Loving Love Songs

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Roy Shuker, professor of popular music studies at Victoria University of Wellington, offers a wonderfully succinct explanation of “pop”: “[It] is defined by its general accessibility, its commercial orientation, an emphasis on memorable hooks or choruses, and a lyrical preoccupation with romantic love as a theme.” The last point should not be overlooked. A quick glance at popular song titles exposes a massively disproportionate number of love songs. This is so of ragtime, swing, rhythm and blues, country, disco and everything in between. Cross-culturally we find romance dominating song catalogues of the South Pacific, the Far East, the European continent and seemingly everywhere else.

The inescapable theme of romance on the radio amounts to a kind of sentimental ideology. As musical genius and world-class cynic Frank Zappa quipped, “Romantic love songs are a sham that perpetuate a lie on unsuspecting young kids. I think one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States is that people have been raised on love lyrics.” Zappa’s point is legitimate: these songs are unrealistic and overdone. Yet our rate of consumption suggests that most people desire them on a deep and basic level.

The perennial popularity of these songs must owe to something. Perhaps their ubiquity simply reflects the universal human longing for romantic partnership. It could also be that these songs articulate something to strive for, especially as a relationship ebbs and flows. Or maybe there is a biological reason, since our prehistoric ancestors evidently first used song in mating rituals. Whatever the source of their appeal, Shuker’s observation holds true: like all popular music, love songs are accessible and standardized.

This two-part character is even present in romantic songs of the ancient world. A good example is Psalm 45, the sole love song in the Psalter. It was composed for royal weddings and is stamped with the mark of convention, both lyrically and musically.

Beauty was associated with royalty in ancient Israel, a norm conveyed in the verse, “You are fairer than all men; your speech is endowed with grace . . .” (v. 3). In ancient Near Eastern cultures, wives—including queens and princess brides—were expected to leave their families, places of origin and religions of birth. That custom is reiterated thus: “forget your people and your father’s house, and let the king be aroused by your beauty; since he is your lord, bow to him” (vv. 11-12). The psalm also includes a perfectly generic description of the processional: “The royal princess, her dress embroidered with golden mountings, is led to the king, her maidens in her train, her companions, are presented to you” (vv. 14-15).

The psalm’s music was similarly standard. Its heading contains the designation al shoshanim, which many scholars agree specifies a tune to which the text was sung. Shoshanim is commonly translated “lilies” and is a stock erotic metaphor in the Song of Songs. In the context of Psalm 45, it is most likely the title of a popular love song, which we can imagine was as sugary to the ears of Israel as our love songs are to us.

It is logical to predict that audiences will lose interest in a subject that is rehashed, reshaped and restated again and again. Over time, one might assume, the topic will collapse under the weight of its popularity. Human nature is such that we constantly crave variety, and we are keenly aware when a theme or idea has run its course. But instead of meeting this fate, love songs constantly proliferate in every age and musical idiom. These songs reveal a fascinating truth about ourselves: even as we admit that they are, for the most part, mawkish and excessive, we cannot get enough of them. They constitute proof of sociologist Bryan S. Turner’s point: “Human beings are primarily sentimental creatures, not rational philosophers.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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