Sunday, February 7, 2010

Love Songs: A Musical Disconnect

Some love songs are incredibly sad, and there isn't anything wrong with that. We've all been through a bad patch where all we want to do is eat ice cream and crank up some emo music. Some songs, like "End of the Innocence," have a wonderfully evocative melody to go along with the rather melancholy lyrics.

However, what happens when the music is very peppy but the song lyrics indicate that the singer is just a drink or a "Dear John" letter away from sticking his or her head in the oven? First, the listeners are tricked into getting the music stuck in their heads, which causes them to listen to the songs over and over and over again. These people might even start dancing around to the songs, not realizing the sad, troubled relationships hidden behind the bouncy tunes. This leads us to discussing the strange musical disconnect between depressing lyrics and music that could easily be piped out of an ice cream truck. This disconnect becomes even stranger when you realize that the song in question is (supposedly) a love song.

Consequently, if you are looking for a passive-aggressive way of telling someone that "Things just aren't working out," try dedicating one of these songs to him or her.

Before I list some of the more incongruous pairings of depressing lyrics/ happy music, a quick disclaimer: I really like some of these songs. "Getting Better" and "Let My Love Open the Door" are on permanent repeat on my iPod. However, even I must admit that these songs can be a real downer if you start paying attention to the lyrics.

"Alone Again, Naturally" by Gilbert O'Sullivan - You are probably thinking, "There is NO WAY that the music to this song is happy. It's called 'Alone Again, Natually' for heaven's sakes!" In response, I must admit that I had the same reaction. When I first read about the song in I Hate Myself and Want to Die, I could not believe that a song that was so blatantly depressing could have a happy melody. However, I was wrong.

Not only does the music make you want to bop your head and shuffle around in a rhythm-free way, it almost (almost) obscures the singer's tale of woe. The song starts with the singer threatening to throw himself off of a tower because he was left at the altar. The song is all downhill from there. He believes that God has abandoned him. Then his parents die, leaving him "alone again, naturally." To quote Neil Patrick Harris from his awesome Rifftrax for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: "Not an atom of hope left."

"Punch and Judy" by The Cascades - Most of The Cascades' songs are about broken relationships, but the music is straight out of the bubblegum pop songbook. While all of their songs are depressing, "Punch and Judy" deserves a special mention because, when you get past the tune, you realize that the singer is stuck in a verbally (and possibly physically) abusive relationship. To get the full effect, check out the videoke version on YouTube.

"Let My Love Open the Door" by Pete Townshend - First, this is an awesome song. No question about it. And it is one of my top 10 songs of all time. That said, the original, fast-tempo version sounds very upbeat, but the lyrics tell us a very different story. It is basically about a man trying to convince the object of his affection to give him a chance. This isn't a bad story by any means, but it doesn't quite fit with the upbeat music. Perhaps that is why I have a very strong preference for the slower version of the song.

"Getting Better" by The Beatles - "Getting Better" makes an interesting contrast between the band's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" days and their deeper, more cynical songs. On one hand, the music is just as upbeat (if somewhat rougher) as their early songs. However, instead of lyrics like "She loves you (yeah yeah yeah)," they are singing about a guy who, quite frankly, sounds like a jerk. Yes, he is trying to reform, but it is a little disturbing to hear the "angry young man" sing about how he used to beat up his girlfriend. (Why are there so many seemingly happy songs about abusive relationships? Is this part of an obscure 12-step program?)