At the risk of sounding like Paul McCartney: You'd think that people really would have had enough of silly love songs. Or even the not-so-silly ones.
After all, there are only so many ways of singing "I love you," and Lord knows, songwriters have tried 'em all. For instance, in 1966 Bobby Vinton had a hit with "I Love You the Way You Are." Twelve years later, Billy Joel added a word and had, "(I Love You) Just the Way You Are." Doubtless some tunesmith somewhere is at the moment sweating away on "I Just Love You the Way You Are." And on it goes, until the average pop fan has heard every conceivable variation a hundred times over.
By rights, we should be sick to death of love songs.
And yet, as McCartney says, look around and you'll see it isn't so. Love songs remain astonishingly popular, no matter how tired or trite their sentiments may seem. Generally, at least half the singles in the Top 40 are love songs of some sort, be they from the heart (like Whitney Houston's intensely emotional "I Will Always Love You") or from somewhere a little lower (like Bobby Brown's decidedly carnal "Good Enough").
Why, though? How is it that, while some love songs never work at all, others affect us no matter how many times we hear them? And what is it, exactly, in the music that makes us think of love, anyway?
People write songs about all sorts of things. Fast cars. Lousy jobs. Twinkling stars. Cute puppies. Loyal friends. Crooked politicians. Pick a topic, and odds are that somebody, somewhere, has written a song about it.
But mostly, people write about love. It is, in fact, such a pervasive topic that "The Green Book," an index of popular songs listed by subject matter, doesn't even bother with a "love" listing. Explains compiler Jeff Green in the preface, "Because the vast majority of popular music revolves around this theme, to include every song with an element of love in it would fill several volumes alone."
Even if there are millions of love songs out there, they all pretty much fall into one of four basic types: Songs celebrating love; songs seeking love; songs bemoaning love denied; and songs that talk about love but that are really about sex.
Although you might think the talking-love-but-thinking-sex songs would be the most common, in truth this strain seems to be dying out. Not because our songwriters have become more high-minded and spiritual lately -- get real, pal -- but because they no longer use euphemisms when addressing the topic. Why bother with flowery language when a simple line like "I Wanna Sex You Up" is enough?
It wasn't always that way, though. Songwriters used to have to resort to double entendres and coded language to get their point across. Some of these nudge-wink lyrics are a bit on the obvious side: "Give It to Me Baby" (Rick James); "Ring My Bell" (Anita Ward); "Let's Get It On" (Marvin Gaye). Others, though, are so genteel as to seem wholesome, like "Makin' Whoopee" or the all-purpose substitute, "making love." But the one that afforded clever lyricists the most leeway was the one Cole Porter applied in "Let's Do It." In verses, we listeners are allowed to assume a fairly racy intent, as the lyrics go on about how "Birds do it, bees do it/ Even educated fleas do it," before the chorus sets us straight: "Let's do it -- let's fall in love."
What separates the next two categories, songs seeking love and songs lamenting love denied, is mostly a matter of mood. And no wonder. Anyone singing "Will you love me?" is bound to sound happier than someone moaning "Why don't you love me anymore?"
As a result, there are examples of "Will you love me?" songs in virtually every style of pop music (death metal being perhaps the sole exception), while most of the "Why don't you love me?" numbers tend to be country and western tunes.
The most romantic of the bunch are the songs celebrating love. Granted, they do have the advantage of focusing on the feeling itself and avoiding the say-you'll-be-mine desperation of the other varieties.
But what most appeals to listeners is the way these songs stress the power and longevity of love. Sometimes, it's an expression of superhuman devotion -- that there "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to keep Marvin Gaye from Tammi Terrell, for instance -- but what we hear most often are promises of eternal devotion: "Endless Love" (Lionel Richie and Diana Ross). "Everlasting Love" (Andy Gibb, among others). "I'll Always Love You" (Taylor Dayne, among others). "I'll Never Stop Loving You" (Doris Day). "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)" (New Kids on the Block). And on and on.
Love songs aren't just a matter of verbal hearts and flowers, though; there are often certain musical cues that go along with the lyrics. Most love songs, remember, are meant to put the listener "in the mood," and as such tend to rely on specific musical devices. Take make-out music, for example. In order to evoke the sort of candlelit intimacy most people associate with romance, the music must be quiet and soothing, with soft edges and lush textures in the background arrangements, but enough urgency in the vocal to convey a suitable sense of passion.
Of course, the trouble with this model is that sometimes the music sends one set of signals, while the words spell out something altogether different. And lovers, God bless 'em, don't always notice the disparity.
Sting, for example, professed to be appalled by the number of young couples who would come up to him and announce that the Police hit "Every Breath You Take" was an ideal expression of the devotion they felt for one another. "A lot of people thought it was a very sweet love song," said Sting a few years back. "In fact, it's about surveillance and ownership and jealousy."
Likewise, Michael Stipe complained about romantic misreadings of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love," a song which, despite its warm, emotional melody, was actually about cold-hearted manipulation. And quite a few new wavers still believe that there's something genuinely affectionate in Elvis Costello's quietly murderous "Allison." (Hint: When he sings, "I think somebody better put out the big light," he's not talking about lamps).
Maybe that's why the all-time favorite love songs tend to be those that most obviously wear their heart on their sleeve. These are songs that tend to start slow, and slowly build in intensity until reaching a climax of some sort with the final chorus -- an approach which owes its power to the fact that it strongly resembles the pace and pay-off of lovemaking itself. Naturally, such songs depend on the emotional power of the performance, and pop singers over the years have developed an array of
mannerisms to convey such feelings, from sighs (think Edith Piaf), to tears (think Johnnie Ray), to murmuring insinuation (think Barry White).
At the moment, the fashion seems to be for full-throated intensity, as if an American in the 1990s can only be in love at the top of his or her voice. That's part of the reason Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" has become a seemingly permanent fixture at the top of the pop charts; given the gut-wrenching fervor with which she belts out the chorus, only the most jaded listener would doubt that she didn't feel something for the guy.
Likewise, Michael Bolton's popularity depends in large part on the throat-rending power of his singing, because most people seem to associate passion with physical strain. (Is this what Nazareth meant when they sang "Love Hurts"?)
But this is already being superseded by the gentle sentimentality of R&B; harmony acts like Boyz II Men and Shai, in which the singers express themselves through hyper-romantic sensitivity. And Boyz II Men bass Michael McCary completely understands the music's appeal. "A guy may not be able to sing, but he wants to express himself to a woman," McCary said last year. "So what we do is express what he's trying to say to the women vocally, so he can get his point across."
And isn't that all any love song tries to do?
Love is . . . the debate rages
"Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" :The Four Aces
"Love Is a Hurtin' Thing": Lou Rawls
"Love Is the Answer": England Dan & John Ford Coley
"Love Is the Drug": Roxy Music
"Love Is All Around": The Troggs
"Love Is Here and Now You're Gone": The Supremes
"Love Is in the Air" :John Paul Young
"Love Is Like Oxygen": The Sweet
"Love Is Like a Rock": Donnie Iris
"Love Is Like a Baseball Game": The Intruders
"Love Is Strange": Mickey & Sylvia