Love. Loss. Heartache. Pop music. These four things, among others like adultery, arson, and death, have all found homes in The Love Song. The tumultuous narrative has scored popular culture from the moment man could mouth words. Consider Helen of Troy, whose tale could be looked at as a large-scale “Jessie’s Girl” long before Rick Springfield ever sang to himself in a mirror. Kate Bush literally lifted her inspiration from the written word with her breakout hit “Wurthering Heights” in 1978. The song, like the novel, recounts the turbulent relationship of literary Sid and Nancy Heathcliff and Cathy. A personal favorite is Aaron Neville’s “Over You,” in which Neville threatens to kill his lover should she deny him, so that no other man may have her. Perhaps a bit of Henry VIII in there, no? All of this drama is unavoidable in storytelling because, well, drama is enticing. It keeps people on the edge of their seat; there’s a reason soap operas still exist after all.
But what about when you do the work, and grow up, and want to reserve the drama for your television set? What love songs can you turn to that aren’t jealous, or sexist, or murderous? Those are, after all, for the breakup. This week, while listening to Townes Van Zandt’s 1969 LP Our Mother The Mountain on repeat, a record packed with unruly love songs, a levelheaded track caught my ear. “Second Lovers Song” is, perhaps one of the sanest cuts I’ve ever heard, and a progressive one at that.
As the song commences, Van Zandt sings of waking next to a woman who whispers that he “ain’t the only one” softly in his ear. The male narrator responds by cooing: “Do you think I really care? Do you think it matters?” It might not sound so revolutionary, but if you consider the artistic canon-especially that of country music-it’s pretty damn forward-thinking. “Second Lovers” is a song about acceptance, realistic expectations, and removing the perceived ‘angel-woman’ from her heavenly pedestal. Van Zandt’s narrator is seeing his lover as a human being, not as an untouched virgin child who’d be a whore if she’d ever bedded another man. In the song’s last verse he croons: “My lady can’t you see I love not jealously? But for all you are to me and all you’ll be tomorrow.” If only there were more voices in contemporary pop music like Van Zandt’s, singing of a woman’s past without resorting to words like “bitch” or “ho.”
I was in the mood for more. More love songs that extol the virtuous aspects of relationships, even if that means knowing when they must end. Don’t get me wrong; I like to relish in gritty breakup numbers by the likes of Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello too, (especially if you can’t tell immediately just how mean they are) but every once and awhile it’s nice to hear some sense coming out of those speakers.
Below is my guide to a few love songs without all that baggage.
“Kentucky Avenue” by Tom Waits
Puppy love. Could another love be more pure? The final cut off of Tom Waits’ 1978 masterpiece Blue Valentine is a real showstopper. While the song is technically about Waits’ childhood friend Kipper (who was wheelchair ridden due to polio), and not a grade school crush, the same foundations of loyalty and unconditional love apply.
There is a strong sense of “us against them” in this track, as the narrator dotes upon his companion with gifts and acts of care-taking: “So let me tie you up with kite string and I’ll show you the scabs on my knee. Watch out for the broken glass, put your shoes and socks on and come away with me.” Waits goes on to promise that he’ll “get a dollar from my mama’s purse and buy that skull and crossbones ring, and you can wear it around your neck on an old piece of string.” “I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpies wings. And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet. I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad and cut the braces off your legs and we’ll bury them tonight in the cornfield.”
It is a song that revels in shameless adoration; the kind of worts-and-all romances that occur so rarely in adult life, and so often when we are naive enough to let them happen.
“Wannabe” by Spice Girls.
Though we may always be eluded by the etymology of “zigazig ah” the mission statement of 1996’s “Wannabe” is pretty straightforward and commendable. I speak from personal experience when I say that dating a socially inept log who, literally cannot “get with my friends,” is nothing short of excruciating. Some never talk. Others you just wish would never talk. Critics in the mid ’90s may have been skeptical of the miniskirt wearing Fab 5, but the Spice Girls’ message was always unabashed, unapologetic Girl Power. Their breakout hit is exemplary of that ethos; stating that they’d be fine to take a lover, but they’re not about to halt their lives for one.
“I won’t be hasty, I’ll give you a try. If you really bug me then I’ll say goodbye.”
And who could forget the simple power in the words:
“If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends. Make it last forever, friendship never ends. If you wanna be my lover, you have got to give. Taking is too easy, but that’s the way it is.”
It’s not exactly Chaucer, but I’m behind what they’re saying.
“Praise You” by Fatboy Slim
Another simple, cut-to-the-chase track. While lyrically the song owes nothing to Fatboy’s Quentin Leo Cook (the repetitive lyrics are taken from the introduction to Camille Yarbrough’s “Take Yo’ Praise”), the unrelenting loop of words grows with meaning each repetition: “We’ve come a long long way together, through the hard times and the good, I have to celebrate you baby, I have to praise you like I should.”
“Praise You” relays a dense message via omission. The repeated phrase is enough to build an empire of love and understanding upon, but what the song does not say is just as fortified. Lyrically it is void of so many codependent tropes that plague love songs.
Things you do not hear:
“I need you”
“I can’t live without you”
“I was nothing before you”
Whether or not it was intentional, Fatboy Slim’s lyrical restraint has left us with a simple, healthy, and drama-free mantra.
“Take Time To Know Her,” by Percy Sledge
The tragic tale of a man who commits a supreme mistake while conducting his romantic life: not listening to his mama. Percy Sledge’s “Take Time To Know Her” is a ballad exalting the value of taking things slow, not rushing it, and really getting to know the (wo)man you love. Contrary to his mama, and the preacher’s advice to “take time to know her,” the song’s narrator beelines into a marriage with a beautiful woman, only to find her cheating on him not long after their vows.
“And then I came home a little early one night and there she was kissing on another man. Now, I know what Mama meant when she took me by the hand and said, ‘Son, take time to know her. It’s not an overnight thing. Take time to know her. Please, don’t rush into this thing.'”
Even Elvis (and wise men) knew that “only fools rush in.” But so did mama. Please listen to mama.
“To The End,” by Blur
A big part of a healthy relationship is knowing when to call it quits. Maybe you bring out the bad in each other, or the sex has gone sour, or worse, there isn’t any sex to go sour anymore. No one knows that breaking up is hard to do more than songwriters, but some breakup tunes are less vicious than the rest.
A favorite is Blur’s “To The End” off of 1994’s Parklife. The song is a reprimand of both players in the relationship, citing the faults they’ve committed together:
“All those dirty words, they make us look so dumb. We’ve been drinking far too much, and neither of us mean what we say.”
The narrator goes on to honor the relationship’s good moments, while unfurling its inevitable demise.
“Well you and I collapsed in love. And it looks like we might have made it. Yes, it looks like we’ve made it to the end. What happened to us? Soon it will be gone forever. Infatuated only with ourselves, and neither of us can think straight anymore.”
There will never be a shortage tear jerking, wrathful and jealous love songs. Love is hard. Being a romantic is hard. But being a sensible romantic is the hardest.