Love Me Do
On June 25, 1967, a special program called Our World was aired as the first worldwide television satellite broadcast; it was watched by approximately 400 million people. There were 24 participating countries, 14 of which contributed segments to the program. The UK’s contribution consisted a live “peek” into a “recording session” by the Beatles who were at their creative peak at the time, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band having been released only 3 weeks earlier.
The whole thing seems rather disingenuous now: The “coincidence” that the cameras happened to be there precisely when the Beatles recorded a perfect take of the featured song “All You Need Is Love”; the Fab Four were perfectly decked out in their finest psychedelic threads; balloons and flowers covered the studio; Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon, and other British pop stars sat around on the floor. But it was a defining moment in history, both in terms of global politics and pop music.
As the Western world (South America and Africa were represented by Mexico and Tunisia respectively, Asia by no one) was unified as a global village, the widespread countercultural movement of the late 1960s was crystallized in this moment: Here were its shining luminaries singing a song which gave voice to all of its beliefs in a three-and-a-half minute pop gem. What is interesting is that even though the song is considered by many to be a “hippy anthem,” it also conveys a larger truism of the Western world that has been instilled in us by popular media: All you really do need is Love. Love to survive Life, that is.
You know how the rhetoric goes: Life throws a lot of crap your way and the only way you can get through is with the love of a good [fill in the blank]. Love conquers all. Love is in the air. Love changes everything. Love hits you when you least expect it. Sooner or later love’s gonna getcha. Love lifts you up where you belong.
Then there’s the ironic rhetoric: Love is pain and heartache but we can’t resist it. Love is worth all the hard work. Love stinks. All’s fair in love and war. Love is a battlefield. There are movies about love, books about love, poetry about love and, perhaps most pervasive, songs about love. And most often it’s not about modest little lower case love (though a lot of times it’s about luv), it’s about that grand theme of the ages: Love.
Think about it. What is more glorious than the grand permanence of True Love? What is more heart-warming than the universality of Love the World Over? This is the rhetoric that gets everyone in trouble. These are the themes that have been central to Western culture for millennia and have settled into the art, the media, and the psyches of Western peoples through to the present day. Such themes find perhaps its most perfect fit in that most universal and (hopefully) permanent medium: the pop record.
All other creative media pale before the pop record’s power and ability to resonate. Plus, where better to speak of True Love and its adolescent-like absolutes than the starry eyes and rose-colored glasses of the pop record? The pop song is the ultimate commodification of Love. True Love is universal and permanent; pop is meant to be universal and permanent.
Now one can pretty much say that up until Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” etc.), that most every song that people heard in the Western world was about either Love or “love” (i.e., sex). There were certainly exceptions but the generalization ran true: If you spun it on your portable record player or heard it on the radio or played it on the old piano, it was about love or its corollary, the making of it. Maybe it was about loving your old Mum or the bonny hills of Ireland; they were all love songs and the Love was all wholehearted.
Even in pre-20th century America and Europe, where the Love song as we know it today was born and has thrived, that was the case. The earliest songs with lyrics — as compared to “classical” music or dance tunes — were either sacred hymns to God or poetic hymns to Love. And though the song structure and language may have changed, there isn’t much difference in the sentiment expressed. Maybe you tell your loved one “Thinking Love, of Thee” in 1878 or “You’re the Top” in 1934 or “Love Me Tender” in 1956 or “I Would Die 4 U” in 1983 or “It’s Gonna Be Me” in 2000. It’s all the same submission to drama and melodrama of undying Love.
Many pop songs walk a line between expressing sentiments regarding Love, the high essence of Man, and “love,” a winking euphemism for sex. In years past, that line was tread more carefully. When Elvis Presley sings “I’m in love, I’m all shook up,” it’s a little more lascivious than Betty Boop singing “I wanna be loved by you and nobody else but you.”
And as the 20th century progressed, so did songwriters’ license. Songs like “Love Me Two Times” by the Doors and “Love to Love You Baby” by Donna Summer aren’t really about taking long walks on the beach. Even pop artists such as Britney Spears release records that are more sexually complex than in decades past, yet they still retain the myth of Love at the root.
Even though Western society has steadily accelerated over the past 50 years, taking intelligence, cognitive aptitude, and cynicism along for the ride, the way we talk about Love has eased back and softened. True Love is no longer the end to strive for; now we seek “healthy” or “normal” relationships. As adolescents mature into adults, so has our Western culture “matured” from seeking a grand absolute in Love to seeking a comfort in a good relationship. As adults, we mature in our musical tastes, moving from the blacks and whites of teen pop and punk to the greys of more complex genres like blues and jazz. But we always have a fondness for the songs of our youth. Afterall, we’re suckers for a catchy tune (ever get a contemporary Top 40 song stuck in your head?). And so we still hold on to that myth of Love retained from our youth.
So this all begs the question, Why are Love and, by extension, love songs so important to us? The answer has two parts: First, Love is important because Western culture says it is; and second, Love is important because it gives us respite from Life.
Love is the prevalent theme in the history of Western culture. It’s a post-modern paradox: Our art and popular culture are focussed on love and relationships, which causes us to think and talk about them all the time, which causes us to create more art and popular culture, which focus on love and relationships, which, etc. So, whether one judges it should be or not, Love is important to us on a material level because that is what the majority of our cultural discourse is about.
In addition, that Love gives us respite from the hardships of Life is embedded in the rhetoric of Love. Life throws a lot of difficulty our way, particularly these days, whether financial, social, physical, mental, sexual, etc. The reality of Love’s power to alleviate Life’s trials is the reason the rhetoric and cliches exist. A warm embrace, the company of friends, even the satisfying tones of a favorite record, all provide shelter, however brief. And ideally, they give us strength to carry on for another hour or day or year. All you need is love.
So if we grant that Love is one of the most important ideals and themes in Western culture, one begins to realize the importance of the love song. All of the ceremonies of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam involve glorifying God in song, making a humble attempt to put into words and choral arrangements some measure of the Divine’s importance in our lives. Well then, what are love songs but similar exaltations?
Now that may seem more metaphor than *N Sync or Neil Diamond songs can hold. But every exaltation doesn’t have to be full of orchestral flourishes and vocal grandeur, just as ever prayer doesn’t have to be in full submissive posture on the floor of the Vatican or in Mecca.
Another cliche that holds truth is that it’s the little things in Love that get us through: having coffee in the same café every Sunday; the way the mist rises from a stream; a wrinkle in a forehead; a subtle combination of musical notes. Love songs exalt as many types of love as there are in the world. There’s surely enough room for your kind of love song. So let’s have no more talk of “guilty pleasures” or “kitsch” or nervously admitting a fondness for the Spice Girls or the Monkees. Embrace and admit what’s really important to you. She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.