"Alas my love, you do me wrong." This is the first line, as Casey Kasem might say, of the very first song of the pop era. The year was 1530, and everyone in England knew the words, if only by edict.
The words they knew, the tune they hummed, to paraphrase Bernie Taupin. "Greensleeves" was a lament by Henry VIII for the hand of Anne Boleyn. Henry wanted Anne. He tried convincing her she needed him.
A public declaration is a good way to twist an arm. An old tale, often told. In the end, it worked, but Anne lost her head.
Fast-forward 400 years. Chauncey Olcott, an early Tin Pan Alley lyricist, echoed Henry, with "My Wild Irish Rose." "Since we've met, faith," he ached, "I've known no repose. She's dearer by far than the world's brightest star." Vaudeville audiences ate it up. Sheet music sales soared.
Circumstances remain the same for Henry and Anne. He wants. Does she need?
At the peak of the Depression, 1930, Dick Powell pines for Ruby Keeler, in the Broadway musical "42nd Street." "A bundle of humanity," sings Powell. "I'm nearly driven to insanity, when she passes by." The descent from Henry is in full swing.
No stretch for a rhyme was too far for Harry Warren. Moon, June, spoon come in many forms. Harsh times or not, Powell sings, "I'm young and healthy, and you've got charms; it would really be a sin not to have you in my arms." His wants plus what he thinks she needs equal bliss.
In 1964, Brian Wilson naively takes the theme into the rock era. He pleads for love. "Little surfer girl ... made my heart come all undone. Do you love me, little surfer girl?" It's an on-line dating site posting.
By comparison, Tim Rice and Elton John are sophisticates. They ask, "Can you feel the love, tonight? It's where we are." It's enough for a wide-eye wanderer. Love's a calm surrender for a restless warrior. He wants. She needs.
It's the route to a fairy tale world. Any wonder it's the love theme of "The Lion King." Listen closely, kiddies.
Pop lyrics are life lessons. This is right. That is wrong. Do this, don't do that. Do it this way, not that way. Here's what you should think about, love, and how you should think about it.
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Simple ideas lurk in pop lyrics. Sometimes, lust is the focus. Examples are rife: "Tonight's the Night," by Rod Stewart; "Young Lust," by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, of "Aerosmith," with Jim Vallance; "Night in My Veins," by Chrissie Hynde, Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.
A double standard is the primary message of these lyrics. A lustful man is okay. Lyrics nudge him to make a move.
A lustful woman is not acceptable. Chrissie Hynde must blame midnight lust on a full moon. Her theme is similar to the movie, "Cat Woman." Lust morphs a woman into an animal. Men, of course, have much to fear from animals and women rock the cradle.
Pop lyrics stress a woman is supposed to be nurturing. "I'll Stand by You," lets Hynde retreat to a more traditional role. "When the night falls on you," she writes with Steinberg and Kelly, "and you don't know what to do; nothing you confess could make me love you less." Milk and honey by a blazing fire. What more could a man ask?
Gerry Coffin and Carole King wondered about the upshot of an urge, fulfilled. They wrote, "Tonight you're mine, completely. You give your love, so sweetly. Tonight, the light of love is in your eyes. But, will you love me tomorrow?" The idea took hold.
Men write most pop lyrics. Women are the audience. Coffin and King broke the mould, for good.
Men buy the beat. Women hear the words. Men joke and women laugh.
What women hear, in music, is what men want them to hear: know your place. Coffin and King forced men to hear the other side. In 1961, "Will You Still Love Me, Tomorrow," became the first number one hit by an "all girl group," in the rock era, as Casey Kasem might say.
In "Uptown Girl," the wants of two are one. Uptown girl has been living, writes Billy Joel, "In her white bread world as long as anyone with hot blood can." Now she needs a downtown man. "That's what I am," sings Joel.
There's a compliance bonus, no different than offered by Henry. "I love an uptown girl," writes Joel. "She'll understand what kind of guy I've been, and then I'll win." The truth will out.
