There is a particular sub-category of love song to which I am particularly drawn, even though I disapprove of and despise the sentiments expressed within them. They are the ones I like to call the “I know it’s hopeless!” songs.
Not ones in which the singer says “I know it’s hopeless” while obviously hoping that it’s not – not that sly old moth-to-the-star pleading. Straightforward unrequited love is the stock-in-trade of song; I’m fond of the idea that it’s the original function of music, an evolutionary instinct as idiosyncratic and lovely as the bower-bird’s constructions. No, I’m talking about the ones in which, if the singer was your friend, you would persistently tell them to give the affair up. And, as hopeless love affairs tend to be the gift that keeps on giving to the listening ear, your friend would as persistently refuse to do so.
Sheryl Crow, having launched herself to fame by singing about drinking beer by the car-wash – now, if most of us were to do that, someone’d call either the police or the Sally Army – turned altogether less light-hearted when she referred to a faithless lover as “my favorite mistake.” Not only was he her favourite, but his deceit was also “the perfect ending to the bad day I’ve gotten used to spending.” Alongside the despair was a certain Patient Griselda-ish pride in her endurance of it.
This is by no means peculiar to women; Percy Sledge transformed passivity into virility, via endurance. “When a man loves a woman”, he sang, he will .”give up all his comforts, and sleep out in the rain.” Look, he says, my great love has turned me into Bear Grylls, without the cheating.
The Bee Gees added another dimension to self-aggrandisement through self-abasement when they wrote “You don’t know what it’s like..to love somebody the way I love you.” The singer is, simultaneously, expressing his dependence on his lover and his superior sensibilities in comparison with hers. That immense and heartening arrogance is the soul of the song. I’m proud of being bruisable, it says. You wouldn’t know. (How on earth, I wonder, could such a relationship work out?)
The psychologist Dorothy Rowe has written that the sin of depression is pride – a refusal to let go of the things that trouble us. There are always many people, she says, “who would rather be right than happy.” That, then, is the great problem with the “I know it’s hopeless” genre of songs. Reeling us in with their eloquence and their sympathy with our own hopeless love affairs, past or present, they convince us that there’s something noble in feeling awful. “You don’t have to say you love me!” sang Dusty Springfield, several times. But nobody would say that who didn’t really want someone to say he loved her (rearrange pronouns as appropriate). The statement, therefore, is very nearly a request to be hurt.