Monday, May 18, 2015

More About Love Songs

A few months ago I put up a post titled "Love Songs" that was about a particularly absurd piece of pseudo-musicology that attempted to rewrite music history so that it was more politically correct. I just ran across a much more interesting article by Terry Teachout reviewing a new book by Ted Gioia about love songs. The piece is called "Love Songs, RIP." Ted Gioia describes the love song in this way:
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.
Which might be true, though I would love to examine some specific examples. I'm not sure how much Schubert's Winterreise challenged authoritarian rule and patriarchal institutions, though I suppose the Stones' "Brown Sugar" might have. But Terry makes a very interesting point regarding the recent history of the love song:
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.
Terry ends his review with a reflection about the sociology of the love song that Ted Gioia does not reach:
 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.
Hmm, lots to wonder about there. My first thought is that all love songs are a vector into the ideal, using imagination to create a virtual world of romance. And yes, even the sad and depressing ones, about failed love. Why do we listen to those? Because they offer catharsis. The imagined pains help us to endure our real ones. Terry's take seems to be completely empty of any sense of what art actually does: create imagined worlds that are interestingly different from our real ones. Most of the people who listen to rap and hip-hop are not millionaires dripping with bling, surrounded by willing women wearing very tight clothing. But that's the whole point, isn't it? And most of the people listening to the idealized love songs of the 20s to the 50s were probably not in ideal romantic relationships either. Terry misses the contrafactual nature of art. Art is about things that we can only imagine.

Here are a couple of love songs that are a bit out of the ordinary. The first, from the mid-1960s:

The second, from just a few years ago:

At least, I think the second one is a love song. Maybe we need to check the definition!

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