Are there regrets for lust? "I should have known better," write George Michael and Andrew Ridgley, "than to cheat a friend ... I'm never gonna dance again, the way I danced with you. Guilty feet have no rhythm." Is this a life lesson learned or a sales pitch? I want more candy. "We could have made this last forever, but now who's gonna dance with me?" Twelve well-placed bars of sultry e-flat Alto sax brace the soulful message: is lust lost.
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Romantic love is the main theme of pop lyrics. It's what Henry offered Anne. In 1530, a public statement of romantic love was a ploy. In 2012, it's the elixir of social life.
Sobbing pound-shredders tell Montel they want to lose weight, to find love. Some celebrity is giggly in love one week, heart-broken the next. The "Access Hollywood," the current alternative spelling of 22 empty minutes, covers every giggle and crocodile tear. Love's no second hand emotion. It's the only emotion or so it seems.
Karl Marx would giggle over it, too. Mixing love with pop music creates a potent fantasy. It's a prime distraction from the daily grind. Is your pay too low? Do you work too much, needing three jobs for an existence, if not a life? Are the bill collectors knocking on your door? Forget your troubles; fall in love. Love, prescription drugs and rock 'n' roll is a full life. As a pharmaceutical, love eases the pain by masking its source.
"Love," Perry Como sang, "makes the world go around." If you don't have love, you're looking for love. "Strangers waiting," write Steve Perry, Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain, "up and down the boulevard; their shadows searching the night. Living for emotion, hiding, somewhere in the night." Don't stop believing.
Too often, you're looking in all the wrong places. "A singer in a smokey room," observe Perry, Schon and Cain. "The smell of wine and cheap perfume," is everywhere. "For a smile they can share the night."
If you're in love, be careful, a heart is easily broken and hard to fix. "How can you mend a broken heart," write the brothers Gibb. "How, can you stop the rain from falling down? How can you stop the sun from shining? What makes the world go round?" The Brothers Gibb took Perry Como to heart.
Song-told love is a breathless whisper. The briefest whiff of perfume or perspiration ignites the flame. "Tall and tan, and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking. And when she passes, everyone she passes goes ah," write Tom Jobim and Vin de Moraes. The ecstasy makes you sizzle. It's high voltage; feel the buzz. Lyrics can ooze sensuality over lust.
Later, Jim Morrison, of "The Doors," offered his version. "Hello! I love you. Will you tell me your name?" Cruder and more direct than Jobim and Moraes, Morrison echoed their message, men want and women should need.
In 1966, Morrison and Robert Alan Krieger repeat the sentiment in mutli-time hit, "Light My Fire." Inspiring the title is a line by Vladmir Nabokov: "Lolita, light of my life, fire my loins." Plumming the depths.
Song-told love is also whimsical. "Do you believe in magic in a young girl's heart," John Sebastian asked Susan Robinson. Sometimes it's mystical. "If the sky should fall into the sea and the stars fade all around me. All the times that we have known here: I will sing a hymn to love," write Edith Piaf and Marguerite Monnot.
The love of pop lyrics is ever lasting. Love is all you need," argue John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield claim, "Love will keep us together." If you go away, Diane Warren thinks, "Love will lead you back."
Song-told love is an addictive drug. When you're weary, feeling low, love is what you need. It'll soothe you. It's your bridge over troubled water. A pop lyricist rattles a tambourine, peddling CDs.
Pop lyrics are instructional. Fall in love with someone you know. Love outside your ethnic group is tricky. Love is structured, top down, from men to women: alpha male wants beta woman. In other words, women fall in love with up-scale men. Men reach down.
Gay pop is starting to find an audience; no more hiding in the shadows of straight characters. The lessons will be the same. In Western Culture, there are few love options, regardless of preference.
Pop lyrics suggest romantic love is a need. If needs are met, we survive. Air, water and food are needs. Marriage and divorce rates evince love isn't a need; it's what some women and men want.
Compared with a generation ago, fewer people choose to marry, today, and one-in-two marriages end in divorce. A series of affairs may be a trend or the shape of things to come. It matters not: we survive with or without romantic love.
