ‘cause Earl had to die.”

If there is anything that is a little problematic about this song, it is that it perpetuates the stereotype that domestic violence is primarily an issue in poorer communities.  This is a country song, so Earl is portrayed as a rural, probably Southern, working-class individual.  In reality, abuse is prevalent among the wealthy, middle-class, and the poor. 

So often abusers try to diminish their victims.  Abuse is about control, and The Chicks create a narrative in which Wanda and Mary Anne take back that control.  Unlike with Kesha’s “Praying,” there is no empathy or sympathy for Earl.  Abusers have not earned that; nor do they deserve it.  Even the police officers described in the song don’t seem too concerned about finding Earl.

“It turns out he was a missing person who nobody missed at all.”

Unlike what many victims face in their own lives, Mary Anne and Wanda seem to have the full support of the police and the community.  That is possibly more cathartic than the fantasy of killing an abuser.  The women are believed.  The cops look the other way.  Men, women, and children in the town support their business, and nobody worries about the abuser.  We have all experienced abusers getting the benefit of the doubt.  The Chicks take that off the table.

Genesis “No Son of Mine”

Indulge me in an opinion of mine that I believe holds a lot of weight.  Phil Collins has written some of my favorite songs of all-time, both in his solo career and with Genesis.  “Against All Odds (Take A Look at Me Now)” and “Land of Confusion” are absolute masterpieces.  “Invisible Touch” and “Sussudio,” in my humble opinion, are garbage.  There doesn’t seem to be a middle-ground with Phil Collins.  He can write sincere and heart-felt lyrics, or mindless Easy Listening fodder.

“No Son of Mine” is genuine.  This is Phil Collins putting enough specific details into the lyrics to really connect with anyone who has grown up in an abusive household.  In fact, of all the songs on this list, “No Son of Mine” may be the best descriptor of what it was like for me as a kid, especially in my teenaged years. 

The song is told through the perspective of the young man witnessing the abuse.  While we don’t hear exactly what is happening in the house, it is clear that the father in this particular household is abusive.  Collins has stated publicly that he kept the violence ambiguous.  The listener isn’t supposed to know whether it is the son or mother suffering at the hands of this man.  I think that is part of why it resonated with so many people.  Every listener can visualize their own scenario.

“I didn’t think much about it, ‘til is started happening all of the time.  Soon I was living with the fear every day of what might happen that night.”

Those lines are so relatable to me.  A very specific memory I have from my early teens is living with my abusive father on Saturdays.  He would start drinking in the afternoon, and there was a fifty-fifty chance that hours of beer would manifest themselves in a violent night.  When we were lucky, my mother and I would see him pass out on the couch by the time “Weekend Update” came on “Saturday Night Live.”  We would both let out a huge sigh of relief when we would hear him start to snore on the couch.  My mother and I were truly “living with the fear everyday of what might happen that night.”

As the song continues, the boy leaves home.  He tries to escape this abusive situation.  All art is up to interpretation, but I believe you can hear regret that he is leaving his mother in the house with this evil man.  That being said, the character is a young man, and we aren’t always thinking clearly at that time.  I believe a part of the narrator blames the mother, as well.  Even if that isn’t the intent of the song, we are aware that some children in abusive homes do give at least some of the blame to the victim of the abuse. 

What takes “No Son of Mine” to the next level is the return of the runaway to confront his father.  Even with the abuse he witnessed, he still feels a connection to his family.  He wants to try to rectify this situation with his father.  Instead of being greeted like the prodigal son returning to find a welcoming home, the father in this story shows a complete lack of self-awareness.

“He sat me down to talk to me.  He looked me straight in the eyes.  He said, ‘You know, son.  You’re no son of mine.  You know, son.  You’re no son of mine.  When you walked out, you left us behind.”

The abuser is not willing to take any responsibility for his actions.  My father died before I could ever hear a true admission of guilt from him.  Like my father, the father described in “No Son of Mine” tries to flip the blame.  This is about what the son did to his parents.  Even though the mother is pretty clearly a victim in some way, the father tries to emotionally blackmail him, by claiming that it is actually the protagonist who is hurting the mother.  Before “Gaslighting” was a common term in the zeitgeist, Phil Collins created the perfect gaslighting situation for this song.

Pearl Jam “Rearviewmirror”

With the exception of one traumatizing incident when I was eight or nine, I was blissfully ignorant of what my mother was suffering through until I was thirteen.  Once my father could no longer keep me in the dark, however, things started to get really bad.  If there was one silver-lining or saving grace about the timing of this realization, it was what was happening at the same time in the world of pop culture.  When I needed a positive male role model the most, the music world was turned on its head.  After a decade of bands like Poison, Motley Crue, and others pushing misogyny on the radio, Alternative music made the unlikely assent up the charts. 

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana hated the overly-aggressive, and problematic men who started liking his band after they started having commercial success.  He wrote the song “In Bloom” about toxic men who didn’t know Nirvana’s songs were Feminist, and that he expected his fans to respect women.

Of course, Kurt wasn’t the only Grunge artist to shake the stereotypes of rock stars treating women like objects.  Pearl Jam was fronted by Eddie Vedder, who had an innate ability to write songs from someone else’s perspective.  As a teenager, Vedder wrote the song “Better Man” for his first band Bad Radio.  In that song, which would go on to be one of Pearl Jam’s biggest hits, he empathizes with a woman who is in a bad relationship.  It may not be physically abusive, but the man is certainly not present in the ways this woman has the right to expect.  To think that Vedder was so young when he penned those lyrics about someone in a completely different situation than his own is quite impressive.

