The young musicians taking on abortion rights in the United States and the '90s feminist rock stars who've been here before.
When the annual Glastonbury music festival happened this year, performers openly criticized on stage the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, which happened that same week. It recalled a similar movement nearly 30 years earlier, when feminist rock groups started Rock for Choice and rallied a generation to fight for abortion access.
Today, the history of that movement — and whether it can happen again. Read the full transcript here.
Host: Gustavo Arellano
Guests: L.A. Times music reporter Suzy Exposito
In the ’90s, a new breed of rock stars organized for abortion rights. Could that happen today?
Phoebe Bridgers, Olivia Rodrigo and other performers slam Supreme Court at Glastonbury
POP MUSIC REVIEW : Bands get together for Rock for Choice
Gustavo: Folks, there's gonna be some curse words in this episode, not by me, sadly, I wish, but you've been warned.
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Gustavo: At Glastonbury, that huge music festival that takes place in England every year. It wasn't just artists who took the stage last month. So did abortion.
Tape: I need everybody in this audience right now to say, my body, my motherfucking choice! My body, my motherfucking choice!
Gustavo: The weekend's music was overshadowed by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe versus Wade. And among the American artists who performed, the backlash was swift.
Tape: I'm devastated and terrified and so many women, and so many girls are going to die because of this.
Gustavo: But is making a moment on stage go viral enough to start a movement?
I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to the times, daily news from the LA times. It's Thursday, July 21st, 2022.
Today, the young artist taking on abortion rights in the United States and the nineties, feminist rock stars who've been here before.
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Gustavo: My LA Times colleague and music reporter Suzy Exposito recently looked into these rockers who protest, past and present. Suzy, welcome to The Times.
Suzy Exposito: Thanks so much for having me back.
Gustavo: Okay. So the only music festivals I've ever been to were Coachella way back in the day, I'm talking about like 2003 and like backyard punk gigs. So I know what Glastonbury kind of is, and I know it's big, but how exactly does it play out? Like what happens there?
Suzy Exposito: Glastonbury is like the premier music festival in the UK. It's like their Coachella.
Suzy Exposito: It was founded in 1970 and it happens every year in Worthy Farm, which is in this beautiful pastoral part of England. And over 200,000 people come to the farm and, you know, they get all muddy. It's very famous for being a rainy summer festival.
Gustavo: Ha. And then of course, some of the biggest music stars in the world for whatever year it is, go through there.
Suzy Exposito: It is a destination festival.
Gustavo: So the American artists that performed this year, they had something other than music on their minds when they were on stage.
Suzy Exposito: Yes. Well, the festival happened to be taking place on the same weekend that the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade, which had since 1973, protected the constitutional right to have an abortion in the United States.
Suzy Exposito: As a result, a number of angry American artists took to the stage and voiced their opposition to the Supreme Court's decision.
Suzy Exposito: You had Billie Eilish…
Tape: Today is a really, really dark day for, uh, women in the U.S.
Suzy Exposito: Phoebe Bridgers…
Tape: Are there any Americans here? Who wants to say fuck the Supreme Court?
Suzy Exposito: Megan, the stallion and Olivia Rodrigo sounding off against the Supreme court decision.
Tape: I wanted to dedicate this next song to the five members of the Supreme Court who have showed us that, at the end of the day, they truly don't give a shit about freedom.
Gustavo: All genres, all anger.
Suzy Exposito: Yes. I should also add Kendrick Lamar was also at Glastonbury and you know, very upset about the decision. You have a lot of artists who, you know, they're young and they're righteously angry about not having the power in their own country to plan their own lives to really take control over their bodies.
Gustavo: So beyond the festival, you also saw other musicians and artists being angry about that overturning?
Suzy Exposito: Yes. That same weekend, you know, I saw posts from Taylor Swift. I saw tweets from the pop musician Halsey, who's actually been very vocal about being a non-binary person who is also a parent. Across the board, it doesn't matter what genre, like across the board, you saw a lot of different artists, young artists voicing their opposition to the Supreme Court's decision.