Romantic love is a desire; something we want. "Love is all around," Sonny Curtis told Mary Richards. She didn't find it at WJM-TV. "Rhoda" found love, when she moved back to New York City. She married, and divorced, Joe, on a short-lived sitcom.
Social life pushes the need for romantic love. Far away from family or friends, our hunger for affection, support and comfort grows. We also seek refuge from the stress of crime-ridden streets and face-less neighbourhoods in the comfort of love.
The callous quest for wealth and status sharpens our wants. In 2007, Fred Thompson, an actor seeking the Republican nomination for President, reported his most prized possession was his trophy wife, Jeri. The successful have what passes for love, the wealthy can buy it.
Romantic love is special for its rarity. In times past, survival was a full-time job. Love was for the wealthy, a symbol of success and surplus. When life needs go wanting, love is less vital than food and shelter. Who marries whom and why are different for those who live hand to mouth. Love's a luxury. To show you live the good life, find love.
The luxury of love is most evident in love among celebrities. Nicole tires of Tom. They move on. Fame assures a new romance is around the corner. A bookkeeper may wish to end a bad situation, but relies on a spouse for economic or parenting aide. Tom buys a house in Malibu; Nicole hires an extra nanny. The cost of a divorce can reduce a comfortable life to living on the edge. For Tom and Nicole, the cost is unimportant. There might even be an upside. Juicy rumours and gossip can sell tickets and renew a lagging career.
Pop lyrics aim for the mainstream and take for granted that love lasts. To do otherwise would deny a basic ideal and a fact. A show business adage sums up the theme of song-told love, well: when the image is better than the reality, go with the image.
Write that love lasts. It's what they want to hear. Never mind that it may only last for a time or in the mind.
A top down, alpha male to beta female, image is notable. That a woman needs love and a man wants it, much the way he wants a Porsche, is a dated idea. There may have been a time when it was practical. Whenever that time, it has come and gone. Now, it's out of step with the facts of everyday life.
Oprah and millions of self-made women evince that the idea a woman needs a man to love is a quaint relic of times past. Always better to be loved than not, but a need it's not. As the age of the alpha woman dawns, song-told love clings to the past. Cyndi Lauper captured the new facts of life well. "Some guys," she wrote, "take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world. I want to be the one to walk in the sun. Oh, girls, they just want to have fun."
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Love lost is another major theme of pop lyrics. Men write most pop lyrics. It's no surprise song-told loss focuses on men.
Song-told tales of lost love tend to grieve the inevitable destiny of the alpha male. A man has to do what a man has to do. If it's lonely at the top, so be it.
Harold Arlen wrote, for Frank Sinatra, the prime alpha male, "It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place, 'cept you and me. So set 'em up, Joe. I got a little story, I think you should know. We're drinking, my friend, to the end of a brief episode. Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road." You can almost hear him calling, "next."
Julian Casablancas, of The Strokes, has the same problem, but is more laissez faire. In "Last Night," he writes, "she said: Oh, baby, I feel so down. Oh, it turns me off; when I feel left out." Then he takes the alpha male option. "So, I turned 'round: 'oh, baby, she don't care no more; I know this for sure; I'm walking out the door."
She doesn't want to be ignored is the same as not loving. Love wanes, the man leaves. Never mind a stiff drink to ease the grief; there may be a toke, in the vacant lot, around the corner, but there's no grief. There are only opportunities for alpha males among beta females. Oh baby, watch out, the times are a changing.
Jimmy Buffet goes a step farther. "I don't know the reason, I stayed here all season. Nothin' to show, but this brand new tattoo, but it's a real beauty; a Mexican cutie. How it got here, I haven't a clue." He retreats to a sunny island with a blender of booze, "that helps me hang on." Some people, he says, claim there's a woman to blame. He knows better. Some alpha males aren't.
Pop lyrics suggest women have a different take on lost love. "I had a love, writes Cyndi Lauper with John Turi, "sweeter than you'll know. Oh, I had a lifetime in a moment. He was a boy I loved so tenderly. He could have been, but he walked away." At first, it seems whimsical. Maybe it's a passage from Jane Austin. The implied acceptance percolates to the top, with each reading.
