Songs about moms are really mostly songs about ourselves.
Singers who direct their praise at “mom” or “mother” or “mama” have already marked off just a sliver of a woman’s identity to be celebrated, that part solely defined by her relationship to the adoring child. And that’s fine, I suppose, because songs about lovers or ex-lovers or crushes or ex-crushes or dogs are really mostly songs about ourselves too—about the sentimental whoosh we experience when contemplating a subject that tends to inspire sentimental whooshes.
In country songs, a mother is often someone the singer has disappointed, from Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mother Queen of My Heart” to Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” to Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Rap songs about moms, on the other hand, tend to provide tough guys with an acceptable outlet for their softer emotions, from 2Pac on “Dear Mama” (the rare mom song that actually strains to understand her as an individual) to 2 Chainz, YG, and Offset on the recent “Proud.” Yet while the two best songs about moms that this young century has given us have come out of country and hip-hop, they don’t quite fit into either of these boxes.
Though Taylor Swift made her name by singing about fairytale love and brokenhearted vengeance, the sharpest two songs on the umptillion-selling 2008 collection that made her a superstar, Fearless, were in fact about her relationships with other women. “Fifteen” is about navigating your first year in high school with your best friend. “The Best Day” is about her mom.
But remember what I said about moms and songs and songs about moms: If “The Best Day” is about Taylor’s mom, that means it’s really about Taylor. In the first verse, which impressionistically captures early childhood as a montage of images, mom is the anchor of stability that allows a child to feel safe during her most adventurous moments; the lyric and the vocal perfectly balance intertwined sensations of freedom and security. The mom in verse two models active parenting, consoling 13-year-old Taylor, who’s sobbing after school because she’s been bullied by mean girls. (This is a Taylor Swift song, after all.)
In the final repetition of the chorus, Swift adds the line “I know you were on my side / Even when I was wrong” and her voice, which throughout has been gliding gently along the melody, refusing to coax drama, kicks up in intensity to let us know we’ve reached the climax. This vocal choice underlines the significance of the unconditional approval that can be a parent’s greatest gift, the bedrock on which adult self-esteem is constructed. It's a moment that has been tautly engineered to make me tear up, and I comply every time, driven by the two contradictory responses: The way the lyric overlaps with my own relationship with my mom makes me cry with recognition; the way it differs from my experience makes me cry with longing. That’s how Nashville always gets ya.
While Andrea Swift is not a major figure in Taylor Swift’s songbook, it’s almost impossible to discuss Kanye without considering Donda West. The temptation to psychoanalyze a pop star is usually worth resisting, especially when it comes to Kanye—your uncle who hasn’t heard a rap song since “Bust a Move” has probably offered a detailed diagnosis of Kanye’s mental health on Facebook. Still, when the only son of a college professor defiantly centers his persona around his persistent insistence that education is a waste of time, I think it’s safe to say he’s working through some shit. Kanye’s rejection of college is that formative act of rebellion that sparks his music; Donda’s death in 2007 brusquely demarcates the two halves of his career, marking his metamorphosis from culture hero to anarchic supervillain.
Kanye released “Hey Mama” in 2005, which is an infinity ago in Kanyears, and he wrote it even earlier than that, in 2000 or so. If “The Best Day” is an exercise in restraint and control, “Hey Mama” communicates in bursts of elastic energy. Kanye’s voice bursts from the edges of the track’s chant-like core, as though the melody and rhythm can barely contain him because no melody or rhythm is sufficient to celebrate the love of his mother. We haven’t experienced this giddy a Kanye in over a decade; on “Hey Mama” you can hear certain vocal timbres that he would never again employ after his mother’s death.
From Al Jolson to Elvis to Drake, mama’s boys have always been at the center of pop music, but even among that elite club Kanye’s an obsessively doting son. While “Hey Mama” expresses gratitude—Donda warmed him with chicken soup during the cold Chicago winters, indulged his Michael Jackson obsession even if she drew the line at Jheri curl—it’s also about a boy watching his mother experience pain and struggling to respond. “I'm a love you 'till you don't hurt no more,” Kanye tells his mother after a man has broken her heart, a tender expression of love that’s also a child’s impossible fantasy.
And, as in the country songs I mentioned above, Kanye frets that he’s let his mama down. “My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate,” he raps. “But still supported me when I did the opposite.” And Donda West genuinely did support her son’s career choice, but that doesn’t stop him from obsessing over the subject. “I know I act a fool, but I promise you I'm going back to school” may have been a credible promise when Kanye first wrote it, but by the time he recorded “Hey Mama” it sounds more like a compulsion, a need to say what his mother wants to hear even after she no longer wants to hear it.
There’s an undercurrent of desperation beneath the joy of “Hey Mama,” in the way Kanye follows the line “I’m so proud of you” with “I just want you to be proud of me.” If no amount of maternal love can ever sate him, he can never feel truly worthy of the love he’s already been given either.
Years later, through an act of ingenious pop ventriloquism, Kanye sought to grant himself that unconditional approval. On “Only One,” a voice-and-keyboard lullaby written with Paul McCartney, Ye assumes his late mother’s voice to sing “If you knew how proud I was, you’d never shed a tear” and “You're not perfect but you're not your mistakes,” a genuinely gorgeous message. But working through our relationships with our parents is, to use a Kanye term, a process. Again, not to psychoanalyze Kanye West, but I’ve seen the tweets and no, I don’t think this was enough for him.
When we listen to songs about moms we’re listening to songs about ourselves, so at this point I should mention my own mother, who died when I was 22, leaving me, like Kanye, to work through whatever issues were left unresolved in our relationship. On my best days, I’m a Taylor, accessing memories of maternal approval from childhood that allow me to respect myself even when I’m wrong. Yet often I’m a Kanye, desperately striving in the hope that whatever I achieve will balance out a disappointment I have no rational reason to imagine my mother ever felt. Living with our moms, or living without them, is complicated. Which is why we keep singing about them.