Most pop songs are about love. So are most classical art songs. So are most folk songs. What is more, most of us take all this for granted, though a moment’s consideration suggests that we ought instead to be surprised by it. Since the range of possibilities for human action extends far beyond the compass of love, sex, and marriage, why should the representation of these three activities have preoccupied songwriters of all kinds?
Ted Gioia, a music historian and sometime jazz pianist, addresses this question and others related to it in his latest book, Love Songs: The Hidden History.1 The third and last in a trilogy of studies of what he calls “functional songs” that also includes Work Songs and Healing Songs (both 2006), Love Songs is a cross-cultural and engrossingly wide-ranging history. Gioia’s overarching premise is that love songs, far from being “wimpy music, for emotional weaklings and sentimental fools,” are in fact “radical and disruptive” manifestations of humankind’s “growing sense of individualism and personal autonomy.” As he explains in the introduction:
Over the centuries, the love song has repeatedly challenged authoritarian rule and patriarchal institutions. It has demanded not only freedom of artistic expression, but other freedoms in matters both intimate and public. Moreover, these songs usually came from the young and disenfranchised, arriving on the scene with a vigor and insistence that unsettled the old and entrenched.
This is an interesting and compelling thesis, but it has to be said that Love Songs is a bit superficial in its treatment of certain aspects of its subject. For one thing, Gioia has given us a book about lyrics, not music. He has little to say about the specifically musical matters upon which one might have expected a trained musician to shed light. And Love Songs turns highly problematic when it engages with the present moment. Gioia rightly points out that the traditional romantic love song has lately ceased to be as central to American pop music as it still was well into the ’70s. For now, while the pop charts are laden with songs about love, that love is often rendered in an anti-romantic manner that is sharply at variance with how love was customarily portrayed during the golden age of American popular song. But Love Songs says little about the underlying reasons for this shift and fails altogether to consider the possibility that the changed tone of the “love” song might be directly reflective of the splintered culture from which it springs.
Gioia shows that song lyrics about love, sex, marriage, and fertility can be traced all the way back to the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, and that once Jewish and Christian religious leaders came to terms with the iron determination of their own people to write and sing about romantic love, it quickly emerged as the dominant subject matter of Western popular music.
This tendency became overwhelming in 20th-century America. Both in the freestanding commercial pop songs of Tin Pan Alley and in musical-comedy lyrics, love is the near-universal theme. One can almost count on the fingers of both hands the number of standard ballads written between 1920 and 1960 that are not about romantic love, whether failed or successful. Even among such chronically disillusioned lyricists as Lorenz Hart, it is the singer’s desirable but unattainable ideal: This funny world/Makes fun of the things that you strive for/This funny world/Can laugh at the dreams you’re alive for. What is more, most of these perennially popular songs presuppose marriage as the natural consequence of love, sometimes implicitly but just as often explicitly, as in Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”: He’ll build a little home,/Just meant for two,/From which I’ll never roam,/Who would, would you?
All this stands to reason. Though Love Songs makes no mention of the fact, marriage was a normative experience in white America throughout much of the 20th century. As late as 1960, 74 percent of all white adults in America were married, and while it is impossible to know for sure whether romantic love played a part in any of those marriages, it seems safe to assume that most married people at least hoped that it would do so. Hence the importance of the theme to an art form that was—and still is—a direct reflection of our collective consciousness.
The rosy view of romantic love taken by golden-age songwriters was not always shared by their counterparts in other genres. Divorce, an all-but-unmentionable topic on the golden-age hit parade, has long figured prominently in the lyrics to country songs, while the blues singers of the pre-rock era were even franker in their view of marriage and its discontents: You so beautiful, but you got to die someday/All I want’s a little lovin’, baby, just before you pass away. And though Gioia does not quite say so, this latter skepticism was rooted in the harsh realities of life in the black community. Marriage, which was not legally open to slaves, never became as prevalent among post–Civil War blacks as it was in the rest of America. This explains the way in which romantic love is portrayed in blues songs, which are, depending on your preference, either more realistic or more cynical about love and marriage than are golden-age popular songs.