Women, it seems, must resign themselves to lost love. "Once upon a time," writes Jim Steinman for Bonnie Tyler, "I was falling love, but now I'm only falling apart. There's nothing I can do: a total eclipse of the heart." There's also a sense of independence in this lyric, a trait of Steinman lyrics.
Mystical pop lyricists, Edith Piaf and Marguerite Monnot, also reveal a streak of implied independence. "Don't you every worry, dear. And the stars shall fade from the sky. All the times that we have know here, I will sing a hymn to our love. Oh, darling, just for you I sing a hymn to our love." Okay, it's over. I love you now, and probably forever. This isn't going to work. Let's see what tomorrow brings.
Men focus on loss in break-up lyrics. "Don't discard me," writes Bernie Taupin for Elton John, "just because you think I mean you harm. These cuts I have need love to help them heal." How can you let the sun go down on me? Love lost means not winning.
Women focus on what it takes to be in love, for example, letting go. "Saying goodbye is never an easy thing," writes Diane Warren. "But, you never said that you'd stay forever. So, if you must go; well, darlin', I'll set you free." If it's real, love will lead you back. Whimsy, maybe, but love's more than a trophy hunt.
The picture forms. Song-told love is not what it seems. In fantasy lyrics lives subtle images of real life. Men grieve lost love as the price of social leadership. The first cut is the deepest; women take the first loss, hard, and move on. Men repeatedly grieve loves exchanged for social demands, which is one reason they keep marrying the same woman. For women, distress fades, as they're better at coping.
Few men cope as well as do women. A woman without a man is among the happiest all people. She has avoided or rid herself of turmoil. She has self-esteem. She's confident. She's resourceful. She seeks and accepts the support of family or friends. She has options. She can take care of herself. The least happy of all people is a man without a woman, a trophy proclaiming his status and success.
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Not all pop lyrics are about love, lust and loss. "Janie's Got A Gun" focuses on incest, avenged. "Candle In the Wind" concerns media abuse. "Goodbye England's Rose" bemoans the loss of iconic love.
The notion of pop music is elastic. Elton John and the Beatles are pure pop, as are Carole King, Diane Warren, Phil Collins and Jennifer Warnes. Aerosmith rides the genre wave, from pop to rock. Journey is pure pop rock. Tom Jobim and Vin de Moraes wrote pop jazz, for the ages. Dolly Parton, by any measure, is pop as much as country. Any number of country pop lyrics, Toby Keith or Taylor Swift, would also fit.
"Paradise By the Dashboard Lights," by Jim Steinman, sums the point best. This lyric has it all, lust, love and loss. The counter point, boy norms and girl values, plays out superbly.
Pop lyrics promote lust, love and loss, relentlessly and unabashedly, but love isn't everything. Food, shelter and safety precede love. Western Culture wears loves among its badges of success and ability to luxuriate.
Lyrical love promotes a gender imbalance; alpha male, beta female. This is out of step with emerging relations. We're on the verge of alpha-alpha gender relations, where the betas are increasingly likely to be men as women. Maybe, it'll be a choice and simply altering "he" to "her" won't solve the problem.
Pop lyrics don't give the audience much credit. Simple, declarative statements supposedly "tell it like it is" to young, spirited, strong-willed listeners, who can only think in monosyllables. The temptation, to believe this notion, is compelling, but far from true.
Most pop lyrics are one-trick ponies, single-thought themes. Rarely are pop lyrics blunt, in your face of reality. There's little sophistication. Pop lyrics come in one colour: bubblegum pink.
The audience may be sharper than believed. Shammed, by repetition, listeners may not accept the notion of love, lust and loss embedded in pop lyrics. Still, as smart as we believe we are, the law of repetition, "what's repeated is most important," gets us every time.
Pop lyrics repeat a simple equation and have for almost 500 years. That women are badges of status for men is an idea that's lost its currency. Women are now as likely as are men to be high-octane lawyers, accounts or CEOs. It's time for the message of pop lyrics to change.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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