Why Love Songs Often Let Us Down
I heard a love song today. Of course I did: you and I heard lots of love songs today. They stalked us every place we went. The difference between this love song and the dozen others that chased me around the city is it said something new to me. If you paid attention to the love songs you were dealt today, then you know this was no mean feat.
This didn't used to be so remarkable. There was a time when pop music seemed to provide a running commentary on my sentimental education. But it only does so rarely nowadays. Why?
I remember the first ballad to make me stop and notice what it was talking about. The song was "Nothing Compares 2 U," written by Prince, but made into a hit by Sinéad O'Connor. My attention was arrested first by the music video. If your family had cable TV in the early '90s, you remember it, too: Sinéad in close-up; flat yet stark lighting; pink skin; black background; big blue eyes; and a big blue tear. I was convinced the thing she was saying really mattered. And when I listen to the song now, I pity both the narrator and younger version of myself who was thrown into a similar fit of vista-shrinking obsession. I also fear a day when I return to that debilitating frame of mind.
Years later, I was already a minute deep into June Christy's 1959 interpretation (from the near-perfect Ballads for Night People LP) of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" before it gripped my attention. It happened on a single note, one word -- the way the normally cool Christy becomes ever so slightly unhinged when she sings "I'm in love and don't I show it" -- and all of a sudden I knew a lot more about love than I had just one verse before. What I once thought of as a feeling, I now understood as a force so strong it could even stagger the Misty Miss Christy.
But that epiphany, the last a love song gave me until today, seems a long time ago. Most love songs I hear speak with their own lexicon. Traditionally, their language is steeped in certainty about what love means and what it will bring. My favorite period for pop songcraft -- the early 1960s -- is the worst offender on this score. Goffin and King, Barry and Greenwich, Bacharach and David: all these writers wrote tunes that had less to do with the volatile dynamics of relationships and marriage -- the interesting stuff, in my opinion -- than they did the stuffy rituals of first kisses and weddings. "Heaven is Being with You." "Not Too Young to Get Married." "Wishin' and Hopin'." The sublime exception that proves the rule is Goffin and King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" Even today, the love in love songs is more a goal -- a promised shortcut to happiness -- than it is the violent force that roughs us up in real life. Though I've noticed a trend in songs like "Teenage Dream" and "Call Me Maybe" where the affair is just as likely to be confined to the narrator's mind as it is the bedroom or altar. This seems a new level of romantic idealization in pop, one where it doesn't even dare to come out for a cup of coffee in the real world.
In pop, love is understood as a commodity. Its value is knowable in the same way by everybody at all times. But anybody who's loved more than once finds each instance of love is as distinct as a foreign country. As Leo Tolstoy famously wrote (How famously? I found the quote posted above a metroplex's lobby over the long weekend), "There are as many loves as there are hearts." And the infinite combinations of hearts possible in our workplaces, transit lines, and Twitter streams is bound to thwart the modest aims of most songwriters.
Even within a single individual, there's nothing absolute or catchable about love. Our first loves aren't forged in the same qualities as our second loves -- or our third loves. We don't love for the same reasons this minute that we loved last week, or will love after this cocktail. Yet, it's those causes we gradually evolve, throughout our lifetime, that dictate our experiences of love -- the losses and the lessons. Occasionally this rush of facts materialize in a glance we give someone. And a token of the force's lack of precedent and guarantee is reflected in the look we get back.
This is why the love song I heard today was so brilliant -- it didn't bother to make any claims for the feelings we associate with romance. Instead it provide a list of snapshots, most of which are universal signs for sussing out a potential partner. The tune was called "Thoughts." It was written in 1967 by the jazz composer Margo Guryan. She sang it on the only pop album she ever recorded, Take a Picture (1968), a record whose entire existence is owed to Guryan's professed adoration for the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows."
Growing bored (ho-hum)
And leaving you
Changing my mind
Climb the stair
Open the door
You're not there
Lots of tears
Call your name
No one hears me
Guryan's words tell a story that's as elliptical as it is familiar. Maybe the events she describes happened over a weekend; maybe a lifetime. In her very relatable skeletal sketch of a romance (which Guryan lays out like a Stations of the Cross for the modern lover), our imaginations can't help but search for the details Guryan leaves out. Line-by-line, we animate her plot by borrowing from our shelf of memories. And in reaching back for these particulars, we reconnect to them -- those instances of touch and taste and smell and sight and sound that have marked our own lifelong developments as sexual beings.
By leaving so much unsaid, it's as if Guryan is privileging our pasts over her poetry. The details she snookers us into stuffing between her lines? This stuff is truer than any bold declaration she could've mustered for why we feel the way we do. Guryan asks for the quotidian data we've accrued through our own experiences: the memories we recall of weather conditions, dinner orders, cab fares, faux-pas, background music, unfamiliar clock alarms, afterglow, and uncertainty. She knows her art isn't complete until we have contributed our lives to it.
Guryan knows something other songwriters don't. She know why, as we get older, love songs ring less true. She knows long ago we learned to sing our own love song.