Thursday, January 1, 2009

"Your Inalienable Rights": Melissa Etheridge and "Tuesday Morning"

For many, music is strictly a form of entertainment. Yet embedded within the lyrics of many popular songs are powerful narratives that speak to larger themes of rights discourse, equality, and resistance. One song that explores these issues within a five-minute timeframe is Tuesday Morning by Melissa Etheridge (see full lyrics reproduced below). Tuesday Morning narrates the heroism of Mark Bingham, one of the several brave passengers traveling on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 who attempted to regain control of the hijacked plane from the terrorists who were holed up in the cockpit. Ultimately, rather than relinquish control to the passengers, including Bingham, who were attempting to storm the cockpit, the terrorists opted to crash the plane in a field in Pennsylvania, murdering everyone on board.

Tuesday Morning is more than just an important narration of the heroic efforts of Bingham and his fellow passengers aboard the plane to thwart a greater disaster - the likely and presumed goal of the terrorists to fly the plane into a populated building. It is a critique of the failure to accord gay Americans equal rights and to recognize them as equal citizens. The connection? Bingham was gay - "he loved his man".

The song in part humanizes and stresses Bingham's commonality with his fellow citizens. Etheridge sings: "He loved his mom and he loved his dad; He loved his home and he loved his man; But on that bloody Tuesday morning; He died an American." Importantly, it emphasizes the ability to have a normal and loving same-sex relationship while still consistently maintaining the fundamental and indelible everyday relationships and ties that others have - love of parents, love of home and country and furthermore - from a patriotic sense - the honour of dying for one's country.

As the song progresses, Etheridge closes in on the denial of equality and identifies the nature of the discrimination: "Even though he could not marry; Or teach your children in our schools; Because who he wants to love; Is breaking your Gods' rules." The verse links this specific type of bigotry to the religious views that continue to be the idealogical foundation for denying same-sex couples the right to marry in many states across the union. The denial to allow openly gay teachers the opportunity to teach also speaks to the paranoid association between homosexuality and pedophilia. Implied here is the failure to separate the views and norms of religious faiths from the laws of the state in contravention of the very principles that underly the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Etheridge then juxtaposes this rank bigotry toward gay Americans against the bravery of Bingham's acts on September 11th. She posits: "He stood up on a Tuesday morning; In the terror he was brave; And he made his choice; And without a doubt; A hundred lives he must have saved." Etheridge closes in on the injustice of denying individuals such as Bingham the right to marry his male partner or obtain full and equal employment opportunities even in the face of his willingness to sacrifice his life to save fellow citizens, some or many of whom would deny him the very rights they possess - "And the things you might take for granted; Your inalienable rights; Some might chose to deny him; Even though he gave his life."

After framing the narrative of Bingham's courage and resistance to terrorists against the backdrop of discrimination waged against him, Etheridge then arrives at the following question - "Can you live with yourself in the land of the free; And make him less of a hero than the other three; Well it might begin to change ya; In a field in Pennsylvania." The verse raises notions of justice and equality that are at the heart of the American sense of self. Etheridge implicitly asks her fellow Americans how they can construct and perceive themselves as a free people who believe in freedom and equality yet so easily deny one of their own, a 9/11 hero no less, the right to equality and equal protection. Put another way, the song holds a mirror up and calls for the American people to consider how it can observe the heroism of Mark Bingham while still continuing to pursue and implement discriminatory laws against gays and lesbians that would have denied that very hero of various rights had he lived.

Tuesday Morning, at its core is about identifying a fundamental inconsistency in the American conception of justice and equality. It asks a pressing question - can homophobic bigotry, whether originating from the state or from society, be justified against a class of people defined by an immutable characteristic. To put a name and a face on the discrimination, Etheridge identifies one of America's most noble heroes who stood up to terrorism on one of the most tragic days of its national history. The question is of significant importance when we consider how many gays and lesbians are serving in the United States armed forces to defend their country but who can be or have been discharged when it is or has been discovered that they are gay - under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". They are asked to shed their blood in defense of their nation as long as they conceal part of their fundamental makeup as individuals from others. "Stand up America; Hear the bell now as it tolls; Wake up America; It's Tuesday morning; Come on let's roll."

Tuesday Morning

Up and down this road I go
Skippin' and dodgin'
From a 44

10:03 on a Tuesday morning
In the fall of an American dream
A man is doing what he knows is right
On flight 93

He loved his mom and he loved his dad
He loved his home and he loved his man
But on that bloody Tuesday morning
He died an American

Now you cannot change this
You can't erase this
You can't pretend this is not the truth

Even though he could not marry
Or teach your children in our schools
Because who he wants to love
Is breaking your Gods' rules

He stood up on a Tuesday morning
In the terror he was brave
And he made his choice
And without a doubt
A hundred lives he must have saved

And the things you might take for granted
Your inalienable rights
Some might chose to deny him
Even though he gave his life

Can you live with yourself in the land of the free
And make him less of a hero than the other three
Well it might begin to change ya
In a field in Pennsylvania

Stand up America
Hear the bell now as it tolls
Wake up America
It's Tuesday morning
Come on let's roll


YL said...

very insightful. I like the song all the more now. Brilliant work, Etheridge.

Greg Shaw said...

Thank You for posting this. I know I am reading several years after you posted this, but it is still informational and well written. Thank You.

Unknown said...

Still true, sure he could marry now, but still not given respect by all.

AMJ said...

This song always tears an eye