With the coming of rock in the ’60s, Bob Dylan and the Beatles dramatically widened the range of subjects open to pop-song lyricists, just as Stephen Sondheim (who goes completely unmentioned in Love Songs) taught a generation of theatrical songwriters that it was possible to write about romantic love with unsettling ambivalence. To be sure, the wider significance of these developments was initially overstated by the critics of the day. As Dave Hickey has tartly observed, “ninety percent of the pop songs ever written were love songs, while ninety percent of rock criticism was written about the other ten percent.” Still, they were at the very least a crack in the façade, and in the ’90s that crack widened into a yawning gap.
To the extent that any one form of music can lay a meaningful claim to primacy in America’s fissiparous popular culture, that position is now held by rap, whose creators, most of whom are black, take an even more jaundiced view of romantic love than did the blues singers of the pre-rock era. Rap and rap-flavored pop songs are typically about sex, not love, and most of them are written and sung by men who portray the women whom they covet not in an idealized way but as objects of lust and violence.
According to Gioia, such portrayals define the imaginative universe of rap:
You can even quantify [them] at the Rap Genius website, which offers a statistical measure of the frequency with which various terms show up in rap lyrics. The site’s database, which goes back to 1988, shows that in every year the term bitch appeared more often than woman or girl or lover. The word romance is all but absent from the database, although guns, cars, and money figure as recurring references.
What Gioia does not say is that this new attitude, like the romantic cynicism of the blues, almost certainly reflects the plummeting frequency of marriage in America’s black community, where the marriage rate declined from 61 percent in 1960 to 31 percent in 2011. Indeed, he has scarcely anything to say about the underlying causes of this radical shift in tone. Yet it is difficult to imagine a largely loveless music like rap emerging from a culture in which stable marriage was the rule, not the exception.
In the last pages of Love Songs, Gioia asks a question that will have occurred to many of his readers:
So is this the endgame of the love song? Are we seeing the final validation of Darwin’s claim that the drive to procreate plays the tune, and the rest of us just dance to the primal beat?
His reply is more wistful than convincing: “Perhaps. But I’m still not ready to write off romance.” Moreover, it is strangely disconnected from the culture that today’s loveless “love songs” so vividly portray.
It is no coincidence that today’s songs should appeal so strongly not merely to black listeners but to the younger public at large. The millennial generation, after all, has grown up in the aftermath of the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. In 1935, the U.S. divorce rate was 17 percent. In 1985, it was 50 percent. Today it is declining—but so, too, is the marriage rate, for whites as well as blacks. Millennials of all races live in an increasingly post-marital world in which it is taken for granted that men and women will “hook up” without any pretense of intimacy. Though polling suggests that their attitudes toward sex are more conservative than their behavior would indicate, they still appear to view marriage not as a sacrament into which one enters with the reasonable expectation of permanency but as an arrangement subject to dissolution at the whim of either party. And while college-educated millennials who marry take a relatively conventional view of how best to rear the children of their union, this view is no longer widely shared further down the socioeconomic ladder, where single parenting is the new norm.
On occasion, as in “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” Beyoncé’s hugely popular 2008 song addressed to a man who refuses to marry his lover, postmodern songwriters are prepared to go so far as to suggest that something is wrong with a culture in which men refuse to commit to marriage: Cried my tears/For three good years/You can’t be mad at me/’Cause if you liked it/Then you should have put a ring on it. But in such a culture, it is highly unlikely that the romantic love songs of which Ted Gioia writes will ever again attain anything remotely approaching the cultural primacy that they long occupied. One cannot make art about that which one cannot imagine, and now that nearly 70 percent of all children born to high school–only graduates grow up in single-parent families, it is improbable that the children of those families would feel inspired to sing songs that take an idealistic view of love. In much of America, love and marriage are a dream, not a reality, and our popular music will surely reflect that fateful transformation for a long time to come.
1 Oxford, 336 pages