If winter is the time of year when single people scowl, forsake love, and slink off to that alone-time retreat they’ve created for themselves under the Manhattan Bridge out of watermelon rinds and Chinese food take-out cartons, then summer is when they thaw and renew their search for romance. They might make bold overtures to someone they’ve admired for quite while. They might even fall back in love with the idea of being in love. Recently, I found myself somewhere in the middle, entertaining a Lazy Susan of dates, each more hilariously terrible than the last. One way I’ve been coping with dashed expectations is by wistfully working through love songs released this year.
More than almost any other pop subject, love songs can get away without having to be original or innovative. Every type of love song that ever will be has already been written, making my search for the definitive love song of the year especially tricky. But there was something about “30 Minute Love Affair” by Paloma Faith that resonated with me. Maybe at some point in time, I might email one of those bad dates — the one who keeps texting me after he blew me off — the video below, with the subject line, “Baby, we’re done.”
What I’m most fascinated by with love songs is how many people have intensely personal and unique experiences with some of the most generically rendered pop pastiches. The boardrooms of pop have figured out which synapses flicker and what kinds of chemicals bubble and boil in our brains when our hearts are stirred. They’ve engineered ballads to appeal to those elements. So this got me thinking: If I’m not afraid to be so navel-gazingly open about one of the most provocative love songs of 2012 for me, would other writers on the Internet — the type of people who wear their “Like”s on their sleeves — be equally open? I emailed a handful to find out.
Immediately, a couple writers admitted that Rihanna still dominates their love-song playlists. Despite the profusion of romantic ballads in 2012, THR editor Erin Carlson is still hooked onto “We Found Love” from last year. She asks, “Who doesn’t want to find it in hopeless places?” Latoya Peterson of Racialicious also confessed that the last love songs that impacted her came out in 2011, and as far as this year goes, “I can’t think of any other love song that’s dropped that’s worth a damn.” So it was a little begrudgingly that she backed “Where Have You Been,” the second single off Talk That Talk. She observes, “Rihanna’s ‘Where Have You Been’ only has 10 words.”
Could lyrical stinginess and repetition makes for the best kinds of love songs? Rakesh Satyal, author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning Blue Boy thinks so. He singled out Fiona Apple’s “Hot Knife” from The Idler Wheel…: “I’ve always been drawn to love songs that use repetition as a device because it is repetition — the inexorable, often self-willed push of emotion — that defines the most intense passion. It is not just the existence of love but the constant declaration and reaffirmation of it that makes people giddy and, in many cases, out of their gourds.”
There might also be something appealing about marrying abstracts like love and hope. The Hairpin contributor and host of Club Fonograma’s Fonocast podcast Blanca Méndez points to Capullo and Lido Pimiento’s “A quién amas den realidad es a mí” as an example of the everlasting appeal of love and hope. “Teenage hormones make for the best love songs, and ‘A quién amas en realidad es a mí,’ or ‘Who you really love is me,’ taps right into that crushing majorly teen angst,” she says. “This song manages just the right amount of sweetness and vulnerability to convey that sense of simultaneous hope and hopelessness that’s so representative of young, unrequited love.”
A couple of writers remain convinced that the year’s best love songs are really breakup songs. Sam Lansky, who pens MTV’s PopThink column, eschews the maudlin aspects of romance for one of the most functional aspects of any relationship: breakup sex. “The best part of any love affair is the make-up sex, right? That’s the thesis at play in Swedish pop outfit Wild at Heart’s single ‘Darling,’ probably my favorite track of 2012 so far. The track’s galactic synths and wistful vox buoy the cleverest lyrical couplet of the year: ‘Head over heels, but I’m feeling half past dead/Darling don’t get over me, get under me instead.’”
Roxane Gay, Ayiti author and Essays Editor at The Rumpus, admitted to the subversive power of Usher’s “Climax.” Gay says, “The song is one of those songs that is stealthy. Musically, it’s really interesting the way it works with crescendo, and the way he sings the lyrics is pleasantly mournful. It’s about the dissolution of a relationship but still has a ‘we can have sex to this’ vibe and it is also not a terrible workout song. It is, essentially, the MacGyver of love songs.”
“I’ve never liked a single song of by The Beeb before — to me, ‘Baby’ might as well have been sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks and ‘Girlfriend’ just seemed like he was trying too hard to be Justin Timberlake,” BuzzFeed’s Whitney Jefferson says. But she says that she feels a little teenage magic in Bieber’s “Die In Your Arms.” “When I first heard ‘Die In Your Arms,’ I had begrudgingly to admit that I liked it. A lot. The hook, the beat, the snaps, the sentiment — it’s like Bieber created the perfect pop song for my sixteen-year-old self a decade too late. Who am I to deny it?”
But just how far can we stretch pop to find the ideal love song? Both Steven Folkins and Matthew Gallaway find themselves pulled to love songs that tiptoe on the tightrope between pop and more alternative sensibilities. Folkins, who writes for Hellogiggles and TVHangover, says of the spellbinding power “The Only Place” from Best Coast, “This isn’t your traditional love song in the whole romance between two people kind of song — it’s more of a love song to a specific place and that place is California.”
Gallaway, The Awl contributor and the author of The Metropolis Case, finds that place is also an important element for the right love song — he points to The Band In Heaven’s “High Low”: “Assuming ‘pop’ extends to the fuzzed out/psychedelic pop of the Jesus & Mary Chain kind, a love song can be about riding around in wasteland suburbia with your boyfriend or girlfriend, while tripping on mushrooms!”
Another indie-pop fan, Tumblr’s Annie Werner has succumbed to the fluffy, breathless charms of Chairlift’s “I Belong In Your Arms.” “[It] elicits the exact bouncy-happy, comfortable feeling I want to feel when I fall in love. One day,” she writes.
The Blonde of the Joke and September Girls author Bennett Madison’s praise of Sinead O’Connor’s “The Wolf Is Getting Married” nails down the duality of love and anger. “This song is one of her most unabashedly romantic songs ever. She may be uncharacteristically optimistic here, looking toward the future as the clouds part and the sun reveals itself, but this is still the Sinead we know. Who else can manage to sound this in love and this angry at the same time?”
Which is to say that, yes, all of mankind is, and will always be, a dripping goo-pile of feelings. Or at least, we will be until it’s wintertime again and then it’s back to that makeshift hut under the Manhattan Bridge.