Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Silly Love Songs

I am sure it will come as no surprise to anyone for me to say that the vast majority of popular songs are love songs. And although this fact may surprise no one at all--indeed, may be a painfully banal observation--no one, to my knowledge, discusses it. Indeed, it is one of those "obvious" facts of our daily lives that is rarely, if ever, discussed. I'm sure we've heard it said a thousand times, "it is a fundamental desire for human beings to love and to want to be loved," but the insight is no more startling or profound or meaningful, as a simple declarative sentence, than "the sky is blue." For scholars who approach popular music from a sociologist's perspective, such as Simon Frith, the fact that the bulk of popular songs are love songs "is more than an interesting statistic; it is a centrally important aspect of how pop music is used" ("Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music," in Music and Society, Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 141). For Simon Frith, it is one of the social functions of popular music "to give us a way of managing the relationship between our public and private emotional lives." Why are love songs so important to us? Frith asks.

Because people need them to give shape and voice to emotions that otherwise cannot be expressed without embarrassment or incoherence. Love songs are a way of giving emotional intensity to the sorts of intimate things we say to each other (and to ourselves) in words that are, in themselves, quite flat. It is a peculiarity of everyday language that our most fraught and revealing declarations of feeling have to use phrases--'I love/hate you', 'Help me!', 'I'm angry/scared'--which are boring and banal; and so our culture has a supply of a million pop songs, which say these things for us in numerous interesting and involving ways. (141)

There's another way to explain why our culture has a million songs about love, though, and it has been expressed by a prominent musician and songwriter, jazz sage Mose Allison. During an interview with Joel Dorn (cited in the liner notes to Allison Wonderland: The Mose Allison Anthology, Atlantic, 1994) Allison said this, which I hope we'll ponder the next time we hear one of those "silly" love songs on the radio:

A prominent white educator was studying the culture of the Hopi, a desert-dwelling Native American tribe of the Southwest. He found it strange that almost all Hopi music was about water and asked one of the musicians why. He explained that so much of their music was about water because that was what they had the least of. And then he told the white man, "Most of your music is about love."

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