The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
Popular music is full of short, impassioned tales of love and loss, joy and woe. People are either irrationally crazy about somebody (who they may not actually have met, but just brushed past them in the butcher’s) or devastated when love’s young dream turns out to be a fragile bubble that bursts before they can wrap it in clingfilm and put it in a shoebox for safety.
It would be an interesting university thesis (and you’d have to do it that way, because it wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time in the real world) to check out how many of the millions of three-minute musical romances have lasted. Did Buddy Holly remain besotted with Peggy Sue until the day of his terribly early death in a plane crash or did he move on? Clue number one: his widow is called Maria Elena, so unless Peggy Sue was an alias, it’s not the same person.
A little quick detective work, though, reveals that there was a Peggy Sue, but she was the girlfriend of Holly’s drummer, Jerry Allison, and although they did get married, they also got divorced. So there you go: was it worth writing a song about? Maybe – after all, you’ve got to write about something – but it just goes to show that girlfriends, even other people’s girlfriends, are not angels after all, but flesh and blood and part of the ephemera of life that we all experience.
People don’t get any wiser as the generations roll out. Not long after Peggy Sue had entered the world’s consciousness, those early-1960s sages The Marvelettes were wisely telling us that it wasn’t worth getting upset about boys because there are Too Many Fish In the Sea, but they clearly didn’t take their own advice, because they spent the rest of their Motown career being alternately adoring and lovelorn, just like everyone else.
In truth, of course, you can’t take any song such as this too seriously when it’s performed by a trio of sweet-looking girls but was written by young men, in this case Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland.
But why should we let such adult considerations spoil the wonderful illusions that songs usually are? Pop music and it’s hipper sister, Soul, not to mention slightly odd Uncle Country and tearaway big brother, Rock, are all about losing ourselves in the little stories of other people’s lives, most of them fictional.
Music is and always has been about escapism. It might get serious just occasionally as some heavy-minded individual uses it to tell you about some real issue that should be troubling you but isn’t, because you’re not left-wing enough.
But mostly, pop music is about spending a few minutes in a little fantasy such as My Cherie Amour, in which Stevie Wonder pines for someone who – yes – he has never spoken to but has seen “in a café or sometimes on a crowded street” .
Another favourite subject for the musical chronicler of youth is the scenario in which contact has been made and the object of affection is being lined up for a good seeing-to. This can take us from Rod Stewart’s Do ya think I’m Sexy (1978) right up to Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams’s 2014 smash, Get Lucky, an ecstasy-driven tale of a courtship that lasted not years but all night.
Rod Stewart’s tight-trousered, smirking bravado wasn’t the birth of the lustful lyric, though. You could take it back to Frank Sinatra’s 1956 version of Makin’ Whoopee, a non-too-subtle euphemism for having sex. But even leery old Frank wasn’t the first cab off the highly suggestive rank with this one, which had actually appeared for the first time in 1928.
And before that and before that and before that. Adam and Eve were probably humming a catchy tune while they explored each other’s physical differences for the first time and found that this game called Hide the Salami that the snake had told them about was pretty good fun.