There are few things in love that are as romantic as expressing your emotions in song. Many women find it incredibly flattering to receive a late-night serenade from their beloved. (Though it's not always appropriate to take the guitar-outside-her-bedroom-window approach -- especially if her bedroom is in her fifth-floor apartment.)
Just be careful what you sing.
Sometimes, what you think is a love song turns out to be something else altogether. Consider the 1983 Police hit "Every Breath You Take." Between its gentle melody and such lyrics as, "Oh, can't you see/You were meant for me," many listeners took it to be an incredibly romantic expression of love. Some couples even declared it "their" song.
All of which appalled Sting, the man who wrote and sang the tune. As he told Christopher Connelly in Rolling Stone, the relationship its lyrics describe is hardly a healthy one.
"I consider it a fairly nasty song," he said. "It's about surveillance and ownership and jealousy." In other words, when he croons, "I'll be watching you," he means it in the Big Brother sense.
Nor is "Every Breath You Take" the only nasty song lovers have mistakenly assumed to be nice. There probably isn't an Alison in the world who hasn't been serenaded at some point with the Elvis Costello song "Alison."
And they should each pray that the lad just didn't know what he was singing.
Why? Because, basically, what the protagonist is singing about in "Alison" is wanting to kill a girl who never loved him. Sure, the melody is gentle enough, but the lyrics are psycho-level sinister. For instance, in the second verse, where the guy is going on about how he can't stand to see her that way, the line "I think somebody better put out the big light" isn't referring to overhead illumination.
As for the chorus -- "Alison, I know this world is killing you/Alison, my aim is true" -- what our hero is really saying is that rather than let the world grind her down, Alison should let him get it over with quickly. When he says "aim," he's talking marksmanship.
New wave songs, though, are full of perverse romance, from such stalker anthems as Blondie's "One Way or Another" ("I'm gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha," remember?) to sexual-orientation insults like Josie Cotton's "Johnny, Are You Queer?" (which suggests he must be gay if he doesn't want to love her). In fact, after grooving to the likes of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" and the Smiths' "Girlfriend in a Coma," it's a wonder new wavers managed to date at all.
But classic rock also has its share of Love Songs That Aren't. One of the greats has to be Eric Clapton's 1977 ballad, "Wonderful Tonight."
Sweet and slow, it starts off with the protagonist and his beloved about to head out to a party. Zipping up her dress, she turns and asks how she looks, to which he replies, "Darling, you look wonderful tonight."
So far, so good. At the party, he notices how everyone is impressed that he has such a beauty on his arm. Then he begins to think that she has no idea how much he loves her -- and apparently starts drinking. By the last verse, she has to drive him home and put him to bed, at which point he once again slurs, "Darling, you were wonderful tonight."
OK, so he's an insecure lush, and she's gorgeous. Sounds like a match made in heaven to me.
Being fooled by what seems to be a love song isn't unique to the rock era, as there are quite a few standards that couch their compliments in less-than-endearing terms.
For example, did you ever take a close look at the Rogers and Hart classic, "My Funny Valentine"? Although it's meant as a statement of devotion, it's hard to imagine the man or woman who would be flattered if they gave the words any thought.
Take the bridge. "Is your figure less than Greek?" asks the song. Translation: You're flabby, if not outright lumpy. "Is your mouth a little weak?" Translation: You've got a recessive chin, too. "When you open it to speak, are you not smart?" Translation: You say some really stupid things.
(Joe Cocker continued this line of left-handed compliments in 1975, with "You Are So Beautiful," a song which seems to say, "The rest of the world may think you're homely, but I like the way you look." A real Hallmark moment, that.)
Perhaps the all-time greatest don't-know-why-I-love him number is "Bill," from the Jerome Kern classic, "Show Boat." Intended to explain how a beautiful woman ended up falling for an average guy, it ends up over-selling his shortcomings. As enumerated in the third verse, Bill can't play sports, can't sing, isn't tall, slim or good-looking, and can't even dress well.
Somehow, I doubt Bill would have wanted any of that on a valentine.
Originally published Feb. 14 1998