the power of the love song

Music can move us as much as an “I love you”. Sam Wolfson investigates the almighty power of the love song, from Amy Winehouse to Carly Simon and Karen O...

by Sam Wolfson
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Oct 29 2014, 2:00pm

A pretty, working-class Russian Jew is drinking in a run-down bar in Camden when she sees a boy. He's posh, but he hides it well, behind tattoos and bad teeth. They kiss. She gets his name tattooed on her neck, and a few months later again under her left breast. They fight when they're drunk. "If he says one thing I don't like then I'll chin him," she says. Sometimes they are seen covered in bruises, not the fun kind. He turns out to be a bit of rough: fights, petty crime, heroin. They're always drunk. When they can't get high, they self-harm together - to ease the pain of withdrawal, he says. Her parents disapprove. They break up. He goes to prison. In the heartbreak of losing her man, she starts to write songs, not jazz like she used to, but noir melodrama: love songs. She writes about what it feels like after the break-up - drinking, depression. "Over futile odds/ And laughed at by the gods/ And now the final frame/ Love is a losing game..." Her lyrics are studied as part of the poetry syllabus at Cambridge University. "I wrote the whole album about him, really," she says later, after awards and money. "We went our little separate ways, but then realised that we loved each other. Life's too short." 

They get back together. He goes back to prison. Then one day she gets drunk and keeps drinking and keeps drinking until she dies. He's taken from his cell to be told by a prison guard. Then he's sent back and placed on suicide watch. 

Amy Winehouse's award-winning album, Back To Black, wasn't an album about a relationship, it was a relationship. The record, as much as anything else, created a tortured romanticism around a co-dependent and broken love. As much those songs were about the heartbreak of the past, they were also hopeless auguries. In the Back To Black video, Winehouse mourns over a grave that reads, "RIP the Heart of Amy Winehouse". After her death, the scene was edited out.

Every relationship has a song - 'our song' - the song we fall in love to, the song that keeps us together, the first song we play at our wedding. We fuck to music, those rhythms become our rhythms.

There are love songs that we sing along to in the back of a cab at 3 a.m., reclining in a beery haze as Magic FM wafts over us, arm in arm with our about-to-be-more-than-just-good-friends. There are love songs we mope around to when we get dumped, their saccharine sappy lyrics suddenly making us tear up in Costa Coffee.

But sometimes love songs do their own bidding - they are not just an outpouring of feeling but a living part of a relationship; they are not just about a break-up, but the cause of one. They can be a way of getting someone back, of telling someone something they don't want to hear. They can be an apology, a plea, a vow. 

Pop songs are a type of encryption, a perfect vehicle for a hidden message - more secure than iCloud, more bombastic than proposing on the Jumbotron - a way to scream from the rooftops and whisper sweet nothings at the same time. Almost every pop song is really two songs. There's the one you hear on the radio, in your car, the one that trades in generalisations - "Let's stay together", "My heart will go on" "Never mind, I'll find someone like you". Then there's the other song, the one aimed precisely at a target you don't know about. Obscure sounding lyrics to us make perfect sense to at least two people: the one who wrote them and the person they wrote them about.

Take one of the most famous love songs of all time: Roberta Flack's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. When she sings it, it sounds like the most pure outpouring of love in the world. "I thought the sun rose in your eyes/ And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave." What could be more wholesome than love at first sight? But when the song was written, some fifteen years earlier, before Flack's version was released, the intention was quite different. It was penned by Ewan MacColl, the left-wing British folk singer, when he was married to his second wife, the dancer Jean Newlove, with whom he had two children, Kirsty and Hamish. One night in London, MacColl went to see the 21-year-old folk singer Peggy Seeger. The pair immediately fell in love, but as MacColl was still married, he was often unable to see her and sometimes had to make do with sending her tapes in the post. One song he wrote for her began, "The first time ever I saw your face," - not a pure ode to beauty but the illicit yearning of a father and husband for a younger woman.

MacColl eventually divorced Newlove and married Seeger. He made plenty of money from the song as it became popularised by others, but he always hated the cover versions. He kept them all on a shelf in his record collection which he called "The Chamber of Horrors". MacColl never heard the most poignant version of the song. It was recorded in 1990, months after he died, by Seeger herself, for a BBC documentary about his life. In the performance, the camera pans round slowly to reveal an elderly, grey Seeger, unrecognisable from the pretty young folk singer they'd shown in archive footage. Her eyes are fiercely clenched and she sings, "The first time ever I lay with you/ I felt your heart so close to mine/ And I knew our joy would fill the earth/ And last till the end of time, my love." The song is one of the most covered in history - by everyone from Elvis to Lauryn Hill to Matt Cardle - but in that moment, when Seeger is singing it, you can see that it held only the secret of their relationship.

