Pop Love Songs
Preface: What is love, its pains and pleasures?
Ch. 1. Conceptions of Love: the eternal debate
Ch. 2 Emotion Languages: love, pride, anger, grief, fear, and shame
Ch. 3. Top 40 songs 1930-2000: types of “love.”
Ch. 4. Curtailment of Feeling in Top40 songs
Ch. 5. Defining Genuine Love.
Ch. 6. What Emotion is the Shadow of Love?
Ch. 7. Conclusion: discovering the world of emotions
This book explores two closely related questions about emotions in pop songs.
The first: how do these lyrics define love? That’s Amore (1953) provides
one kind of example: “When the moon hits your eye like a big-a pizza in the sky,
that’s amore.” This lyric is probably the champion of goofyness, but it
appears that most other pop lyrics also don’t provide realistic definitions.
The meaning of love has been hotly debated by scholars for thousands of years,
and continues to be, as discussed in Chapter 1. One of the many divisive issues
concerns whether love is ineffable, a mystery, the less talked about, the
better. The “big-a pizza” lyric contributes to maintaining the mystery, since it
reveals next to the nothing about the look and feel of the actual emotion of
On another side of the debate there has been a call for realistic descriptions.
This book proposes that since most pop songs help preserve the mystery, we also
need realistic approaches if we are to understand the meaning of these songs,
much less real love itself. The first chapter introduces the longtime debate on
the meaning of love, and the fifth chapter describes and illustrates my own
provisional definitions of both romantic and non-erotic (family) love.
The second question: What are the pleasures and pains of love? A French folk
song is eloquent on this topic:
The joys of love
Are but a moment long
The pain of love endures
A whole life long. (Plaisir d'Amour)
This lyric is blunt to the point of despair: the pleasures of love are brief,
the pains are life-long. Although perhaps overstating the case, the implication
that love is a mixture of pleasure and pain counters the tendency in pop songs
toward idealization and fantasy. This lyric doesn’t quite involve another aspect
of the question, however: the intensity of the pleasures and pains. Pop songs
speak to both aspects in loud voices. In particular they suggest an answer to
the intensity question: most lyrics about the earliest stages of love suggest
that the pleasures are virtually infinite. But songs about the later stages,
especially those about heartbreak, the loss of love, intimate that the pain is
not only of long duration, but also intense, sometimes to the point that it
Understanding how pop songs portray the meaning of love and its pains and
pleasures turns out to be more complex than one would first think. What we
understand depends on how we define love and other emotions, not a simple task.
In some ways, the two questions asked here are just different sides of the same
coin. The pains and pleasures of love that we identify depend largely on how we
define love and the emotions that are found to usually accompany it.
Pop songs overwhelmingly define love very broadly and loosely. The big-a pizza
lyric is only an extreme instance of this practice. For one thing, most include
“falling in love,” even with a person that one has only seen at a distance. This
kind of “love” brings up the question of whether one can love a person one
doesn’t know. In the English language, at least, one can even love an inanimate
object: “I love red wine, old farmhouses, etc.” In English, love is cheap, at
least cheaper than in other languages.
Pop love songs also take other liberties. For example, they take the intensity
of the pain of heartbreak as a measure of love: the more intense and longer
lasting the pain of loss, the greater the love. As will be suggested below,
there are alternative possibilities. Love in pop
song lyrics can also mean many different kinds of feeling, not only affection
and sexual desire, but also infatuation and sexual desire without affection. It
is can also mean loving someone that you don’t even like. In order to get a
better understanding of romance as it is described in pop songs, and perhaps as
it is lived in real life, a more exact definition of love may be needed.
The second question that drives this book: what other emotions besides love can
be identified in pop lyrics? This book considers
the language of emotion used in pop love songs in the United States over a
period of seventy-five years (1930-2004). In some ways the language of emotion
is fairly transparent, but in other ways it is shockingly ambiguous and unclear.