Vedder takes that ability to look at a situation through someone else’s eyes even further with “Rearviewmirror.”  This song follows a woman as she literally escapes her abuser.  The music keeps this frantic tempo that makes the listener feel a little on-edge while waiting for the lyrics to begin.  After Vedder starts singing, he throws in some lines that highlight the rebellious streak of this woman who has had enough of a horrible man.

“I took a drive today.  Time to emancipate.  I guess it was the beatings made me wise, but I’m not about to give thanks, or apologize.”

That is how the song starts, and it so powerful.  The car’s driver is not escaping or running.  The word “emancipate” seems to purposely invoke thoughts of slavery.  This was a master-servant relationship, and not one of two equally-valued adults.  This also isn’t a temporary freedom.  She is not going back to her abuser.  She is emancipating herself. 

“Forced to endure what I could not forgive.”

That is the line that really displays Vedder’s greatest gift as a songwriter.  That is such a difficult concept to express, but he does it in eight words.  This woman “endured” this abuse.  She is in the cocoon, and manifesting into a survivor.  She hasn’t survived yet.  Also, many victims are told that they have to forgive their abusers.  As I have stated a number of times, everybody heals differently.  To live through something so horrific that you can’t even comprehend it is a feat that many people don’t appreciate.  It is hard.  The way Vedder sees the world through the eyes of other people is admirable. 

Martina McBride “Independence Day”

Pearl Jam talked about escaping abuse as “emancipation.”  In Matina McBride’s “Independence Day,” fighting back against abuse is a revolution.  This song does not see the victim escaping in any traditional manner.  Told through the perspective of a daughter who sees her mother with a black eye from an altercation with an abusive man, “Independence Day” sees that mother commit an act of arson.  The burning house is compared to the fireworks you would see on the Fourth of July.

“I ain’t saying it’s right or it’s wrong, but maybe it’s the only way.  Talk about your revolution.  It’s the independence day.”

Unlike “Goodbye Earl” by The Chicks, there is more moral ambiguity here.  This song doesn’t revel in the act of violence that (while not explicitly stated, it can safely be inferred) kills the abuser.  It isn’t even clear if both parties were killed in the fire.  These are serious consequences.  Even if the mother was justified for the act, it is not fun. 

“Some folks whispered; some folks talked; but everybody looked the other way.  When time ran out, there was no one about on Independence Day.”

Silence is the greatest ally of the abuser.  People in this small town were aware of what was happening.  This was an eight-year-old girl who was trying manage an unthinkable home life, and everyone knew it.  Still, they just let it happen.  My father was a bad person.  I have come to terms with that.  The only thing that still hurts about the abuse I suffered is that there were people who could have stopped it, but didn’t think interjecting themselves would be polite.   

Red Jumpsuit Apparatus “Face Down”

There is a difference between actions that are traditionally associated with masculinity and actions that are displaying toxic masculinity.  “Face Down” prevents a biting, and direct hook that shows the inherent weakness with toxic masculinity.

“Do you feel like a man, when you push her around?  Do you feel better now, as she falls to the ground?”

The pop-punk scene of the early-2000s was not known for sensitivity to the feelings of women.  There was a lot of misogyny hidden behind some of that eyeliner.  That makes this song so important.  This song says, “real men don’t hit women.”  The abuser wants to feel powerful.  The abuser wants control over his victim.  Red Jumpsuit Apparatus mock him.  They take away his power. 

Because the bandmembers were so young when they wrote and recorded this song, there are a lot of domestic violence cliches.  Still, cliches get started for a reason.  The woman in the song is trying to stay, and make it work.  She makes excuses for her abuser.  The other songs I have mentioned deal with the last stages, either tragic or liberating, of domestic violence.  “Face Down” and the final song on my playlist both are written from the perspective of being actively involved in an abusive situation.

Suzanne Vega “Luka”

I don’t think there is another hit song that tackles the subject of abuse as well at Suzanne Vega’s “Luka.”  This is the definitive song on the subject, in my opinion.  If abuse is about control, Vega addresses that aspect head on in the lyric, “only hit until you cry, after that you don’t ask why.”

People say that abusers “lose their tempers” or “can’t control themselves.”  With such a simple lyric, Vega dismisses that claim out-of-hand.  “Only hit until you cry, after that you don’t ask why.”  It is all about exerting control.  It is all about manipulating.  It is all about the abuser getting what he wants.  He isn’t losing his temper.  He is using his temper. 

“You just don’t argue anymore.”

All of the other songs address the ways that survivors escape or attempt to escape domestic violence.  “Luka” addresses why the abuser abuses. 

“I think it’s because I’m clumsy.  I try not to talk too loud.  Maybe it’s because I’m crazy.  I try not to act too proud.”

Especially when the victim is a child, it can be so disorientating to figure out why it is happening.  They will try so hard to avoid it, but it isn’t possible.  There is no amount of perfection that will prevent the abuse. 

Power in Numbers

Some of these songs can certainly be triggering.  When rewatching these videos, I had a few good cries.  My goal in sharing them is not to stir up unwanted emotions.  These songs show us that we are not alone, no matter where we are in our quest to escape abuse.  Whether you are stuck in an abusive situation; are actively leaving an abusive situation; or you left years ago, these songs show that other people have gone through the same things.  They can give you the motivation.

As I continue to get ready for my 620-mile pilgrimage on the Ireland Way, I will use these songs on the treadmill, and on the hiking trail.  I will do bench presses to “Rearviewmirrow,” and leg presses to “No Son of Mine.”  I will listen to “Face Down” and “Independence Day” during 5Ks, and I will jam out to “Goodbye Earl” and “Praying” when I do a twenty-mile hike in late-April. 

Music is therapeutic, and that is what we need to get through the tough times.

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/kesha-and-dr-luke-everything-you-need-to-know-to-understand-the-case-106731/
https://www.songfacts.com/facts/genesis/no-son-of-mine

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