Of course, for the rest of us, not in on a love song's mysteries, this can be infuriating. Secrets are made to be broken, and ever since there have been love songs there have been those trying to decode them. Two huge websites, Rap Genius and SongFacts, are dedicated to deciphering the references in songs, using a team of hundreds of thousands of contributors. In 2012, Vulture devoted an article to guessing who each song on the Taylor Swift album was about, using supposed clues Taylor left in the lyrics. For example, the song The Last Time includes the lyric, "L.A. on your break..." 

So Vulture breaks it down: "Who takes breaks? Actors take breaks from movies (Jake Gyllenhaal, Taylor Lautner); musicians take breaks from tours or recording (John Mayer); high-schoolers take breaks from Deerfield. But since L.A. does not really seem like a Kennedy vacation spot, this one goes in the Gyllenhaal column because of the protracted break-up references." Bulletproof reasoning.

It's not only songwriters who can create new significance from love songs. We all do it. Music plays an uncomfortably close role in our relationships. There's no other art form we let intrude so closely into our lives.

But perhaps the greatest, and most deeply ironic, example of song sleuthing is Carly Simon's 1972 classic, You're So Vain. The song's central conceit, that Carly is singing about someone so full of themselves they probably think she's singing about them, hasn't stopped people desperately trying to find out who the song is about for over 40 years. More than one man has claimed that the song is about them, seemingly oblivious to the point Simon was trying to make. Over the years desperate interviewers have forced Simon into revealing letters of the name of the person the song is about (A, E and R have been mentioned so far), with many more playing the song backwards for clues. Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, James Taylor, David Bowie, Cat Stevens and David Geffen have all been cited as the subject of the song. Eventually, in August 2003, Simon agreed to reveal the name of the song's subject to the highest bidder, on the condition that they did not reveal the name to anyone else. A man called Dick Ebersol, the then president of NBC Sports, won the auction with a bid of $50,000. He was given a private performance of the song, at the end of which Simon whispered the name in his ear.

It's not only songwriters who can create new significance from love songs. We all do it. Music plays an uncomfortably close role in our relationships. There's no other art form we let intrude so closely into our lives. It's expected that every relationship has a song, the one that kept them together, the one that becomes the "first song" at a wedding - "our song". We fuck to music; those rhythms become our rhythms.

As with most things in life, Bobby Valentino puts it best. "A lot of times men don't really know how to tell their woman, 'Baby, I love you', or they don't know how to tell their woman sweet things," he said once in an interview with DJ Booth. "I make my music 'cause I'm a real dude, and I make it from a male perspective, so if you don't know how to say these things to your loved one, you can pop in a Bobby V CD and then bim-bam-bim, it's gonna tell your significant other what you wanna tell them, and you ain't even gotta say nothing."

My friend proposed to his girlfriend while they were watching Brian Wilson at Glastonbury. It was the muddiest year, foul weather all weekend. But as Wilson came on, the heavens suddenly parted and a fierce sun shone down. He says he just knew at that moment that he had to do it, and only partially blames a weekend of heavy drug-taking.

We give love songs their own secret meaning. Like the people who wrote them, we ascribe the personal to the general, and once we do, that's it, they can make us smile or cry in an instant. 

Another friend once told me that she had been dumped by text message. The guy wrote, "I don't want to hurt you, but I need to breathe. How do I say that I need to move on? You know we're heading separate ways. I feel like I'm too close to love you." Which sounded kind of poetic, until she realised they were the lyrics of Alex Clare's mid-00s song Too Close. Vom.

In those moments we give love songs their own secret meaning. Like the people who wrote them, we ascribe the personal to the general, and once we do, that's it, they can make us smile or cry in an instant. Love songs scare us so deeply; those associations never die. But what about when you want them to? When you write a song for a loved one that kills you to hear and then you have to hear it played over and over again, for hours in a single day? 

The coolest girl in New York sits in her apartment crying. She doesn't want her boyfriend to go. He's also cool. He has unruly facial hair and he's in a band, who are about to go on tour again. She knows what that's like - fans, girls, everyone telling you they love you. She can't bear it and she can't bear him going. All she can say is, "don't leave". 

She's called Karen, he's called Angus. She's in a loud screechy punk band. They don't do love songs. But she writes one anyway. She pleads with him, "Wait, they don't love you like I love you/ Wait, they don't love you like I love you." She calls the song Maps, and people wonder why. Is it about distance, tracing someone with your finger across a globe when you should be able to touch them? But he understands; she tells him. It's a message. Maps: My Angus Please Stay. Afterwards, the song becomes a single and she has to make a video. She invites Angus to the shoot - he's late. An hour passes. Then two. Then three. "I didn't think he was even going to come and this was the song that was written for him. He eventually showed up and I got myself in a real emotional state," she says in an interview with NME later. She'd been at the shoot all day, listening to her own pained voice played back, over and over and over again.

When you watch the video now, you can see that she's only just holding it together. Right from the start, her eyes are glossy and volatile, a puddle of teardrops forming. By the last verse, she can't control it. She looks down the lens and gulps hard as tears silently roll down her cheeks. In that brief moment, the song's private plea becomes a public one - her emotions hacked, the secret revealed.

@samwolfson

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Text Sam Wolfson