How Pop Culture Has Shaped Today’s Idea of Romance

In the classic romantic comedy “High Fidelity,” the characters question what came first, the music or the misery? Do you get sad and put on depressing music, or are you sad because you’re listening to depressing music?

Indie author and creator of the blog Buttontapper, Laura Roberts, composed a book entitled “Everything I Need To Know About Love I Learned From Pop Songs,” that features a collection of essays people submitted to her about their experiences with love and pop music. Many people share songs they related to certain lovers, romantic situations, or sexual encounters.

What could that possibly mean for today’s society? In yesteryears people idealized romantic songs about innocent love that lasted a lifetime. Now there are songs that sing about hitting it and quitting it, getting away with cheating, or a million other things that have nothing to do with a lasting love.

BTRtoday and Roberts chat via email about the power pop music has in morphing our contemporary definitions of love and romance.

BTRtoday (BTR): What inspired you to put together “Everything I Need To Know About Love I Learned From Pop Songs?”

Laura Roberts (LR): We know that the media we consume ultimately influences our thinking, but how often do we question our diet of easily consumed pop songs? I originally started thinking about the idea for the book as a series I wrote for my blog, called “P is for Pop Songs.” I was exploring the idea of how the music we listen to influences our outlook on life, with a particular interest in how love songs give us our ideas about love and what’s to be expected in a relationship.

As I started exploring the idea more, it seemed that a lot of my personal musical choices were about some pretty non-ideal relationships, and I wondered if I could match up the songs I was listening to during a certain period of my life with a particular relationship, and armchair analyze a bit about what went wrong there, as a result of having a negative musical influence guide my thinking.

Naturally, not all of my relationships have been unsuccessful (I’m happily married and have been for nine years this June), but a lot of my musical selections do veer towards the melancholic or melodramatic, so I wanted to see if other people had different songs they looked to, maybe some happier tunes influencing their relationships.

BTR: What were some of your favorite lessons learned about love via pop music?

LR: Pop music means different things to different people. Some of it is generational (“oldies” mean a different set of songs to people in their 70s than people in their 20s, for instance), but sometimes it’s just the period of time in which you first hear a song that carries the emotional weight.

One of the most fun pieces I received for the book was about a song I relate to on very different circumstances in my own love life. It was about OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”, which is a song I associate with an ex-boyfriend’s band, who played it ironically as hipsters do. The song means something totally different to the author of the story, who describes a true love for this song and its positive influence on her relationship with her husband. I loved this story because it offered such a different take on a tune that tons of people have probably heard in a club and danced to, because it’s very upbeat, but it’s also a song about breaking up, which is both strange and a common thing with pop songs. The story itself juxtaposes the song’s message about breaking up with a personal story of love rekindled.

Another thing I really enjoyed about reading all of the stories was getting to know the authors better via their musical tastes. Even for bands or musicians that I don’t enjoy as much, I was able to understand why they liked a certain song, and it was really interesting to learn more about how they related to others through the lens of that song.

Personally, I’ve learned that although most of my ideas about love have evolved over time, they never really stemmed from the music I chose to listen to. The music was just a mirror of something already inside me that I needed help to express to myself or to someone else. So I am still trying to figure out what exactly was the real source of my ideas about love. Movies? Books? Film? Television? Perhaps it’s always been an amalgamation, a nature/nurture combo.

BTR: Can you give a synopsis of a personal love story you’ve experienced with a song?

LR: Music acts as a shorthand for a lot of us, bringing up old feelings in an instant. So there are a lot of songs that I can’t even listen to anymore, because of the passionate feelings I associate with someone that’s no longer a part of my life. One example of this is an ex-lover who played a lot of Led Zeppelin when we were in bed together. Hearing those songs on the radio or while I’m out in public will sometimes make me blush, thinking back to the times we spent together. Even though most of those songs aren’t overtly sexual, they’ve been imbued with that additional layer of meaning because of the times we shared together, with that music serving as the backdrop for our affair.

When my husband and I first got together, he complimented me on my musical taste, which was flattering but also funny to me, because we had originally met on a dating website where I had included some lyrics to songs I liked, and guys who saw my profile would often just Google search the lyrics and pretend they liked those bands too.

