In 1975, Loretta Lynn was one of the biggest stars in country music when she released a song that was quickly banned by many country radio stations. The song, “The Pill,” was an ode to birth control and sexual freedom that shocked the industry and many of the genre’s more conservative listeners with lyrics like:
It was this kind of sharp-witted and fearless storytelling that made Lynn, who died on Tuesday at the age of 90, a titan of country music and an inspiration to future generations of songwriters, especially female country stars. Despite the controversy surrounding its release, “The Pill,” would become Lynn’s highest-charting pop single, peaking at #70 on the Hot 100.
But as conservative social norms have ossified around the country music establishment, “The Pill” is still forsaken nearly fifty years since it was released. According to Luminate (formerly Nielsen Music), the song was played just once by a country radio station in the U.S. in 2022, even though it’s a classic of the genre. The song—and Lynn’s career as a provocative lyricist—serve as a reminder that the conservative values touted by the country music establishment don’t always match those of their artists or listeners.
1970s Culture Divide
When Lynn wrote “The Pill,” she was a constant presence atop the country charts. Between 1970 and 1974, she had a dozen songs hit the Billboard U.S. Country Top 5. While Lynn sang many celebrations of humble country life, she also was widely celebrated for breathing life and humor into dangerous topics, whether it be cheating, female lust, or violent revenge. Lynn, after writing “The Pill,” told TIME she didn’t think it was out of line with her body of work: “It isn’t as dirty as some of my other songs. I wrote one the other day that is so dirty I have to close my eyes when I sing it,” she said in a 1975 interview.
But birth control was still a heavily debated topic, especially in conservative communities. Universal birth control had only become legalized in 1972, following the landmark decision of Eisenstadt v Baird, and it was unavailable in many of the rural areas where Lynn had a strong following. Lynn herself had noted in the 1971 song “One’s On The Way” that the feminist revolution of the 1970s had been slow to come to many parts of America:
Given the culture divide and tense political climate, Lynn’s record label MCA didn’t release “The Pill” for three years until after she had recorded it. And when it was finally released, Lynn tried to make clear that the song wasn’t a rejection of family values. The song’s lyrics, in fact, argue that birth control enables the song’s protagonist—a faithful wife exhausted from years of childbirth—to be a better partner and mother. Lynn herself was married at 13 and went through a taxing period of pregnancies: “I had four kids before I was 18. If I had had the Pill, I would’ve been popping it like popcorn,” she told TIME.
But the song still caused an uproar in conservative areas. People Magazine reported that 60 radio stations banned the song, and wrote about a preacher in West Liberty, Kentucky, who devoted a sermon to denouncing it. Lynn told Playgirl that the song nearly got her kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry: “I sung it three times at the Grand Ole Opry one night, and I found out a week later that the Grand Ole Opry had a three-hour meeting, and they weren’t going to let me [sing it]… If they hadn’t let me sing the song, I’d have told them to shove the Grand Ole Opry!”
‘I learned that from Loretta’
All of the controversy and hand-wringing only galvanized interest, however, and the song started to get spun on pop radio upon its release. In the end, “The Pill” became the biggest crossover hit of Lynn’s career. Decades later, it is still galvanizing younger generations of country musicians to tell stories that are unflinchingly true to their lives. “Country music definitely had a history of the people who were shootin’ straight and telling the stories without any sort of gloss on them, whether it’s “The Pill” or other songs,” the Chicks’ Emily Strayer told NPR in 2020. (Notably, The Chicks were also blacklisted from the country music industry after criticizing George W. Bush and the Iraq War in 2003.)
Miranda Lambert told Taste of Country this year that her early song “Gunpowder & Lead” was inspired by “The Pill”: “Abuse is not something everyone talks about. I think I learned that from Loretta. I mean, she wrote ‘The Pill’ when you weren’t supposed to be talking about that stuff.”
But as the song is hailed in many circles as groundbreaking, it has basically been abandoned by the country establishment. According to Luminate, the song has received 95 spins on U.S. radio since the start of 2022, with most of those coming from Triple A and College Radio formats; only one of those spins was on a station classified as Country format. By contrast, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” has 1.3K spins so far this year on U.S. radio.
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