Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Rock and Love
This is a question not just relevant to rock musicians— what makes a great love song? Is it just the passion in a singer’s voice? Do the lyrics count for more than the music, or vice versa? To take a stab at it— a great love song, in rock or anywhere, matches expressive passion with some special angle or insight, the product of a mind processing feelings. There has to be tension, something for the singer to work against— a conflict or positive breakthrough. Then, you have to decide what counts as a love song. Take Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”— it’s explicitly about a man-woman relationship, and it’s about love. But the goal of the female protagonist is not to say “I love you”; it’s more of a wake-up call, a warning that excesses (sexual and emotional) are making the male oblivious to his own best interests. It’s a kind of love song, but it’s not a straightforward one. “Light My Fire” is close— Jim Morrison’s seductive croon and the explosive dynamics of the Doors’ music generates Rat Pack level love-wattage— but the song may be disqualified because it’s too clearly about sex and not love. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” songs are interesting on this level too— they meld sexual and emotional imperatives, so that a certain amount of vulnerability is exposed. What’s intriguing about “A Case of You” specifically is that it appears, on the surface, to be a love song, and a good one— it’s driven, passionate, and cohesive. But the crux of the lyric is that the female protagonist could absorb (“drink”) the male protagonist as wine, without getting drunk. In other words, what satisfies the narrator is her own self-possession. She’s celebrating that she’s not possessed.
Where possession is concerned, it’s hard to beat Sting and the Police. During his tenure with the band, Sting was very good at penning rock songs that also doubled as love songs. “Every Breath You Take,” “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” even “Roxanne” all qualify. “Every Breath You Take” is the most spectacular, and the creepiest— a stalker’s confession and an expression of extreme tenderness at the same time. It’s a love song with more psychology in it than the songs Frank Sinatra sang— it dares to be extreme in a way that Cole Porter never could. Yet no one seemed to be put off by it— the song was a monster hit. “Every Breath You Take” could be the greatest rock love song ever written— it achieves perfect musical and lyrical concision. Though it would be amusing to hear Sinatra try and cover it. And then there’s the huge contingent of rock artists who have never come near the straightforward love song— David Bowie, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Bruce Springsteen, and (with minor exceptions) Jagger-Richards. If Sting has serious competition, it is Lou Reed, even if that’s not what his image indicates. “Pale Blue Eyes” is a magnificent love song— as tender and tragic as “Every Breath You Take.” Sting’s slight edge is just for concision. Reed’s Velvets love songs (not just “Pale Blue Eyes” but “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “I Found a Reason”) are memorable for incorporating bits of intellect, serious poetic metaphor (mirrors figure in some of them), and the sense that not just bodies but minds are meeting.
Paul McCartney, the rock cliché goes, is a balladeer; I would argue that his best relationship songs (“I’m Looking Through You,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Maybe I’m Amazed”) are too much about ambiguity and conflict (along the lines of “Dreams”) to be considered love songs. Lennon has some interesting songs on this level too—“Jealous Guy” particularly. Lennon grovels; McCartney doesn’t. In the final analysis, rock as a genre doesn’t lend itself to straightforward love songs. It’s too much about conflict, especially sexual conflict, and raw honesty. But the intersections are noteworthy for broadening the range of what rock songs can do. And future possibilities are there to be developed.