Gustavo: Almost everyone knew this ruling was coming after te leaking of a draft opinion about it…so were you seeing artists talking and tweeting their opinions about this beforehand…leading up to the day that the Roe versus Wade decision was officially overturned?
Suzy Exposito: Yes, of course. Like, Phoebe Bridgers, namely started sharing, um, links to abortion funds. And she even spoke about having an abortion while she was on tour. And this was even before the leaked decision, and how // she talked about being fortunate that she was able to do that on the road.//
Gustavo: What were the responses to both in Glastonbury and also messages on social media? Like how did fans react?
Suzy Exposito: An overwhelming majority of these artists' fans responded positively because we're talking about a young generation of rising pop stars, rock stars, rap stars, what have you, who came up because they're empowered.
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Suzy Exposito: We're talking about women and queer people, who are really, really outspoken. And yes, they make pop music. They try and represent themselves, but also speak to their fans the best that they can. So it was heartening for a lot of fans to see their favorite pop stars take up the same causes. It’s an Issue that affects anyone who's able to get pregnant, which is, you know, a lot of young people of course they would be out. Of course they would be galvanized. // Why wouldn't they be? But, it's also.important for pop stars to use their followings. We're talking about people who have millions of followers on Instagram, on TikTok, on Twitter. And they're doing what they know how to do, which is amplify their messages on these platforms.
Gustavo: Coming up after the break, what the past can teach young artists of today about organizing around reproductive freedoms.
Gustavo: Suzy, this isn't the first time that musicians have rallied around abortion rights. And you recently wrote this great story about a series of benefit concerts called Rock for Choice that took place throughout the 1990s. What were they about and who started it all?
Suzy Exposito: So Rock for Choice was an initiative that was brought on by the members of the LA grunge band L7. As well as Sue Cummings, who was a journalist at the LA weekly at the time. And they worked in tandem with the Feminist Majority Foundation, which is a, uh, national nonprofit organization that was founded in 1987 to advance feminist causes.
Gustavo: And there was someone in particular that was really instrumental in all this Donita Sparks.
Tape: [phone rings] Hello? Hey Donita. This is Suzy Exposito from the LA times. Hi Susie. How's it going? It’s going great, how are you? Oh, hangin’ tough.
Suzy Exposito: Yes, Donita Sparks was one of two singers and guitarists in L7. And she’s a firecracker. Um, I was so excited to interview her because before rock for choice, you know, she was a punk in Los Angeles.
Suzy Exposito: She was in a bunch of bands and actually did her own benefit show called Rock Against Coat Hangers.
Tape: The piddly amount of money I raised went to Planned Parenthood.
Suzy Exposito: She talked about this in an interview with Sue Cummings in the LA weekly. And Sue Cummings was just like, that sounds great. I think you should do that again.
Tape: You know, as L7 was kind of getting more visibility in the late eighties, early nineties, you know, we were doing benefits for green peace and we were doing benefits for Act Up LA and, you know, build a school in Nicaragua and all these benefits, which we loved doing.
Suzy Exposito: And so they were like, ok, what if we did something that was bigger than a local show?
Tape: I kind of was hearkening back to rock against code hangers, and I was like, shit, why don't we we're gonna have to do this because nobody else is doing this. And let's, let's think about putting, you know, getting an organization happening to put on benefits for pro-choice, uh, for pro-choice, you know, for clinics, et cetera, etcetera, for pro-choice causes.
Suzy Exposito: That's when they got in touch with the feminist majority foundation.
Gustavo: What made Donita want to get involved in the abortion fight back then?
Suzy Exposito: Well she grew up with feminist parents, like, her mom took her to ERA rallies.
Tape: I grew up as a feminist. I benefited from title nine. My mother and father raised me to be that way.
Suzy Exposito: She grew up to protests, you know, as did a lot of her contemporaries in, in the punk and grunge movement.
Tape: You know, it was in the air in the eighties for sure.
