Tim Heidecker’s ‘To The Men’ is addressed to everyone

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 - 7:24pm

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Songs with a political bent seem to skew one of two ways: satirical or serious. As for satirical, think “Elected” by Alice Cooper (“I'm your Yankee doodle dandy in a gold Rolls Royce, I want to be elected”) or Prince’s “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” (“You can go to the zoo, but you can't feed guerrillas”). More earnest songs, like Bright Eyes’s “When the President Talks to God” or Killer Mike’s “Reagan” take a different tack: careful articulation of injustice, an unrelenting urge to expose wrongdoing and adversity.

These two approaches have often intersected in Tim Heidecker’s career as a singer-songwriter. Heidecker, who is best known as one half of the comedy duo Tim and Eric, tends to combine intensity with humor in his political music. On his recent single “To The Men,” however, he veers straight into quiet solemnity.

Heidecker released “To The Men” on May 16, in the midst of a month of headlines about new state laws restricting access to abortion. The song is addressed to the lawmakers who passed these bills, and all proceeds from purchases of the single go to the Yellowhammer Fund, a nonprofit that supplies funding for women in Alabama seeking abortions.

The song is a tonal departure from Heidecker’s previous style. His 2017 album Too Dumb for Suicide: Tim Heidecker’s Trump Songs is a compilation of the tracks he released during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and they’re all scathing. On “Trump Tower,” he sings “Thank God for the First Amendment, letting me vent,” a line which encapsulates his attitude toward the entire album. Too Dumb for Suicide is antagonistic, shot through with moments of humor that feel both vengeful and liberating. The album makes me tired; it’s exhausting to be mad and also find humor in that anger. Listening to Too Dumb for Suicide, it’s easy to wonder what might happen if Heidecker flipped his focus from Republicans onto those whose lives are lived in the shadows of their policies.

On “To The Men,” this is exactly what he does. “She was poor she was just 13 / She was 12 a month ago,” Heidecker sings. “She was living in Alabama / She was living in Ohio / She was living in Georgia / She didn’t have anywhere to go.” The song isn’t funny at all; it’s sad and angry, undiluted by humor. Too Dumb for Suicide is a middle finger to the president and his allies, a big “fuck you” that’s engineered to anger Republicans, not convince them of anything. “To The Men” is a plea to those same politicians and their supporters. It’s as direct and melancholic as an old country song, with no time or energy for irony.

Heidecker wrote on Twitter that he listened to John Prine while writing “To The Men,” and this makes total sense. Prine’s musical interests are in some ways quite similar to Heidecker’s. Both artists are fixated on absurdity and grief, as well as the circumstances in which the two are inseparable. They write about politics in a similarly snide way: “But your flag decal won't get you into Heaven anymore / They're already overcrowded from your dirty little war,” sings Prine on “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” from his 1971 self-titled album.

Like Heidecker, Prine usually balances out cerebral contemplation with wit. On “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow),” Prine describes the tragedy of a young boy’s senseless death with the almost-funny forced rhyme of “nuder” and “commuter”: “I heard sirens on the train track howl naked gettin’ nuder / An altar boy's been hit by a local commuter.” Prine also knows when this is the wrong approach, when the profundity of the subject cannot tolerate cunning or guile. “Sam Stone,” for example, tells the story of a veteran’s addiction, and it’s an absolutely gutting song: “There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.” Prine employs a similarly somber tone on “Unwed Fathers,” in which he describes the loneliness and isolation of a teenager as she becomes a mother.

Prine’s “Unwed Fathers” covers similar territory as “To The Men,” but in this song, the protagonist has the baby: “From a teenage lover, to an unwed mother / Kept undercover, like some bad dream,” Prine sings. “While unwed fathers, they can't be bothered / They run like water, through a mountain stream.” Prine, like Heidecker, is using the song to raise money for abortion access; on May 28, he released a new version to raise money for Alabama’s chapter of the ACLU.

