Often, when I hear a bunch of songwriters play their songs, I am struck by the near-total dominance of songs about love, sex, relationships, and other romantic entanglements. It’s not that I don’t like those songs, or that I consciously avoid writing about those topics. But to me there is something out of proportion about an entire evening of songs devoted to love.
Why are love songs so popular with songwriters? They seem to be popular with listeners, but other types of songs are popular as well. More than just the market, I think the main reason for the ubiquity of love songs is what I tend to think of as the honest song trap, a mindset where the best songs are honest evocations of the songwriter’s own emotional life. A songwriter caught in this trap is forced to mine his or her own emotional life for material. But something about the trap leads the writer away from writing about mundane emotional experiences. So, instead of getting a thousand songs about how it feels to go to the supermarket or visit the in-laws or watch the seasons change, which might actually be interesting and varied, we get a million songs about the pursuit and loss of love.
The honest song trap doesn’t just favor songs based on emotional experience – it favors songs based on strong, unequivocal emotions, the type of emotions that a singer can really let loose on. Unrequited love, in all if its shades from hopeful to desperate, becomes the prototypical emotional experience. It is one nearly all of us can relate to, one that implies familiar narratives and allows the writer to easily create an appropriate level of drama and tension in the song. In a love song, the stakes are clear from the outset.
The ubiquity of the love song affects other types of song as well. I am often aware that, for many listeners, all songs are love songs until proven otherwise. Some genres of music are so dominated by romantic themes that listeners may barely listen to the lyrics of a song, since their concerns don’t vary much from one song to the next.
While it can be an obstacle to the ambitious songwriter, this set of expectations carries its own possibilities. Literature is dotted with poets who used the idioms of romance to write in a nuanced and sophisticated way about other topics. There is a great power to working within an established form in a self-aware way. Common’s “I Used to Love HER” is a good example of this technique, and of some of its pitfalls. The song is a simple allegory in which the speaker describes his romance with a woman who represents Hip Hop. This framework raises the stakes of the speaker’s relationship to Hip Hop, taking advantage of the established palette of emotional states associated with romance – elation, obsession, betrayal, jealousy – to communicate the speaker’s close personal association with a commercial genre of music. Even if we haven’t experienced either love or obsessive music fandom, we know, as part of our basic cultural literacy, the significance of these states. More than relating, we understand the emotional language of the song.
On the other hand, in this song the use of romance as a metaphor imposes surprising limitations. One structural feature of most love songs is that we hear the perspective of one party in a romantic situation, while the experience(s) of the other person or people involved are hinted at or more often ignored. If you are interested in venting your own emotions, this makes sense, but if you are more interested in telling stories, it is worth reconsidering. Here, the fact that Common’s feminized Hip Hop is seen from a distance, animated but not quite personified, introduces complicated resonances around gender which probably enrich the song for some listeners while alienating others.
This is an important lesson to take back to our love songs. When we write about love we inherit a set of ideas, images, clichés, and myths, which listeners will apply to our songs. If what you want to express is not already contained within this mythology, it will take a lot of additional work to communicate it. It is often not enough to simply tell your story, for whatever you say will only be seen through the frame of thousands of previous love songs. If you want to say something different, you may first need to loosen the listener’s grip on received ideas and familiar stories. This is why it takes more than honesty to write a really new or interesting song, one that does more than add a drop to the flow of familiar, comfortable narratives. It takes more than honesty to write a song that is original and moving. It takes, among other things, awareness of your audience’s biases and assumptions, as well as your own. Self-awareness, rather than simple honesty, may be the key to moving your songs forward.