Suzy Exposito: What was happening was in the 1980s, there was a lot of pushback to Roe V. Wade. You had lots of politicians, conservative politicians, trying to find ways to work around the law of the land. And so they were starting to implement parental consent laws. They were instating like gag rules. So if you went to clinic, a doctor could not advise you to get an abortion. That was illegal at some point. So there were lots of ways that they were trying to undermine Roe V. Wade. One of those things was // there were a group of protestors of anti-abortion activists called Operation Rescue. And so they started dialing up these protests // all over Los Angeles.
Tape: There were abortion clinics on sunset Boulevard in, in silver lake that were being picketed.
Suzy Exposito: Donita was working as a designer at the LA Weekly.
Tape: I'd go back and forth to work and I'd be like, what the fuck? Who is protesting in silver? Like in a Los Angeles? It was so like, it was so bizarre, you know? So I started kind of on my own, just getting up early and defending some clinics, you know?
Suzy Exposito: Donita Sparks became a clinic escort and would push back on the protesters to keep them from getting in the faces of these patients trying to go into the clinics.
Gustavo: So how does Donita go from that, then to getting Rock for Choice off the ground with the rest of L7 and Susan Cummings?
Suzy Exposito: They had a conference with the feminist majority foundation. And…the way that it was described to me was kind of funny, // they talked about being these alternative women // at the table with women who were, I mean, of course, very serious about what they did. There was a lot on the line when they met with the feminist uh, majority they were meeting with women in suits, who, had advocated for more Title IX protections; who really fought for women, who were victims of like sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. // They were meeting these women who'd really been through the ringer and here they are talking about putting on a rock show. The women in suits were, like, kind of suspicious of it.
Tape: This was so out of their wheelhouse. I think that they really appreciated like, oh, wow, we're gonna be involved and like, okay, this is gonna be eyeballs. But I think that they also wanted, uh, understandably a little bit of oversight
Suzy Exposito: They didn't quite trust these punk girls just yet. Ha.
Gustavo: Punk meets professional.
Suzy Exposito: Exactly. But I mean, it's a huge respectability thing, is something that // Donita acknowledged in our interview.
Tape: They were in a more respectable sort of organization fighting the good fight since, you know, God knows how long they were fighting the good fight.
Suzy Exposito: Because of how they worked to secure a lot of legislation for women in the eighties, here they are. And they're like, oh no, who are we aligning ourselves with? What kind of ammo would our opponents have if we, like, aligned with the wrong people, which is something that, any organization has to think about. But ultimately they joined forces. They decided to team up and they contacted Rick Van Santen from Goldenvoice. He was the co-president of Goldenvoice, which we now know of as the company that founded Coachella.
Tape: And it was like, Hey, We're gonna lead this. We've got these friends who are in a band called Nirvana and they're getting really big. And I think we can get them and it'll be us and we'll get some of our other friends. Then we got the promoter's golden voice involved and that's how it went.
Suzy Exposito: They made this really formidable team and made something really cool happen. And the first rock for choice show happened in 1991. And the headliners were Nirvana and L7, the band Hole fronted by Courtney Love, and another band from San Francisco called Sister Double Happiness.
Gustavo: So what does Donita remember about that first Rock for Choice concert?
Suzy Exposito: So at the first Rock for Choice concert, a ton of people were just like dying to get into this show. I mean, this was the prime time to see Nirvana, Hole and L7, right?
Tape: God, the first show was… it was triumphant. You know, it was like people really wanted to get. But it was a benefit. I remember….
Suzy Exposito: Outside the venue, Donita sparks ran into Sofia Coppola. She was dating the bassist of the band Redd Kross. And they were like, “Hey, Hey Donita, we wanna get into the show.”
Tape: And we were like, Hey, cool. You guys can get in, but can you do voter registration in the lobby? [laughs]
Suzy Exposito: They said yes. And so apparently they sat in the lobby during the show and signed up a bunch of people to vote.
Gustavo: That's really awesome. So what other bands ended up joining Rock for Choice? Like how big did that movement get?
