February 14, 2020 | Arts and Culture
on unconventional love songs
Sincere, unaugmented displays of affection make me squirm—they always have. For a while that was probably okay. Most little kids never like to see their parents kiss, for instance. When my two siblings and I added up to a collective age of 12, my parents could deploy their lip-lock as a kind of dark magic—a parenting hack to end arguments and silence temper tantrums. At the sight of their embrace, we’d set our differences aside and form a unified choir of “gross!” Today, we’re a collective age of 61, and I’m the only one who checks Twitter when Mom gives Dad a peck.
I wish vaguely Freudian discomfort was all there was to it. Alas, I find I am simply unable to express sincere love, and the ease with which it comes to others makes me feel like an alien. It is, for instance, impossible for friends and family to get me to say “love you too” on the phone. Usually, I’ll hang up before I need to. My therapists have told me that sarcasm is an entrenched part of my personality, and that this is simply a defense mechanism to protect my identity. I’m not so sure. Each of the numerous attempts I’ve made at romantic relationships with other human beings has likewise crumbled around the third month—in other words, right around the time when she expects me to, y’know, emote. It’s come to the point where, on particularly bitter nights, I’ve found myself stalking FAQ pages about aromanticism.
Complicating matters, I’m also a dyed-in-the-wool, too-far-gone music nerd, and 95 percent of pop music is love songs. How do I cope? Well, most of the time, love songs pivot around an unnamed, possibly nonexistent “boy,” “girl,” “you,” or “baby.” When “Just The Way You Are” hits the minivan speakers, I’m okay. It’s the love songs that are naked, unguarded, and very clearly addressed to another identifiable person that provoke discomfort. John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko!” for instance, is one of the most musically sublime compositions I know, and I can hardly listen to it. Lennon is so confident in the passion he feels that it becomes sexual, instinctive, unthinking. He absent-mindedly calls out her name in the bath; his “love” is enough to literally “turn [Yoko] on.” It’s too easy. Too happy. I’m not there yet.
No, like an asshole, the love songs that are all about the struggle of declaring passion are the ones I can most relate to. Sometimes they’re about how hard it is to even find passion to declare. Here are three of my favorites for Valentine’s Day Listening.
“Wild Horses”—The Rolling Stones
The Mick Jagger of “Wild Horses” hasn’t necessarily been a bad boyfriend. It’d be more accurate to say he’s been complacent. At the absolute worst, you might call him neglectful. We don’t hear a lot about him, admittedly, but things are ending, so clearly he’s fucked up somehow. Yet at first blush it appears there’s little he could have actively done wrong: He always brought you the “things you wanted,” and he’s never felt “bitter” or “treated you unkind.” But that’s shallow, basic, and you needed more than that. You were dying right under his nose and you needed somebody ready to save you. History tells us Jagger wrote the song about his ex-flame Marianne Faithful—a minor celebrity (relative to Jagger) who spiraled into rock ’n’ roll drug devastation before Jagger realized what was happening and recognized his own inadvertent role as enabler. Now, at the moment of collapse, when the easy, self-preserving thing would be to just back away and claim his “freedom,” Jagger stands his ground. Enter the wild horses of the title—a frankly obvious metaphor for the ravages of, uh, wild living, but damn if it’s not heart-melting as Jagger fights them off. The tragedy is that the beasts will drag him away, but he still dives into a struggle he can’t win. It’s a too-late declaration of love via self-lacerating retribution—it means both nothing, and yet, somehow, everything.
“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”—Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is in a rather luckless position: He needs to convince you that he’s not an asshole. This is a difficult task, because he himself is unconvinced that he is not an asshole. “Situations have ended sad / Relationships have all been bad.” Fuck and run—that’s his pattern. You know it, he knows it, and after a final, particularly meaningless coital blowout, you’re about to hit the road for good. He calls after you; you could have predicted as much. But it’s not to tell you to stay, not to promise things will be better. Dylan knows there’s no hope for that; the song will end and he’ll never see you again. But he wants you to leave knowing something here was different—you were different, you had the chance to change him. “This time ’round it’s more correct / Right on target, so direct / You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.” It’s a testament to the dickish character of Dylan that the disclosure of his feelings could come as a shock, something impossible for either party to believe. And herein lies the song’s haunting ambiguity; Dylan is going to be lonely not because you won’t be there, but because the asshole he’s stuck with is himself: “You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doin’ / Staying far behind without you.” Does Bob really love you, or is he just a self-hating aromantic? Was what he felt a true spark, or merely a kink in your interaction that emphasized the emptiness of his ways? The only way to know would be if you stuck around, but why would you do that? Bob’s the boy who orgasmed Wolf, essentially, and the extent to which I relate to him terrifies me nearly as much as it breaks my heart.
“Thinkin Bout You”—Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean doesn’t know how you feel about him. That’s scary, and what’s worse is he hardly knows how he feels about you. He has, it bears emphasis, been thinking about you—the song he wrote is not called “conclusions about you” or “idle reflections about you.” These are serious thoughts that have produced minimal answers. But Ocean has thought enough to know something has to change. It’s his courage to make it that renders this song one of the few truly moving love songs I know. Unlike the others I’ve listed, it’s a song rooted in a specific time and place, even if many of its crucial details are fuzzy. We know you’re in Ocean’s room. Maybe you’ve been sleeping with him for a while. Maybe you’re just friends. In any case, it seems you’ve been here before and the context then was much less…emotionally naked. Shit’s a mess. All visual evidence would indicate the boy has had a rough few nights. In inviting you into this embarrassing situation, Ocean has taken the first step on the path to complete vulnerability. Immediately, he trips. The tension is unbearable, so he tries to ease it with a stupid joke about the weather. This goes so poorly he makes another one about having a beach house in Idaho. Finally, he just has to say it: He doesn’t know what you’re thinking, but he’s been thinking about forever. Though Ocean doesn’t frame this as an ultimatum, it clearly is one. Either you feel like him and you’ll follow him into that forever, or everything ends here. There’s no going back. And, crucially, we don’t find out which path you head down. Ocean ends the song dangling in the same awkward pocket it opens in; it’s the love song as unanswered text-paragraph, left on “read” for 25 minutes.