This Is Not a Love Song

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe

In the seventh grade, I had a crush on a girl. Yes, alert the presses, a hormonal teenager had the hots for someone. Just as predictable, I was incredibly awkward and had no clue as to the ways of courtship. My experience with girls up that point had only progressed to handholding, and I wasn’t even particularly good at that. Kissing was an absolutely foreign concept (as my first lip wrassling partner would find out a mere year later). But I somehow did master the idea of the shared love song. I may not have been schooled in the ways of love, but I was a young music snob, and I did understand romantic conceit.

So, even without a tacit relationship with said girl, I did assign a song to our unspoken bond. It was Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration,” and it was our jam. She just didn’t know it, just as she probably had no clue as to my very existence. Every time I heard that song, “our song,” I’d get wistful and dreamy. I wasn’t really into Chicago, however. At that time I was a big fan of Prince, Oingo Boingo, Depeche Mode, U2, Simple Minds and the Psychedelic Furs. Yet, somehow I grasped the concept of the shared love song being something altogether sappy and contextually appropriate. I got that “Darling Nikki,” “Little Girls” and “Lie to Me” were not the best choices for pubescent romantic anthems. But I somehow glossed over “Two Hearts Beat as One,” “Speed Your Love to Me” and either “Heaven” or “The Ghost in You.” Something inside of me told me to choose a song that was so direct, so unambiguous as to avoid any misinterpretation. Plus, I figured that Peter Cetera’s non-threatening falsetto would make girls weak in the knees. It still does, albeit with laughter. So, Chicago it was.

I would get better at this over the years, though there is something altogether innocent and charming about that first song. And no, “You’re the Inspiration” wasn’t even a particularly good song, even back then. In fact, once my friends got wind of this, I was teased mercilessly. They even requested the song at the next school dance, jeering at me the entire time. I had my revenge, however. While they were catcalling, I was asked to dance by a cute redhead. Suck on that, non-romantic troglodytes!

My question is, if I could get that concept as a confused teenager, blinded by rampaging adolescent desires, why can’t anyone else? If I had a nickel for every badly chosen ‘shared love song,’ I’d have ‘killing people and getting away with it’ money. It’d be one thing if the songs’ lyrics were ambiguous, or at least halfway close to being romantic. For instance, the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” is a popular favorite. The first two verses alone would make this a credible option, but the last verse reads like an Ovid-like myth. Ummm, the sea stole your girl and drowned her inside of you? Okay, Orpheus, dramatic much?

No, I’m less concerned about the flowery and obtuse. What I am concerned with is the number of songs that outright defy the basic concepts of love, and yet, are still amongst the more popular ‘love songs.’ Hell, as my brother alluded to in his Wedding Songs feature, some of them are even bastardized in the name of holy matrimony. This madness has to end!

One of the more famously misinterpreted songs is the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” On the surface, the song is a delicate ballad made only the more romantic by Sting’s signature sandpapery voice. Within the lyrics, however, hides (and not very furtively) an obsessive stalker. The girl in question has left our sad little lute-playing Englishman, and he just can’t let go. In fact, his words read like the handwritten letter of a man on the edge, one who will most likely plan an elaborate murder / suicide. It’s one of those “If I can’t have you, no one else will” scenarios. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here. In fact, once a song hints at possession, i.e. “You belong to me,” it’s time to nix that track and move on. Hell, even the standard with that title by Dean Martin, Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan and about 800 others seems creepy by today’s standards.

R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” is another one that most people commonly get wrong. Everyday listeners just can’t seem to get past the first line of “This one goes out to the one I love.” If they did, they’d get to the part that not only identifies the `one’ in question as being `left behind,’ and I don’t mean in a ridiculous rapture kind of way, though that song might be hilarious, but then also identifies that `one’ as a “simple prop to occupy my time.” “The One I Love” is a song about using someone, or even multiple someones. Michael Stipe even described the song as being “incredibly violent.” So, stop using it as a love song! Sheesh.

For some reason, breakup songs are the most misinterpreted. Generally these sad and woeful tales are told from the point of view of the dumped, so naturally, there’s an inherent element of regret and thus romantic overtures are made. But, people keep missing the part where it’s O-V-E-R, pick up yo face and get to the bar. (Sorry, that didn’t have quite the same ring to it as `U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi,’ but give me some credit points, at least). Dolly and Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You,” Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds,” The Eagles’ “Best of My Love,” and the Cardigans’ “Lovefool” are all extraordinarily misguided ways people have chosen to express their love on mixtapes. The savvier recipient will wonder whether they’re being wooed or being jilted before anything has even begun. While we’re on this topic, almost any country song would be a bad choice as most traditional country songs ARE breakup songs. Ditto anything by Fleetwood Mac from 1975-1987.

