Our love songs say a lot about where we are as a culture.
Over at Catholic Digest I wrote “Only the Church Believes What the Love Songs Say,” which argues that our most enduring pop paeans to love speak to what the Church says about love.
The top-selling love songs want a love that lasts till death—like Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’s “Endless Love.” They know love is expressed in a child—like Bryan Adams’ declaration that “when you can see your unborn children in her eyes, you know you really love a woman.” They want love to be exclusive—like the Turtles’ declaration that “I can’t see me loving nobody but you for all my life.”
So it was with an eye to the meaning of love that I watched the Grammys this year. And I found … a dark, wounded love.
The nominees for best song were all about love relationships — “Take Me to Church” by Hozier, “Chandelier” by Sia, “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift and (the winner) “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith — and they all suggest that our culture is in a very broken place in 2015.
Take Me to Church
I already wrote about the anti-Catholic language in “Take Me To Church,” but the song throughout is not only about the Catholic Church — it is about the distance between love’s ideal and its reality.
The song works by comparing the betrayal the singer feels at the hands of the Church with the disenchantment he feels after a lost love.
In Sting’s 1993 song “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” the singer admits he has lost his faith in science, progress, politics and religion. But if he loses his faith in his lover, he says, he would be done for. “Take Me to Church” is a description of how you feel once you’re done for. The narrator has lost his faith in the spiritual structures of love; now he is losing his faith in the personal ones.
It is a very sad song; first because it attacks the hope represented by the Church and second because it attacks personal hope.
This song by Sia, apart from bringing out the interpretive dancer in Kristen Wiig, expresses a more common disillusionment with love.
“Party girls don’t get hurt,” she starts, ironically, and identifies herself as the one on the other end of the phone if you follow the instructions: “for a good time call …”
The party lifestyle that she is enjoying is like swinging from a chandelier, with all that implies: wild abandon, fancy adornment and shiny lights. But there’s a big “but” …
But when the “Sun is up, I’m a mess / Gotta get out now, gotta run from this / Here comes the shame, here comes the shame.”
The song is a kind of miniature Great Gatsby, a parable about how the party life is brilliant and beautiful — and lonely and destructive.
Shake It Off
Taylor Swift is capable of writing great, insightful love songs. “Shake It Off” is not one of them.
The song struggles not with a beloved but with the haters who say that Taylor goes “on too many dates” but “can’t make them stay.”
Her answer, of course, is to shake it all off – which is not a bad plan.
But the rest of the album makes it sound like Taylor Swift is absolutely incapable of shaking it off. She says she is looking for a place she and her love can hide from the “vultures circling” and “dark clouds.” She can’t shake them off. Nor can she shake off the worry that she is “a nightmare dressed like a daydream.”
When someone declares “You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore” — you know for a fact that this is not a person who shakes things off, and when she sings that “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes” you know that, despite her protestations, she is singing about wounded love.
But Meghan Trainor sounds like she might truly be the breezy person Taylor wants to be.
All About the Bass
There are so many good things about the Meghan Trainor song that it’s hard to call it a “wounded love” song at all.
There is the positive body image: “My momma she told me don’t worry about your size.”
There is the attack on the culture of marketing: “I see the magazines working that Photoshop. We know that [stuff] ain’t real.”
And most of all there is the impossibly catchy beat and tune, which I have heard sung by a 3-year-old in home-school families that owns no TV.
But, ultimately, the song reduces the end-goal of love to the physical. Its ultimate message about love is “boys like a little more booty to hold at night.”
Hozier and Sia have just reminded us that this approach is a dead-end. Sam Smith agrees, with a sad difference.
Stay With Me
Which brings us to the winner of the Grammy for best song, Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” a heartbreaking anthem to wounded love.
The song very powerfully expresses all of the emotions of the others. The disappointment that love doesn’t “go to plan” from “Take Me to Church,” the inadequacy of the “one night stand” from “Chandelier” and the futile desire to be less “emotional”; to be able to “Shake It Off.”
“Oh, won’t you stay with me? / ’Cause you’re all I need,” sounds like a nice, clichéd pop line, but then comes: “This ain’t love, it’s clear to see / But darling, stay with me.”
He has given up on love, and wants to go on anyway: “Deep down I know this never works / But you can lay with me so it doesn’t hurt.”
Of all the wounded love songs, this sounds the most damaged. Has the singer really reached a place of cynicism where love is a fiction that no longer matters? Or is this really just a cry from a human heart for real, unconditional love, despite human weakness?
Which brings me back to the great love songs of all time and what they say about real love. Real love rejoices in the beloved, commits to the beloved, and creates with the beloved.
False love wounds us; real love heals.