The 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade decision, approaching in January 2023, is a sobering reminder of how fragile human rights are in the United States. 30 years ago, a group of artists celebrating the decision’s 20th anniversary found that even getting some of the music industry’s biggest names on board with a benefit album for abortion rights was too contentious of an issue for some of the most powerful record labels to handle.
The all-star pro-choice benefit album Choice: The Freedom Remix was scheduled to include ’90s women artists covering ’70s women artists. According to The Washington Post, the lineup featured “Concrete Blonde doing Patti Smith‘s ‘Dancing Barefoot,’ L7 and Joan Jett‘s duet on the Runaways‘ ‘Cherry Bomb‘ … and Sonic Youth‘s Kim Gordon covering X-Ray Spex‘s ‘Up Yours.'” It was also to include Debbie Harry teaming up “with CBGB pals Tom Tom Club on Donna Summer’s ‘Love to Love You Baby,’ as well as “Alison Moyet, Rosanne Cash, Salt-N-Pepa, Ingrid Chavez, and Sophie B. Hawkins.” The LA Times also reported that the B-52’s were slated to record Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” and that Melissa Etheridge, the Breeders, and MC Lyte had also expressed interest. 30 years later, some of these songs have never been released.
In the wake of the 1993 Time Warner debacle over Ice-T’s hardcore band Body Count’s song “Cop Killer,” record labels at the time were increasingly hesitant to release anything that could effect the stock price, with Warner Bros., Atlantic, Elektra, Sony, Geffen, Capitol, and Polygram, all among the labels reportedly turning down Choice: The Freedom Remix. “One label was very close to committing, and then the thing with Ice-T broke,” says project co-founder Julie Hermelin. “Their excuse was, ‘Well, we’re traded on two stock markets.’ They were afraid of their stockholders’ reaction to the album. But we know it could be tough. We know that stores like K mart probably wouldn’t carry an album like this.”
“We were coming off of 12 years of Reagan-Bush,” says Hermelin. “When Reagan got into office, suddenly, there was more federal chipping away at abortion rights writ large, which obviously has, culminated in the overturning of Roe just recently.” Roe was barely upheld in the 5-4 Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, dependent on the votes of Republican-appointed judges, when Hermelin and partner Joy were organizing the album.
“We were looking at the model of those Red Hot albums and saying, ‘Let’s do a benefit album to help raise money for this consortium of reproductive health organizations, reproductive justice organizations,’” says Hermelin, citing the popular HIV/AIDS relief album series. “So while we were in the middle of having meetings with industry executives, to sell this idea, we were having artists that had come on board that wanted to do it, but we were looking for a record company that would put out the record.”
“When we started the album in ‘92, we were looking to have it come out ‘93. We had very unrealistic goals,” Hermelin laughs.
Even in the thriving 1990s music industry, when compilations and benefit albums seemed to fall out of the sky, labels were hesitant for Choice. “Certainly with some of the situations we’ve seen over the last six months, sure I can understand some labels backing off,” one anonymous major label executive told the LA Times in ’92, noting the “Cop Killer” situation. Other executives, like then Atlantic vice president Danny Goldberg, cited royalty clearances not being worth the hassle of releasing a compilation album.
“It was one issue among many,” says Hermelin. “Another issue was we had record company executives saying they were very skeptical of a compilation album of just female artists, because at the time in the early ’90s, what we were being told by radio people was that they didn’t put two women on the radio next to each other at that time because people would turn off the radio if there were women back-to-back.”
While labels were backing off, the artists on Choice were characteristically fearless. “Artists were excited to participate,” remembers Hermelin. “All the creative talent around this was incredibly positive — Joan Jett and L7 were great. I knew L7 from living in Silver Lake and Echo Park in the ‘90s.”
A ferocious live version of “Cherry Bomb” was in fact recorded for the album. Hermelin explains they had worked with the Feminist Majority Foundation who hosted the Rock for Choice benefit concert series — one of which at the Palladium being where “Cherry Bomb” was recorded.
Hermelin even directed a music video for “Cherry Bomb,” which was one of the only songs from the initially reported lineup to be released on Spirit of ’73: Rock for Choice, the benefit album that was finally released in August 1995. (The album is not available on streaming services and can be found on YouTube only in fragments.) Babes in Toyland, Sarah McLachlan, the Indigo Girls, Sophie B. Hawkins, Letters to Cleo, and Roseanne Cash are among the artists who provided songs for Spirit of ’73. Eventually, Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano dropped “Dancing Barefoot” on the 1995 film The Basketball Diaries‘ soundtrack, and Kim Gordon released “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” with Pussy Galore‘s Julie Cafritz in their band Free Kitten. Tom Tom Club released “Love to Love You Baby,” sans Debbie Harry, in 2000, but the B-52’s song remains unreleased.
“It ultimately was not released by an American record company, because American record companies did not want to put their companies at risk by touching a hot topic like abortion, even though abortion was a federally guaranteed right at that point,” says Hermelin. “Sony Music, which is a Japanese owned company, decided to put it out. That itself was interesting: It was ultimately not an American company that bought it out.”
Hermelin explains that they never anticipated for the release to be “so challenging,” citing the “Cop Killer” fiasco as just “one blip in the wider challenges of trying to sell the album.” Ultimately, even though artists were committed to it, it took upwards of five years since the inception of the project to finally put it out into the world.
Despite the tumultuous process, Hermelin has stayed active in abortion rights and social justice, currently working with Gutsy Media and Wake Up and Vote, which recently released a reproductive health campaign. “It’s incredibly important to normalize this medical procedure for people,” says Hermelin, who sees hope with some of the newer pro-abortion rights artists. “I absolutely think somebody like Phoebe Bridgers or Halsey should continue to stand for the values … They’re in the business of being true to their art, and true to their values within their art. If they’re looking to open up dialogues of values within their art then I think that’s something great, too. I think we need to be inviting more people into these conversations to not continue to polarize around issues, but to create connected values.”
“Reproductive health is not a left or right issue — I think reproductive health is a human issue, for families, for everybody,” says Hermelin. “I welcome young artists doing more of this. They should start a whole new Rock for Choice series.”