(One more aside) Also, can anyone explain to me why Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” is constantly used in ironic contexts? I’ve heard it used many times for graduations, proms, etc. Heck, I even heard it played in a baseball stadium after the last game of the season. It’s a break-up song! It’s about moving on from something depressing and horrible. Oh wait, maybe it does make sense for high school and last year’s Mariners season. Zing! Not to have too many asides, but this also brings up my pet peeve of people getting song titles wrong. The proper song title is “Good Riddance” with the parenthetical “Time of Your Life” attached. (I don’t care what the single has printed on it). And, by the way, all you creepy gothy unwashed Charmed fans, it’s called “How Soon Is Now,” not “I Am Human.” Yeesh.

Even when songs seem tailor made for that special mixtape, they might not be. Specifically, avoid those songs that actually share the same name as your girl. Kiss’ “Beth” may sound sappy and emotional, especially as it is played like a ballad, but it’s apparently about how Peter Criss’ bandmate’s girlfriend was a huge nag and would always interrupt rehearsals. Essentially, the song is less a love song and more of a sarcastic `get off my bro’s back’ kind of song. Avoiding “Alison” is also recommended. Elvis Costello has notoriously never revealed the meaning of the lyrics, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure that this is a song that is massively filled with regret. I suppose if your name is Sheena, everything’s hunky dory.

Of course, it’s fairly easy for me to say all this now. I’ve made my own mistakes with love songs in the past. Sure, I claimed to have it all together in seventh grade regarding that special shared song, but what I didn’t tell you how I flubbed it nearly every time out after that. The very next year, when I got together with my aforementioned `first lip wrasslin’ partner’, John Hughes soundtracks were all the rage. (Oh, by the way, memo to Wikipedia, when I’m trying to look up John Hughes, I really don’t think the Catholic archbishop from 1797-1864 ranks high on anyone’s list of preferences). Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and Pretty in Pink had all been released with the latter being a massive touchstone in many adolescents’ musical pasts. (Oddly, a soundtrack never came out for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). As such, my friends and I were really into OMD, and their recent album, Crush. For the first relationship in which I employed the art of French Kissing, I chose their song, “Hold You.” Because of the ballad-y nature of the song, the title, a sense of longing, and the frequent use of typical `love song’ words, I thought it the perfect choice. However, on closer inspection, vocalist Paul Humphreys refers to the girl in question as a `foolish child,’ and the girl is actually with another guy! It’s a song of jealousy, and the singer only wanting her because he can’t have her! Oh, what was I thinking? Naturally, the song became prophetic as I was unceremoniously dumped and she started a relationship with a guy from another school.

There would be many instances of getting these songs wrong as time went on. In some instances, it had nothing to do with the original intention of the singer. Huh? Once, I was on the receiving end of a mixtape that included Kate Bush’s “The Man With the Child in His Eyes.” Kate Bush wrote the song when she was only 13. As such, it’s filled with wonder and awe, told from the point of view of a girl dreaming about an idealized lover. But, to be fair, it’s had many interpretations. What I had forgotten, or repressed until now, was that my girlfriend at the time had an obsession with Peter Pan. What I had also forgotten was that I was a virgin before I met her and that I was specifically introduced to a girl who was ‘experienced,’ once my friends learned of my action-figure like state of `unopened package.’ In giving me this song, she was basically emasculating me while giving into her own indulgences of `educating a “Lost Boy.”‘ Now, where did I leave my therapist’s phone number? Sigh.

I would later inadvertently make an altogether different mistake on a mix CD I would compile for a later girlfriend. I knew the girl liked Tori Amos. She had practically every release by her and I found that I had one rare song taped for a benefit by a radio station in L.A. that she didn’t have. The song was “Icicle,” and in my defense, I had no idea it was about masturbation. Yikes. That’s not exactly the type of song with which you want to woo your fair maiden. I don’t know what happened. This is what usually becomes of poor research. I’m usually so good with that! I knew all about “She Bop,” “Blister in the Sun,” “Pictures of Lily” and “Turning Japanese,” how did I miss this one? I guess I had not ever tapped that other vein. Maybe someday I’ll take another whack at it. All these mistakes! I’m so sick of pulling these boners.

In the end, I guess it can happen to anyone. The lesson is, research, research, and research. Use context clues! Don’t forget what you were taught for your SAT’s! Words are tricky; they can mean practically anything! That song you may think is a love song is not. (Though P.I.L.’s “This is Not a Love Song” has some hilarious innuendo at the end). However, there is something to be said for the bliss of ignorance. Just ask my buddy Dan, who informed me that Van Morrison’s classic hit, “Brown Eyed Girl” is about anal sex. Now, every time I hear that song, I giggle like an idiot.

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