I had assumed he was another one of those guys, until he started busting out stuff from his music collection, and it turned out he worked as an audio tester for a pretty high-end stereo company, and he basically got paid to listen to music all day long. He has a broad spectrum of musical interests, and introduced me to a lot of different bands I’d never heard of.

The wonderful part is that ever since he found out that I love certain female musicians (PJ Harvey, Poe, Björk, Ani DiFranco), he started hunting down CDs for me to add to my collection. If true love is never having to separate your music collections, then we are a match!

BTR: Do you think it’s only pop music that affects someone’s view on love because of its ability to be playing anywhere at any moment and its extremely catchy/melodic beats, or can it be more underground music that’s hard to find and has an experimental sound?

LR: I definitely believe all music can affect a person’s worldview, and therefore can be associated with their outlook on love. A lot of the songs I associate with specific ex-lovers are not traditional love songs at all. Some are pretty troubling, if you just look at their titles! Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run,” for example, or Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession” are both more anti-love songs—but I associate them with certain times in my life when I was working through feelings about my relationships, and they carry that weight and meaning.

I think of them fondly because I spent a lot of time with them. There is an entire Ani DiFranco album, “Dilate,” that I’m sure a lot of women of a certain age associate with a painful breakup. It is very much a breakup album, from a woman who wishes she’d been strong enough to resist the relationship in the first place.

None of those songs are really pop songs (I think the Sarah McLachlan song is the only one I’ve ever heard on the radio), but they’re all by musicians I would consider popular. It’s certainly easiest to fall in love to a pop song, because pop songs are everywhere, but when you connect over a song that’s a little more rare, a little harder to find, maybe on a bootleg album from Japan? That’s when you know you’ve found The One.

Pop music was more my guiding influence for this collection of stories because I was looking for songs that a general audience would likely have heard before. I wanted the reader to have some preconceptions about what the songs themselves were about, if not the stories that paid them tribute. Then I asked contributors not to quote any lyrics, so if readers weren’t familiar with the songs, they’d have to look them up and form their own opinions.

BTR: To you, what is it about music that makes it so emotional?

LR: Music gets under our skin. It says things that words alone cannot. Even music without words can convey those emotions. Songs tap into something subconscious.

People might write off pop songs as sugary sweet bits of candy fluff that ultimately influence nothing and no one, but the whole idea of pop music is that it’s popular. Just because I don’t personally listen to Justin Bieber doesn’t mean millions of his rabid fans are wrong. They’re able to see something of themselves in his songs, just like I’m able to see something of myself in the songs I enjoy. They connect with that music, and connect with others who share that love. It’s that shorthand for what we’re feeling.

If you say you like a band, and the person you have a crush on likes the same band, you have an instant connection. You read things into that shared interest, which may or may not be true. So the shorthand can sometimes result in a game of Telephone, where you end up assuming that the lyrics to a particular song represent that person’s feelings for you. It’s a misinterpretation, many times, but that’s why we used to make mix tapes or mix CDs for each other, and now playlists, to express our feelings. We want to set a mood, send a message, express the things we ourselves don’t know how to express. Pop songs do that. They help us share those feelings, deepen our connections. You can learn a lot about a person from their music collection, can’t you?

BTR: In your observation, how has pop music shifted society’s view on love from the past to current times?

LR: Well, I guess that depends on how far back into the past you want to go!

A lot of pop music is about relationships gone wrong. It’s often about cheating on someone, or being cheated on. There are a lot of spurned lovers, there’s a bit of revenge, and there are a lot of mistakes made. People often ask for forgiveness in song, too. They try to regain a lost love’s trust, by singing sweetly about the things they miss from that relationship. In terms of how this compares to love songs of the past, well… humans have always been screwing up their relationships.

Men have always tried to woo women with songs–and usually some wine, too. I think one of the shifts now is that women are also trying to woo men–or other women–with their songs. And telling men they don’t want or need them, because they’re tired of being lied to in songs. Sweet nothings aren’t the same as love, right?

Pop music is still about relationships. It’s about all the little things that kill your love, or that keep it going. A lot of pop music now is also about one-night stands. I don’t think that’s a new thing, nor limited to a certain age group of songwriters, but I do think it has become much more brazen over time, and more accepted as the norm. It celebrates those interactions as much as it condemns them. Think of Madonna, who was branded as a whore for daring to write a song about abortion in the 1980s. Nowadays that’s no longer risqué.

