LOVE, love, love … if you were writing a hit song in the Sixties or Seventies, that’s what it had to be about. Not any longer, warns Tiffany Jenkins
Love songs are a vital accompaniment to life. As a child I was rocked to the golden oldies: Strangers in the Night; I’ve Got a Crush on You; Like Someone in Love, especially when sung by Frank Sinatra. I danced around my bedroom to My Baby Just Cares for Me, hoping I could be as cool as Nina Simone, and swooned to Heaven is a Place on Earth. I had a crush on the beautiful Belinda Carlisle and I wanted to be her when I grew up.
My parents constantly played the Beatles: Love Me Do; I Want To Hold Your Hand, as well as Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love. I sang exuberantly out loud, during my Gothic phase, to The Cure’s Friday I’m in Love; felt sad listening to Pictures of You, wondering if – hoping that – someone one day would feel that way about me. But even then my adoration of Robert Smith didn’t displace my longing for Elvis, for his Can’t Help Falling in Love and especially Are You Lonesome Tonight?
I managed to avoid most of the naff love songs of the 1980s: Hello; Zoom – “just one look and then my heart went boom/Suddenly and we were on the moon/ Flyin’ high in a neon sky”; Endless Love and Total Eclipse of the Heart, which are a bit silly or overpowered. But I have a lot of time for Your Love is King, sung by the sultry Sade, and nothing beats a bit of karaoke to Is This Love? by Whitesnake.
I remember being 15, wearing a Laura Ashley blue taffeta dress (still hanging in my wardrobe, much treasured) at a party, slow dancing with a suitably unsuitable boy to Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus written by Serge Gainsbourg for Brigitte Bardot, sung, whispered really, by the breathy Jane Birkin. The slow dance to a suggestive song, written for that purpose – by which I mean swaying from side to side while in a long and uncomfortable embrace – is a rite of passage.
It wasn’t all rose gardens, of course. New Order’s Blue Monday may be overplayed, but the dulled anger of “how does it feel when you treat me like you do…when your heart grows cold” is something most of us have been through, and echoes the more complicated feelings I experienced when things didn’t work out, as does Love Will Tear Us Apart and Bizarre Love Triangle.
I’ll even confess that I like It Must Have Been Love by Roxette and Nothing Compares 2 U, belted out by Sinead O’Connor.
Music captures like no other art the enveloping feelings of desperation that come with a break-up. Luckily, there is always Love the One You’re With – my favourite version is by The Supremes – and It’s Raining Men for getting over it and moving on. And if that doesn’t work, turn to Beyoncé and Irreplaceable. Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive is best left for the dance floor.
My first real romance – my first boyfriend – has its own soundtrack: There She Goes by the La’s and anything by the House of Love. Listening to these songs today comes with a bittersweet memory of when love was fresh and astonishingly new, when you felt that it would never end, and then it does, brutally.
But it seems that we are losing that loving feeling, when it comes to popular music today. A study published in the Journal of Advertising Research, “All You Need is Love? Communication Insights From Pop Music’s Number-One Hits”, has analysed chart-topping songs over the past 50 years. They found that our thirst for love in music doesn’t appear to be that deep or endless, after all. Or at least, not recently.
It turns out that, since the 1990s, love as a lyric and a theme has rapidly slipped down the chart of popular usage.
The researchers, based at North Carolina State University, identified the most common lyrics and themes in the No 1 singles from Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” – an industry standard – between 1960 and 2009. These included: heart, love, baby, heaven, moon, tear, kiss and goodbye. And they assigned them thematic correlations: escapism, desire, break-up, pain, inspiration, nostalgia (which was big in the 1970s) and rebellion (which proved to be quite common in the 1960s), as well as jaded, desperation, aspiration and confusion, which all emerged later.
They conclude that if you want to write a best-selling hit, in whatever decade, it’s best to do it about a break- up. This theme is a constant, whether you are listening in the 1960s or the present. There has been no change in the popularity of hearing about someone being “packed in” – as I called it once upon a time. Adele knew what she was doing with Someone Like You.
The other finding, the significant one, is that love is less important now than it has ever been in songs, but it used to be the most important.
Love was the number one most influential word of the first three decades studied – that’s the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. But it slipped to third place in the 1990s. In the Noughties, love dropped to 9th place, beneath “time”, “good” and “nigga”. It’s gone from She Loves You, to What’s Love Got To Do With It? to Where is the Love?
Why have we lost that lovin’ feeling? Well, replacing it is, in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the researchers, the theme of personal ambition and uncertainty. Although the study is US-specific and focused on the mainstream, I think it strikes a chord and applies here too.
By the 1980s, although love was still common, so was “confusion” and “aspiration”. In the 1990s, the most widely used themes were “loss”, “inspiration” and “escapism”, which continued into the later decade when desperation dominated, having been unrepresented in earlier times.
These findings are enough to break your heart. But it’s not too late to try again. Let’s make some new, sweet music. All we need is love.