Suzy Exposito: It is a really funny hodgepodge of bands. You had bands like, Bikini Kill, they're like a feminist punk staple in any record collection. You had radio rock bands, like Rage Against the Machine signed on… Pearl Jam.
Tape: Then bands started contacting us, it was really great. We had no lack of bands.
Suzy Exposito: And then later on you had like Beastie Boyz, Korn, No Doubt, Primus, like Rob Zombie, these, all these bands. Yeah.
Gustavo: Korn. Damn.
Suzy Exposito: Ha. I know right?
Gustavo: How long did the shows go for and what do you think ultimately was the impact for Rock for Choice?
Suzy Exposito: So Rock for Choice continued until 2004. And its legacy really stressed the importance of not just like educating people on abortion. They rallied for people to vote.
Tape: It's a very small thing, but we started doing these concerts and, you know, Bill Clinton got elected in 92, which was huge.
Suzy Exposito: After the first few Rock for Choice concerts. Bill Clinton was elected and this, broke the more than a decade of Republican rule in the White House. In the eighties, you had Ronald Reagan followed by George H.W. Bush. So Bill Clinton cut through that and // signed a series of laws um, that elps kind of like bring back some of the ground that was lost in the Republican era.
Gustavo: With abortion rights?
Suzy Exposito: Mm-hmm.
Tape: I think we could have made an ever so slight dent with just, you know, Letting young rock people know that it's okay to give a shit…. That it’s cool to give a shit.
Suzy Exposito: After I published my story, I saw a lot of men actually on Twitter, speaking positively about Rock for Choice saying things like I had no idea that women were going through this, or I didn't realize what was at stake. That was extremely important. It was as much like a cultural event as it was a really educational one.
Gustavo: More after the break.
Gustavo: Suzy, so Rock for Choice ended up galvanizing a generation of rock stars to advocate for abortion rights and they were successful in many ways. What do leaders of that movement today say about then, the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe versus Wade?
Suzy Exposito: I think a lot of people are very shaken.
Tape: I saw that it had been overturned and I was shocked, but also thought, oh, we were so played.
Suzy Exposito: Donita said she felt really disappointed this is exactly why people voted for the Democrats. The Democrats had been talking about codifying Roe into law for years. And // she stressed the importance of getting out to vote. But also, in the meantime, there's lots of clinics that have been shut down, even the day of the Roe decision. So it's really, really important to support kind of, like, any independent initiative that already exists. Because lots of funds exist today.
Gustavo: Did Donita say anything about maybe restarting rock for choice?
Suzy Exposito: She loves the idea, but she says that…
Tape: I'm not, I'm not saying we're. We are done with this issue. Mm-hmm , I'm just saying call up the feminist majority foundation. They're still in business. Get it goin, you know, you don't need L7. to do a Rock for Choice show. Call your feminist organizations and, and do some benefits.
Suzy Exposito: She says that this is something that young people of today need to take the torch on.
Tape: Hey, nobody's gonna do this for you. You've gotta get out and do it. So that's what I would have to say to the young people.
Suzy Exposito: And the good news is, that they already have.
Gustavo: How are you seeing, then, this new generation of music stars continuing that legacy of Rock for Choice?
Suzy Exposito: I had a wonderful conversation with an artist from New Mexico. Her name is Amelia Bauer and she founded an organization called Noise for Now, which is a collective of artists that are helping raise funds for abortion access in the United States. You know, you have these Rock for Choice alumni, like Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys and Bikini Kill… Tori Amos is prominently listed on the website. But then you also have an increasing number of artists joining the cause. And so you, you can also see like Best Coast on the list. You see Misky, Soccer Mommy, like a number of artists are, um, now part of this cause, and raised over $600,000 for abortion funds all over the U.S.
Suzy Exposito: They're raising money now.
Gustavo: Susie. Thank you so much for this conversation.
Suzy Exposito: Thank you so much, Gustavo, for having me on.
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Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of the times daily news from the LA times.
Kasia Broussalian was the jefa on this episode and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it.
Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our intern is Surya Hendry. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.
I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.