Both “Unwed Fathers” and “To The Men” name the men who are intimately involved in motherhood, whether it’s the teenage fathers who disappear or the politicians who limit women’s choices. Too often, abortion is framed as a women’s issue, and Prine and Heidecker use their music to discuss the flaws in this logic. They explain how men can walk away from an accidental pregnancy and women cannot, and how this fundamental difference is perhaps part of why some men find it so difficult to let women make their own decisions about parenthood — it’s a right men have enjoyed all along, a right they have never had to consider or maintain.

“Unwed Fathers” and “To The Men” are powerful in the same ways. They were both written by men known for their ability to find humor in miserable situations, men who understand when to put away clever wordplay because the gravity of the topic demands it. For Prine and Heidecker, the particular desperation of the situation is slightly out of reach — it’s something neither of them have or could ever experience firsthand. The songs are perhaps more heartbreaking for this fact; as straight white men, Prine and Heidecker are of the same demographic as the men who passed the “heartbeat” bills, but unlike those politicians, they have deep reservoirs of empathy and imagination. Have you seen a young girl dying / Have you seen ‘em take their final breath,” sings Heidecker in the closing lines of “To The Men.”

The story told by Heidecker in “To The Men” is grim, whatever your opinions on abortion. It’s unclear what happens to the protagonist, but there’s no good resolution: Either she bleeds to death at an illegal abortion clinic, or she has a baby while she’s still in middle school. In our imperfect world, accidental pregnancy happens, as it always has — to middle schoolers, to survivors of rape, to mothers, to the reckless and to the responsible. When it happens, some women will want and need abortions — that, too, will always be the case.

What’s missing from the abortion debate is the fact that abortions happen whether or not they’re legal. Pro-choicers often argue that those who don’t like abortions should simply not have them. While I don’t think all (or even many) anti-choice politicians are actually motivated by moral imperative, those who are vehemently sure life begins at conception will probably not be convinced by this suggestion. For them, ignoring abortion is akin to ignoring genocide.

When I think about people whose politics I disagree with, I wonder if there’s anything that might convince them to re-examine their beliefs. Maybe this interview with a woman who had a third-trimester abortion (her baby had genetic issues and would have suffocated during childbirth), or maybe the story of Savita Halappanavar, who died in Ireland in 2012 because she was miscarrying and doctors refused to give her an abortion.

These stories are powerful, but I wonder if they’d feel too distant or too rare to convince abortion opponents. Halappanavar lived in Ireland, not the United States, and the story of the late-term abortion is far from typical. It might be a stretch to say “To The Men” could change someone’s mind on abortion, but what if it has that power? Everyone’s stance on abortion is guided by feelings as much as, if not more than, facts — there are smart people on both sides of the issue, people who can look at the same biological concepts and come to opposite conclusions. Maybe music is the way to foreground emotions, to recognize their centrality in the debate over abortion. Songs like “To The Men” and “Unwed Fathers” won’t brainwash anyone, but they might have the power to cultivate new feelings.   

Unsafe abortions are violent and inhumane, reminiscent of an era of medicine in which horrific pain was inescapable and expected: men having their injured limbs sawed off while biting a piece of wood, teeth pulled with no anesthetic. This is what illegal abortion looks like: Women stick coat hangers or shards of glass or knitting needles into their uterus to puncture the amniotic sac. They sit in snow banks to bring on hypothermia, lie in scalding baths for hours or take any prescription medicine that that might cause contractions. They drink Lysol and plant fertilizers. They douche with turpentine or bleach. In the documentary “Motherless: A Legacy of Loss from Illegal Abortion,” one doctor remembered how chemical burns caused by these methods were often so extensive that he found sewing up the wounds akin to suturing butter. Or, as Heidecker sings, they find a doctor, one whose practice is unregulated: “There’s a place in the rundown part of town / A place young girls stay far from / She could go and take her chances / In an hour the deed be done.”

“Have you seen a young girl dying / Have you seen ‘em bleed to death,” Heidecker sings. This is songwriting at its most bare and convincing, nothing more than a story set to music. Finding out you’re pregnant when you don’t want to be can feel like the permanent end of a world, in a way that makes the risk and pain of an unsafe abortion seem temporary and therefore reasonable. Understanding this desperation is a challenge, requiring empathy that is expansive and visceral, felt in phantom pangs and false memories of someone else’s agony. It’s a testament to Heidecker’s skill that he makes it so easy to find.