Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us, which depending on your current romantic station, is cause for either celebration or a stiff drink. Or perhaps both. I tend to abide by the hippie-esque plaudit that every day should be about love. That said, I still find myself sucked into the holiday mentality of showing my love via conspicuous consumption: weekend getaways, fancy dinners, fabulous gifts. (In 2010, I was given an engagement ring on Valentine’s Day, proving this holiday isn’t ALL bad.) We all find ourselves scrambling towards a romantic ideal. This day shall be perfect. Like a love song.
Although, when you stop to think about it, most love songs are fucked up.
Because love is such an immensely complicated emotion, ritual, protocol, that no two loves are the same. And no two love songs are the same. While one likely jumps to Etta James or Stevie Wonder when one first thinks “love song”, there’s a lot more to it out there.
Take, for example, newcomer Gotye’s single, “Somebody That I Used To Know”. Like Lana Del Rey, Gotye’s video has been on YouTube since July, but only seems to have exploded in the past month or so (over 67 million views?!). The song, an eviscerating rumination on a relationship gone wrong, seems especially wrenching at first, given that it’s coming from the male perspective. “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness,” our narrator admits while pondering how he always felt empty in the relationship, and yet felt so betrayed when her promises of friendship post-breakup proved hollow. (She sent her friends to collect her records. That’s some cold shit.) But then we get to hear her side of the story. Her first words? “Now and then, I think of all the times you screwed me over.” Nothing is ever as simple as it seems at first glance.
Despite the complexities of love, there seems to be an unspoken standard that a love song should be about sunnier times. Even when that’s not the case. Is there a more misunderstood “love song” in pop history than R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”? Four lines that twist and turn, and yet most of the world with ears ignored the subtleties. To wit: 1. This one goes out to the one I love. Aww. 2. This one goes out to the one I left behind. Hmm. Was he forced to leave his love, or did he choose to go? 3. A simple prop to occupy my time. Well, that answers THAT question. By the third verse, this line changes to “Another prop has occupied my time.” 4. This one goes out to the one I love. Oh really, asshole? FIRE! Passion! Wanderlust! I’m reminded of the tag line for the 2004 film Closer: “When you believe in love at first sight, you never stop looking.” Brutal.
My musical preferences tend to run towards the sad bastard side of the spectrum, so I’d argue that the songs about heartbreak in the world’s canon vastly outnumber the ones about shiny happy luv, but that’s from a very unofficial polling of my CD collection. And what to make of all the songs that fall in-between? Here are four choice messed up “love songs”. Happy fucking Valentine’s Day.
Nine Inch Nails – “Closer”
They don’t get more polarizing than this, do they? Maybe it’s the supremely unsettling video’s fault, perhaps it’s the F-bomb dropped in the chorus, because yeah, Trent Reznor wants to fuck you like an animal. But all that sexy-times talk is in the service of what is either the love of the singer’s life or the object of a creepy, creepy obsession. “My whole existence is flawed,” Reznor declares. “You get me closer to God.” An atypical proclamation from a misery-obsessed artist, “Closer” presents NIN’s version of the light at the end of the tunnel.
Side note: in my CD Warehouse days, I used to take delight in tormenting customers who came in looking for this song, but didn’t know the title. Making total strangers say “fuck” is fun!
What to make of this one? “Kiss With a Fist” comes from a long lineage of somewhat disturbing songs equating domestic violence with romantic bliss. See “Johnny Get Angry” or the self-explanatory “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)”. I can only assume Miss Welch is being cheeky about the situation, especially after seeing the adorable-verging-on-hot music video, and that she’s not actually condoning that you break your lover’s jaw or set fire to your bed. Even if there are people out there who now want to be PUNCHED in bed. No, thank you.
Teddy Thompson – “Separate Ways”
This one, the title track from Thompson’s beautifully sad 2005 album, catches its protagonist at the end of his rope. Tired of not being given enough and of everything being left unsaid, he declares that “We can go our separate ways…if you want to”. Which basically means he hasn’t taken control at all. I first thought this song was about a person being shut out of a relationship, but it sounds more unrequited than that. And really, more unrequited than “unrequited”; it sucks to proclaim your love to someone and get nothing in return, but I’m not certain the narrator of “Separate Ways” has even done that here. Some have even theorized that, with lyrics like, “I can change my mind, not my blood,” that this song is directed at Teddy’s famous parents, Richard and Linda Thompson. But would he have “stood out in the rain, holding my breath, waiting for” his parents? You could almost argue that “Separate Ways” is an obsessed fan’s lament, with all this love speak thrown at what sounds like an oblivious subject. Does the object of this song even know the narrator, other than saying hello every now and then?
Sex tapes: everybody’s doing them. Should be easy to have a little amateur night at home, right? Maybe not, if this Britpop gem (also a title track, from 1997) is any indication. All the planning, getting the makeup and the lights just right, thankfully results in something “pure” versus porn, but also brings the realization that the act of sex can be described thus: “That goes in there, and that goes in there, and then it’s over.” And once you’ve been as dirty as you’ve dreamed in front of a camera, “what exactly do you do for an encore?”
PS: This is one of my top five favorite music videos ever.
The above songs are just the first four that came to my mind, but there are obviously other fantastically messed up “love songs” out there. What are your favorites? Let me know. Happy and sad ones may apply.