I also find it really interesting to see how women and men differ in their approaches to writing about relationships, and how singers and songwriters approach writing about queer relationships. I went through a phase in my 20s where I avoided listening to men’s songs about love, because they all seemed to be about ownership of a woman.

That’s an extremely outdated view of love and what it should be. Anything with a whiff of that kind of subjugation in the lyrics, I would switch off. I started listening almost exclusively to female musicians, and some women approach writing about love the same way, which I find equally repugnant, but some also talk about obsession, about unrequited love, about love that cannot be named or claimed. I’m drawn to songs where the musician is trying to give a different perspective of love.

I also think about a lot of singers from the ’80s (and earlier) who had to hide their true sexual identities. Musicians today don’t have to hide their sexuality, they don’t have to couch their love or lust in certain language. They’re much more frank about their desires. They don’t have to swap out “he” for “she,” to hide the fact that they’re queer. I like to listen to music from different eras because it does illustrate those changes over time. Even songs that strike us as problematic today can be educational, showing us the way that our collective thinking about love and relationships has evolved.

BTR: What’s your ultimate go-to love song?

LR: Oh my gosh, I don’t know that I can pick just one, so here are my top five (in no particular order)…

* “How Deep is Your Love” – The Bee Gees
* “Glory Box” – Portishead
* “Be My Baby” – The Ronettes
* “Kiss” – Prince
* “Heroes” – David Bowie

I guess, ultimately, I am a fan of the grandest gestures in my love songs and songs that just drip sex are always fun, too.

BTR: What do you think came first, the music or the misery?

LR: It’s super chicken-and-egg. You listen to miserable music when you’re miserable, and it reinforces your views that relationships suck. You listen to miserable music when you’re happy, because the melancholy tunes seem deeper. Those musical modes are also more complex, in terms of songwriting, and they strike a deeper chord within the listener. They’re unresolved. Just like you! So you listen to them more, and maybe they cause your breakup, because you’re always slightly miserable even when you’re happy (“I’m Only Happy When It Rains,” right?).

I love sad songs. So does my husband. We’re still stuck on trip-hop. We both like the same super emotional, dark music. He likes noise music, which I’m not into, but I still get it. That wordless frustration, like a scream set to music. I love creepy relationship songs like The Dresden Dolls’ “Missed Me” or Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” There’s something so satisfying about that shard of darkness in a love song. Plus, I like it when a piano is just slightly out of tune and pounded hard by a passionate woman… I wonder if that says more about me than my musical choices themselves?

BTR: What difference have you observed between male and female reactions to love and pop songs, if any?

LR: It’s hard to generalize, so this is all going to sound quite reductive, but I think most men tend to have a more simplistic approach to pop songs. They take the lyrics at face value a lot more than women do, and they often like songs more for the way they sound than for the lyrics. I think women tend to pick apart lyrics more and overanalyze them, particularly in terms of their relationships. Guys use music more as a backdrop for something else–a conversation, lovemaking. Women can’t concentrate if the lyrics are contradicting the mood in the room.

Or maybe that’s just me. I once had a guy try to make out with me to “The Matrix” soundtrack, and it was super distracting, because the mood was all wrong. The music on that soundtrack is really aggressive, lots of techno, super dark. Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, Rammstein… all these dark dudes. That is NOT a good soundtrack for a make-out session. It made me wonder what this guy thought of me. Like, I’m the girl that wants to hear “Smack My Bitch Up” while we are trying to get in the mood for love? No, sorry, wrong. I wanted *slightly* more romantic music, even if it was just going to be a one-time thing, but not something so cheesy as to crack me up. (No Bryan Adams, please.) So the guys who say they like Miles Davis are more on the right track, even if they only like “Kind of Blue.”

I would also cite one of the stories from the book as a good example of male vs. female perspectives on pop songs. Dave Thome talks about how, in high school, he was a football jock and was expected to be kind of hard all the time. He wasn’t *supposed* to like squishy love songs, but he liked girls, and wanted to get to know them better… and so he started listening to the songs they liked. Even though it wasn’t “cool” to like those songs, he asked himself whether he’d rather be considered one of the guys or be able to talk to the girl he liked. I’ll let you read the story to find out how it ends, but suffice to say that sometimes we will assail our ears in order to get to know a guy or girl that we like.