One problem that has been referred to above is the extremely broad meaning of
love as it is described in lyrics. Another problem might be called the enigma of
the missing emotions. What emotions frequently represented in Top40 love lyrics
are obvious, and what emotions are only hinted at? This issue is especially
germane to pop songs about heartbreak.
lyrics have long been the single largest category of pop love songs. At least
for the period 1930-1000, 25 percent of the Top40 concern the pain of losing
one’s beloved. Songs about requited love, on the one hand, and infatuation, on
the other, also appear repeatedly, but much less frequently than heartbreak;
each of these other topics involves less than ten percent of the Top40. Finally,
there is always a miscellaneous group that includes many kinds of romantic
issues, such as mere sexual attraction. Although the content of the
miscellaneous category of Top40 love lyrics has changed somewhat over the last
75 years, the proportion has remained the same, at about 17% of the Top40.
Emotions that accompany love
Here are some representative heartbreak lyrics in
which the representation of emotions other than love is fairly transparent.
They all involve an extreme situation, loss of the loved one, usually
because of rejection. Less extreme situations, such as those that don’t involve
complete loss and/or rejection, are seldom considered. Emotional pain within
requited love, for example, is little referred to. Many heartbreak songs are
straightforwardly about the kind of complete and dramatic loss that gives rise
to intense grief.
Baby, I'm on my knees praying. God help me please,
Bring my baby back, right back to me.
If lovin you was right then I don't wanna go wrong
So I drown myself with tears,
Sittin' here, singin' another sad love song (Lately 1998)
As is the case with most heartbreak lyrics, this one doesn’t actually mention
grief, the emotion of loss. Yet the reference is clear because of the prominence
of tears and sadness, as in this song also:
When I can't sleep at night
Without holding you tight
Girl, each time I try I just break down and cry
Pain in my head
Oh, I'd rather be dead… (End of the Road 1992)
The last line, particularly, is of interest, because like many heartbreak
lyrics, it implies that the pain of loss is near to being unbearable. As
discussed above, this unending battle with pain is usually assumed to register
the depth of love. Other possible interpretations are that it might only imply
the inability to work through the pain of loss in order to get on with one’s
life, or some combination of the two.
The continuing, overwhelming presence of the pain of loss and rejection is
emphasized in the following lyric. The ironic and somewhat playful tone is
unusual for a heartbreak lyric.
Hope life's been good to you
since you've been gone
I'm doin' fine now-I've finally moved on
It's not so bad-I'm not that sad
I'm not surprised just how well I survived
I'm over the worst, and I feel so alive
I can't complain-I'm free again
And it only hurts when I'm breathing
My heart only breaks when it's beating
My dreams only die when I'm dreaming
Don't think I'm lyin' 'round cryin' at night
There's no need to worry, I'm really all right
I've never looked back-as a matter of fact (It
Only Hurts When I'm Breathing, 2004)
This lyric also refers, playfully and therefore
indirectly, to another prominent theme in heartbreak lyrics, what I call the
curtailment of feeling (Chapter 4). In this particular lyric, curtailment is
only hinted at through irony. As will be noted in Chapter 4, the curtailment of
feeling in Top40 lyrics was generalized and abstract between 1930 and 1958.
After 1958, it became detailed and intense.
This is another lyric that focuses on continuous pain
by a detailed review of the events of a whole day, from awaking in the morning
to sleep at night (abbreviated):
…Brush my teeth and put the cap back on
I know you hate it when I leave the light on
I pick a book up. Turn the sheets down.
Take a deep breath and a good look around
Put on my pj's and hot into bed
I'm half alive but I feel mostly dead
I try and tell myself it'll be all right
I just shouldn't think anymore tonight
Dreams last so long
Even after you're gone
I know you love me
And soon you will see
You were meant for me
And I was meant for you (You Were Meant for Me, 1996)
These two lyrics are unusually concrete in describing
the details of constant pain. The overall theme of the songs is mourning the
loss of a lover. As indicated by the line “I'm half alive but I feel mostly
dead,” the pain of loss is represented as intense to the point of being
A second type of heartbreak lyric also implies grief, but includes anger as
well, even though the anger is represented somewhat indirectly:
If you had just one tear rollin' down your cheek
Maybe I could cope
Maybe I’d get some sleep
If I had just one moment at your expense
Maybe all my misery would be well spent
Could you cry a little
Lie just a little
Pretend that you’re feeling a little more pain (Cry, 2002)
The desire for revenge, wanting the lost lover to feel pain also, is a
manifestation of anger. The hints that the lover lies and only pretends to care
is another indication of blame and anger.
