[The final paper for my Intro to College Writing Class at Berklee, December 2017.]
“Most popular music is about ‘Baby, I love you. Come here and give it to me.’ There are millions of records with lyrics like that. So it becomes a cliché and then you have all these people copying that and they don't do nothing but copy clichés off each other.”
– Miles Davis, the Autobiography
Almost all pop music is about romantic heterosexual love, with constantly shifting emphasis on each of those three words. Considering our preoccupation with love, and the fact that music is practically omnipresent, this overexposure to love songs might be affecting our ability to function normally. If you’ve read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, or watched the movie, you know what I’m getting at.
One could argue that this is a genre problem, that metal is similarly obsessed with war and hip-hop with violence. Instrumental music, on the other hand, is too often treated as aural wallpaper; classical music is as uncool as it gets. As music critic Alex Ross observes: “There may be kids out there who lost their virginity during Brahms’s D-Minor Piano Concerto, but they don’t want to tell the story and you don’t want to hear it.” There are people falling in or out of love to Avenged Sevenfold or the Lonely Island, but they would be considered a negligible quantity.
Most love songs, then, fall into one of three categories:
I love you and I will scale Mount Everest and touch the bottom of the Mariana Trench to prove it.
I’ve been dumped and I’m going to drown my sorrows in alcohol.
I met this girl in a club and she spent last night mauling my privates.
The first two are no longer as naïve as they sound; in any case, the third has slowly edged them out over the last ten years. A 2003 content analysis of song lyrics found, among other things, that “both genders have become more circumspect about permanent relations.” More recently, in an insightful article in the Huffington Post, Lamar Dawson notes that the true love song is now an endangered species: it has been replaced by songs about sexual empowerment (by female artists) or sexual activity (by male artists).
Dawson defines the love song as the “I-love-you-I-can’t-live-without-you-I-miss-you-please-don’t-leave” song, the kind that “[acknowledges] your desire for a connection on an intimate, romantic level.” It’s an apt description, but it overlooks the fact that ‘love’ is an umbrella term for innumerable contradictory states of being. In his autobiography, Sting likens this to “a city dweller looking at the jungle and dumbly grunting the word trees for the manifold diversity that faces him. There are plants out there that can feed him, plants that can cure him, and plants that can kill him, and the sooner he identifies them and names them, the safer he will be.”
Does this mean it is time for more literate love songs? There were plenty of them in 1980s England. Sting himself gave us “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” and “Fortress Around Your Heart”; Elvis Costello’s catalogue is full of zingers like “Everyday I Write the Book”; Squeeze had “Up the Junction” and “Tempted”; ABC’s album The Lexicon of Love is exactly what it says on the cover (as is its postmodern successor, the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs). They were about trying, and sometimes failing, to have meaningful relationships. They were also very successful. Were listeners more receptive to such a concept back then?
One can delve even deeper into the past, with the Great American Songbook. “My Funny Valentine”. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”. Even “To Keep My Love Alive”, in which a murderess gets rid of her fifteen husbands one by one. The songwriters behind them, like the metaphysical poets of the 17th century, wrote about everything. It’s probably why, when they tried their hand at silly love songs, what came out was anything but silly. Colin Morris, in a semi-serious essay in The Pudding, shows that popular song lyrics have become more repetitive over the years. It looks like a Max Martin can’t be as pithy as a Cole Porter – not even with the requisite co-writers.
Perhaps we’re really looking for music that talks about a more primal need: companionship. There’s the misfit of Rush’s “Subdivisions”. There’s the manic social animal of Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch”. Then there’s the bored gas station attendant of Randy Newman’s “If You Need Oil”: he just wants to “fill your tank with gasoline” and head home (and if you thought that was a sexual innuendo, you’ve proved my point). The catch, of course, is that none of these songs are popular.
I have nothing against love in itself: I wouldn’t be here without it, and nor would you. All I’m trying to say is that i) it shouldn’t overshadow other, less exciting but no less important matters; and ii) music about it comes in all shapes and sizes, most of which we never get to listen to. After all, which one are you more likely to hear: “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” or “(If You Don't Wanna Fuck Me, Baby) Fuck Off!!”?