To the Editor:
aving labored in the fields of country-music songwriting for three decades, I must agree with Terry Teachout [“Love Songs, RIP,” May] that the classic romantic love song is getting harder and harder to sell. The dominant themes in today’s songs seem to be male statements along the lines of “let’s party and have sex / you look so hot” and female statements along the lines of “I am way too strong now to put up with your nonsense, but let’s party and have sex—on my terms.” Most gals aren’t about to sing about undying love, since that would undermine their stance of strength and independence, and most guys—dealing with this stronger female—compensate by upping their macho stance, pushing them into avoiding “true love” songs as well.
The obvious catalyst for this change is the post-’60s birth-
control-enabled overt female sexuality, and both sexes, at least for now, seem delighted with this unprecedented new normal. Alongside many of my fellow writers, I believe that “romance” is incapable of competing on the charts with the idea of casual, readily available sex. Those of us who are still trying to write old-fashioned kinds of love songs, even if we have made it to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, are like milliners still trying to sell boater hats.
Greenport, New York
To the Editor:
ot mentioned in Terry Teachout’s article is that in the Golden Age of songwriting, a hefty percentage of the songwriters were Jewish, bringing with them the sentimentality of Yiddish, the strong bonds of Jewish family units, and a cultural affinity for free-flowing emotion. The heyday of this American musical history captured all but the last two decades of the 20th century when large swaths of the population chose discordant sounds and themes that mirrored their lack of traditional aspirations and belief in a better future. More’s the pity.
To the Editor:
erry Teachout’s analysis answers a number of questions I have long had about why I cannot enjoy much of today’s popular music. He clearly defines a cultural gap between two different American periods and worlds. I would also add that the overarching mood of the music of the Great American Songbook was different from what we have today. Its sadnesses were softer and more wistful, and it was free from the anger and cruelty that seems to characterize so much of the music being made now. It also had a certain beauty, missing from the talk-song of today.
To the Editor:
erry Teachout makes good points in his article but misses a more profound point. Romantic love has always been an abstract, if wonderful, ideal. Love songs were written about that ideal, and popular music recognized that fact and capitalized on it. For instance, in 1945, one of the great love songs, contained these lyrics: “Kiss me once and kiss me twice and kiss me once again, it’s been a long, long time…” What we are seeing and hearing today is an extremely coarse version of that lyric and sentiment. Not only in popular songs, but across culture, we are witnessing nothing less than the death of euphemism.
Culver City, California
To the Editor:
erry Teachout offered some apt insights into the state of the love song in contemporary music in his article about Ted Gioia’s Love Songs, but both writers betray a knowledge of hip-hop that seems to end around the release of Lil Wayne’s 2004 album Tha Carter.
Like too many critics who write about hip-hop but don’t listen to the genre, Mr. Teachout and Mr. Gioia fall into the “drugs, guns, money, bitches” trap, mistaking the tropes of hip-hop—which rappers deploy, deconstruct, deny, and re-signify—for its real subject matter. As André 3000 raps on the 2000 release “Humble Mumble”: “I met a critic, I made her sh-t her draws / She said she thought Hip Hop was only guns and alcohol / I said ‘Oh hell naw!’, but yet it’s that too.”
Rappers may be expanding the ways we can talk about romantic love in pop songs. Tyler the Creator’s lyrics about love twinned with hate, about cycles of rejection, self-doubt, and violence, for instance, come to mind. Weeks ago he released Wolf, filled with painful, passionate love songs that stress commitment. “Life without you has no goddamn meaning,” he raps on “IFHY”; and, in a line as innocent as anything to be found in the white pop of the 1950s, “I like it when we hold hands.” (Granted, he also threatens stalking, violence, and suicide.) This isn’t the roseate romance of The Beach Boys or the early Beatles, but neither is it darker than anything that’s come before (just think of Portuguese fado, The Wall, or a score of songs by Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen). If anything, it shocks us because it’s more direct. And though Tyler is sui generis, his concern with romantic, committed love isn’t anomalous: On another 2015 release, the immensely talented Kendrick Lamar takes time between songs about black pride and black self-loathing to rhapsodize about interracial love on “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”: “A woman is a woman,” he says. “Love the creation.”
Mr. Teachout is right to mention Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” but he should have looked back to the 2002 Beyoncé–Jay Z collaboration “Bonnie and Clyde.” Years earlier, Tupac wrote “Me and My Girlfriend,” an ironic “love song,” as he was rapping about his gun. On this track, Jay Z and Beyoncé update the rap classic and make an ironic song about the hip-hop tropes of guns and violence into an entirely sincere love song, about how “All I need in this life of sin / is me and my girlfriend.” And, most important, the lyrics look forward to a continued relationship: The song came out in 2002, but Jay Z raps “The ’03 Bonnie and Clyde, Hov’ and B.” Yes, OutKast rapped about divorce on “Ms. Jackson,” but how can one forget André’s gratitude for an example of tenacious monogamy on “Hey-Ya,” one of the biggest hits of 2003? “Thank God for Mom and Dad / For sticking through together / Cause we don’t know how.” OutKast’s entire album The Love Below navigates romance in all its incarnations, from explorations of a man’s fears of commitment, to playful raps in Cupid’s persona, to pleas for a lover to take down her defenses and open herself to emotional intimacy, on the spare and beautiful “Take Off Your Cool,” a collaboration with Norah Jones. Anyone who thinks that the love song is in its obsolescence, of a piece with rising divorce rates, sexual libertinism, and digitized emotional solipsism—and that the top artists in hip-hop are somehow responsible for such brokenness—would do well to start with this album. Yes, the love song is being reinvented, expanded, and enriched—in hip-hop, in 2015. It is an endeavor that has always engaged our best artists.
Buffalo, New York
Terry Teachout writes:
wonder how closely Aidan Ryan read my piece, in which I said very clearly that hip-hop songs are “typically about sex, not love” (emphasis added) and that this attitude “almost certainly reflects the plummeting frequency of marriage in America’s black community” (instead of being “responsible” for it, as he incorrectly suggests that I wrote). As for the rest of his letter, I think it speaks for itself. Perhaps a sea change in hip-hop is in the offing—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton suggests as much—but what I see in his catalogue of exceptions is optimistic cherry-picking.