The wisdom of pop songs – The nature of love

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

It’s all very well the world’s songwriters basing their work on being in love, but there is a rather basic matter to be sorted out beforehand. To quote Howard Jones, “What is lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ove anyway?” We can disregard the next bit, “Does anybody love anybody anyway?” because it’s a nice line and he had a song to finish.

But the first part is a question that has been asked many times, from Foreigner’s whingeing “I want to know what love is” to Haddaway’s Trinidadian-German inquiry that comes just before “Baby don’t hurt me”.

So we know that whatever love is, it’s potentially hazardous.

Michael Jackson pointed out the difference between falling in love and being in love on his 1979 album Off The Wall. He can’t take any credit for such an incisive thought, though, because It’s The Falling In Love was written by Carol Bayer Sayer and David Foster.  Bayer Sager was well qualified to express an opinion, having been married to a record producer, had a relationship with the composer Marvin Hamlisch and spent most of the 1980s married to Burt Bacharach before ending up with a former chairman of Warner Brothers. She’s a pretty nifty lyricist – or knows people who are – as we can see by her quirky solo hit You’re Moving Out Today, co-written by Bette Midler and Bruce Roberts. Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t it infuriating when you can’t tell who did what?

Meanwhile, back at the concept, what is love? Is it that intense longing that comes at the start or is that just a form of lust and therefore doesn’t count? It’s certainly a confusing element, as the Partridge Family’s David Cassidy  demonstrated via I Think I Love You. You think? You only think? Come back when you’re sure. In fact the singer is not trying to make progress into a girl’s clothing by this  cautious expression of emotion: he’s afraid of suffering “a love there is no cure for”. Or rather the songwriter Tony Romeo was. That was his big moment, although he wrote other hits including Lou Christie’s I’m Gonna Make You Mine.

The Detroit Spinners didn’t seem to be afraid in their 1973 hit Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, written by Melvin and Mervin Steals (unless someone is winding me up about those names). They were just The Spinners in their native America, but in the UK we had a famous folk group of that name, so they were obliged to amend theirs.

Falling in love is the easy bit, as anyone who has been around that particular block knows. Falling in love only takes a minute, to quote Tavares before the disgraced English pop jack-of-all-trades Jonathan King grabbed himself a local hit with his own version.

In 1967 Diana Ross and the Supremes had given voice to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s (keep falling) In and Out of Love, a sort of sung expression of the old saying that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.

It’s sustaining it that’s the hard part, staying in love while life goes on around you, and the young can’t write about that because they haven’t experienced it yet. Therefore it falls to a slightly older crowd to bring it to us. Country music is a good source of such ageing wisdom, as evidenced by Shania Twain’s 1997 crossover hit You’re Still The One, co-written by her husband and producer Mutt Lange. Sadly, he is probably not still the one in real life, because he screwed the whole thing up by having an affair with Twain’s best friend and they divorced in 2010.

Billie Jo Spears spoke for a generation of still-in-love and still lusty women with 1975’s Blanket on the Ground, in which she proposes sacrificing a some of her precious  bedding to have a nostalgic romp in the dirt with her husband. Didn’t they have sleeping bags in her one-horse town?

A very different take on the subject comes from Jamaican singer-producer Sean Paul, who is breathtakingly frank when he tells his lover:

Blessings loving from the start but you know we had to part
That’s the way I give my love
I’m still in love with you
But a man gotta do what a man gotta do

And he’s not talking about having to go off to war or some other mitigating circumstance. It’s a track from his second album Dutty Rock, dutty being the Caribbean form of dirty.

But we can’t leave the subject on that note, so let’s turn to Al Green, with his typically chirpy Still in Love With You and Thin Lizzy with a very different song of the same name.

This love business is a marathon, not a sprint.





The wisdom of pop songs – How strong is a woman?

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
I will survive
Go on now… and close the door behind you

Pop music is an ideal platform for expressing opinions and getting them through to people who don’t go looking for them. A song that’s played on mainstream radio ends up embedded in the brain of millions of people, whereas if you wrote a magazine article about it instead you would only reach the people who happened to read that magazine.

So when women’s liberation became a hot topic in the late 1960s and early 70s, it was natural that the more cerebral of female singers should send out their message of sexual equality. The trick was to do this without alienating their male listeners – not to mention the women who weren’t so fired up about it.

I realise that the more extreme of feminists (and the sort of men who will support any underdog they can find) will consider me ill-qualified to comment on this, but listen – I’m entitled to my opinion, and my opinion is that the feminist message has been sent out very successfully many times in songs that also managed to be enjoyable and even touching.

Perhaps the category should be “Women singing about what hard work it is being a woman”.

Gentle persuasion can be better than haranguing

Take Helen Reddy, for instance. No sex symbol, no great singer, but she had a brain and she was prepared to forsake the lovey-dovey stuff now and then to get this point across. “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman,” she belted out with the assurance of someone who had half the population to back her up. The ‘invincible’ business may be open to discussion as to whether anyone at all, of either sex, could justifiably make that claim, but we got the message.

In 1972 I Am Woman probably didn’t make many men want to go out with her, but many of us warmed much more to That Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady three years later, with its killer opening lines: “I guess it was yourself you were involved with. I could have sworn it was me”.

young hearts
Never be hung up, hung up like her man and her

Even more clued up on the way to influence people without screaming and shouting was Candi Staton with “Young Hearts Run Free”, which simply paints a picture of the mess many women get themselves into by settling for the wife and mother role at the expense of their personal development. Staton advises against it: “Don’t be no fool when love really don’t love you”.

The song that was to become a rallying cry for women was, of course, I Will Survive, but is it really about downtrodden women? Sounds to me more like it’s about downtrodden losers in love of either sex. (And we’ll get to the point about multiple genders later.)

The women of the world jumped on I Will Survive to ensure that Gloria Gaynor, who had the ginormous hit with it, would never have to work again if she didn’t want to. It was written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris, who sound like men to me, but is that important? And by the way, I prefer the less hysterical version by Billie Jo Spears.

Diana Ross, Shirley Bassey and Melanie have also had a go at it, as have Anthony and the Johnsons and Robbie Williams, and the thoroughly contemporary girl Nicole Scherzinger.

Among the lesser known songs of the battle of the sexes is How Strong Is A Woman, a subtle number from the early 80s by soul legend Etta James. The answer to the question, she says, is “A woman is as strong as it needs for the man she loves”. Perhaps if we took out the man and woman and used the word ‘person’ instead we might get closer to the heart of the issue.

Pah! You don’t mean that – you’re just out to make money

As with all contentious issues, though, there have been those who took it too far and lost the original idea. The ladette phenomenon, in which girls asserted the right to be as crass and obnoxious as the worst boys, gave birth to the sneering That Don’t Impress Me Much, in which Shania Twain dismisses just about every man in the world as a jerk, whether he’s trying to impress her or not.

But that’s just opportunistic songwriting: it was co-written by Twain and her then husband Robert “Mutt” Lange, a record producer, and it appears they seized on the idea because they could see a world full of binge-drinking young women ready to buy it.

What next for the lib song, though? The issue has been complicated by the emergence of minorities that have changed the gay movement into LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). So it’s no longer man versus woman.

It’s probably heterosexual man against the rest, because we’re seen as the oppressors. So if you’re a member of a minority group so new that you haven’t had a chance to be offended in public yet, get writing and let’s hear your songs.