Anger and revenge are also implied in this lyric:
I went out driving trying to clear my head
I tried to sweep out all the ruins that my emotions left
I guess I'm feeling just a little tired of this…
Someday I'm gonna run across your mind
Don't worry, I'll be fine
I'm gonna be alright
While you're sleeping with your pride
Wishing I could hold you tight
I'll be over you and on with my life (You'll Think Of Me, 2002)
The hint of revenge is muffled: “Someday I'm gonna run across your mind…
While you're sleeping with your pride.” The implication seems to be that the lost lover may someday feel the pain of loss, no matter how faintly, that the singer is feeling.
Many heartbreak songs imply anger through sarcasm. An obvious example is the Bob Dylan classic Don’t Think Twice:
…Ain’t saying you treated me unkind.
Could have been better but I don’t mind.
Let’s just say you wasted my precious time.
But don’t think twice its alright.
The sarcasm of this lyric implies not only anger, but also, like It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing, mentioned above, curtailment of feeling, since the anger is expressed indirectly through sarcasm. Although the majority of Top40 love lyrics refer to grief alone, many also include anger.
In addition to grief and anger, heartbreak lyrics often imply other emotions as
well. The following Beatles heartbreak lyric doesn’t show the slightest hint of
grief or anger.
Here I stand head in hand
Turn my face to the wall
If she's gone I can't go on
Feeling two foot small
Everywhere people stare
each and every day
I can see them laugh at me
And I hear them say
Hey, you've got to hide your love away… (You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away 1968)
The following lyric seems similar, even though it actually mentions the name of
an emotion (pride). It also refers in the first line, casually and bye the bye
to the habit of curtailment (hiding) of feeling, which will be discussed further
I've never been the kind to ever let my feelings show
And I thought that bein' strong meant never losin' your self-control
But I'm just drunk enough to let go of my pain
To hell with my pride, let it fall like rain
From my eyes
Tonight I wanna cry… ( Tonight I Wanna Cry, 2004)
The following lyric implies the emotion of grief (“crying inside”), but also
refers to a highly abstract and generalized feeling (“pain”). It is quite
explicit and raw, however, about curtailment:
I pretended I'm glad you went away
These four walls closin' more every day
And I'm dying inside
And nobody knows it but me
Like a clown I put on a show
The pain is real even if nobody knows
Now I'm cryin' inside
And nobody knows it but me (Nobody Knows 1996).
The following lyric also refers to grief (sad, tears) but it also introduces
another highly abstract emotion word, “hurt:”
…But don't let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
Cos really I'm sad, Oh I'm sadder than sad
Well I'm hurt and I want you so bad
Like a clown I appear to be glad ooh yeah…(Tears of a Clown 1968)
The only direct indications of emotion are to grief (“crying inside”, sad and
sadness). They are used, however, to imply not only grief but the pain of
rejection. What is the emotion of rejection? It is pictured as doubly painful,
since, like many heartbreak lyrics, it implies that rejection is exquisitely
painful in itself and also requires hiding it from others, introducing a second
kind of pain.
Although this kind of emotional pain is quite common in heartbreak lyrics, most
of those I have asked are unable to provide a specific name for it. It is
clearly distinct from the three emotions that have been mentioned so far, love,
grief and anger. It is obviously not joy or pride. Could it be fear or shame? No
fair using the term hurt because it includes many kinds of emotional pain. What
would you call it? Don’t worry if you can’t identify it, the problem will be
discussed in Chapter 6, about the emotion that is the shadow of love.
Some new issues about arise from the two problems discussed above. The first
is, why is that there is so little agreement about defining love? The second,
how should we name the emotion of rejection? To prepare to discuss these
questions, the second chapter considers the problem of naming emotions, not just
in song lyrics, but in the English language in general. Because of this link,
the conclusions drawn from identifying emotions in pop song lyrics may have
implications for the world of real emotions in which we live.
The last chapter takes up this theme. For sake of discussion, suppose we assume
that the conclusions drawn about emotions in pop songs are applicable to the
real world. What are the implications for interpersonal and societal
relationships at large? In particular, can we identify the actual emotions
underlying both individual love and heartbreak, and collective love and
heartbreak, as a first step toward understanding and resolution?
*Erica Kraschinsky and Byron Miller helped with parts of the study on which this
book is based.
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