My essay in the May issue of Commentary is occasioned by the publication of Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History:
Most pop songs are about love. So are most classical art songs. So are most folk songs. What is more, most of us take all this for granted, though a moment’s consideration suggests that we ought instead to be surprised by it. Since the range of possibilities for human action extends far beyond the compass of love, sex, and marriage, why should the representation of these three activities have preoccupied songwriters of all kinds?
Ted Gioia, a music historian and sometime jazz pianist, addresses this question and others related to it in his latest book, Love Songs: The Hidden History. The third and last in a trilogy of studies of what he calls “functional songs” that also includes Work Songs and Healing Songs (both 2006), Love Songs is a cross-cultural and engrossingly wide-ranging history. Gioia’s overarching premise is that love songs, far from being “wimpy music, for emotional weaklings and sentimental fools,” are in fact “radical and disruptive” manifestations of humankind’s “growing sense of individualism and personal autonomy.”…
This is an interesting and compelling thesis, but it has to be said that Love Songs is a bit superficial in its treatment of certain aspects of its subject. For one thing, Gioia has given us a book about lyrics, not music. He has little to say about the specifically musical matters upon which one might have expected a trained musician to shed light. And Love Songs turns highly problematic when it engages with the present moment. Gioia rightly points out that the traditional romantic love song has lately ceased to be as central to American pop music as it still was well into the ’70s. For now, while the pop charts are laden with songs about love, that love is often rendered in an anti-romantic manner that is sharply at variance with how love was customarily portrayed during the golden age of American popular song. But Love Songs says little about the underlying reasons for this shift and fails altogether to consider the possibility that the changed tone of the “love” song might be directly reflective of the splintered culture from which it springs….
Read the whole thing here.