What Makes a Good Love Song?

by Will on October 28, 2010

I may or may not have been spending time lately trying to write a love song for someone in my life. It’s very difficult because I generally dislike love songs. The Beatles’ early work is music I listen to less than their later work, because it’s all boy-meets-girl stuff. And I gravitate to bands like the Kinks and the Clash that avoid the subject altogether (the Kinks opting instead for conservative cultural criticism, the Clash for strident left-wing advocacy). Now, R&B has a large number of sexy songs that I think are great, but I wouldn’t say they’re doing the same thing as love songs are. The sexy songs are an ask, the love songs a thank you.

The prototypical terrible love song is “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. Syrupy, stupid, hyperbolic. Led Zep’s cloying “Thank You” is also pretty bad. “Longer Than” by Dan Fogelberg is also a strong contender for Worst Love Song of All Time.

What love songs do I like? Ones that are  a bit gritty, or somehow acknowledge that nothing’s perfect: the very best relationship still comes with sacrifices and compromises. “Ain’t Nobody” by Chakha Khan and Rufus is one of my very favorites: behind Chakha’s elation over her present love, you can hear painful memories of years of disappointment and dissatisfaction. “Oh Yoko” by John Lennon is good because it does not idealize its object, but focuses on the real, mundane moments that pique his affection. I’m not sure it’s a love song strictly speaking, but the fact that what the narrator of “I Fought the Law” misses most is his girl outside is rather touching. The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” is masterful: as with the Chakha Khan song, you can hear that behind Wilson’s thankfulness to have someone lies a huge insecurity that perhaps he doesn’t deserve it. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” is another gem, because it is so frank about the way young people really (and naively) think. Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is justly treasured as a cathartic classic, an ode to the frustrating fact that many people who love each other just can’t make it work as partners. It notes with a strange dispassion this sad fact, leaving it entirely to the listener to contemplate just how sad it is. That song makes me want to cry almost every time I hear it. “When You Were Mine” by Prince excels for a similar reason, though with less subtlety: it illustrates the pain of someone who has tried a type of relationship that makes them very unhappy, and having now lost the lover feels not just regret but also jealousy and inadequacy.

Having assembled this list, I have decided to study Brian Wilson’s songwriting, as the tune I’ve written is quite upbeat, and many of the other songs I’ve cited are heavy on the minor chords. Also, I welcome my readers’ thoughts: what love songs do you think are especially good?

P.S. The Talking Heads’ “Girlfriend Is Better” is also great. And this one from Patti Smith, which manages to put the case for love in unusually abstract and ideological terms:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

WordWrestler October 28, 2010 at 6:14 pm
Wordwrestler October 31, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Here’s a link to the Elvis Costello song I mentioned the other night. It’s track 13.



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