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Today’s love songs wed desire, irony and stereotypes, says UBC pop culture expert Gisele Baxter - photo ©iStockphoto/duncan1890
Today’s love songs wed desire, irony and stereotypes, says UBC pop culture expert Gisele Baxter - photo ©iStockphoto/duncan1890

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 2 | Feb. 1, 2007

Love Songs 101: The Musical Formula for Valentine’s Day

By Basil Waugh

Love songs amplify first kisses, console us through break-ups and soundtrack all the romantic highs and lows in between. They can be sexed-up slow jams, country-tinged tearjerkers or multi-octaved torrents of romantic devotion, but according to UBC pop culture expert Gisele Baxter, they are just different expressions of our fundamental need for love and companionship.

“If we were purely biological creatures and mated like cats and dogs, we would have no need for love songs,” says Baxter, Sessional Lecturer in the Dept. of English. “But since we’re not, we use love songs to articulate our desires and ideals of love and romance.”

Like trying to describe romantic chemistry between two people, defining what constitutes a good love song can be something of a mystery. While people generally fall into two camps -- those who prefer song lyrics and those whose allegiances fall to melody and rhythm -- Baxter says we embrace the songs that either convey our individual fancies or serendipitously soundtrack key perceptual changes in relationships and our lives.

“We gravitate towards songs that say what we wish we could say, or what we’d like to hear ourselves,” says Baxter. “But we also adopt songs that may not even be considered conventionally romantic, because they are playing during our big romantic scenes.”

Commenting on performers such as Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Justin Timberlake, Baxter says today’s love songs generally express a complex mix of traditional gender and relationship stereotypes and irony that, together, reflect North America’s current cultural climate.

“Music is always a reflection of the times,” says Baxter, referring to the contrast between traditional family values and celebrity culture in the U.S. “It is difficult to take Britney Spears’ idealized love songs seriously,” Baxter says, when she is dumping her husband in text messages and flashing the paparazzi. “There is this built-in element of camp.”

In the future, Baxter says love songs, like pop-culture in general, will continue to be self-referential, with artists sampling older material for new songs. Some taboos remain that are likely to be broken on the airwaves, she adds. “It may seem like we have exhausted all boundaries to transgress, but it is likely that there is still room to move in terms of explicitly erotic content and representations of gay and lesbian relationships.”

To illustrate the enduring power of love songs, Baxter points to the 2003 film Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. In one scene, a group of people in a Tokyo karaoke bar perform hilarious approximations of punk classics.

“Slowly we realize that something is going on between Johansson’s and Murray’s characters,” Baxter says. “They start exchanging love songs -- she the Pretenders’ song Brass in Pocket, he Roxy Music’s More Than This -- and there is this frisson that something new is happening. They are singing for the group of friends but also for each other. It’s a profoundly romantic moment.”

Valentine’s Day Playlist

Gisele Baxter – Sessional Lecturer, English
Ring of Fire, by Johnny and June Carter Cash
“It’s very simple, but it gets to the point. It has a wonderful metaphor and it speaks to the level of desire and commitment that people idealize in relationships. Plus, I saw June Carter performing it past the age of 70 on the Letterman Show in a black mini-skirt and looking fantastic, so it has longevity as well.”

Tim Ling – 3rd year, Economics/Statistics,
Any song by Cantopop diva Joey Yung
“My favorite love songs are all in Cantonese -- especially the one by Joey Yung about ‘hiding away.’ In English, I suppose my favorite is Smack That by Akon -- but I guess it’s more about the sex side of love.”

Anastasia Sribnaia – 2nd year, Microbiology
Harvest Moon, Neil Young
“If there’s a man out there who wants to marry me, he better start learning this song. It was definitely a post-break-up song first, but it’s also been there for the good times.”

Alissa Von Mala – 2nd Year, Psychology
Do You Realize, The Flaming Lips
“I like the entire song, but especially the line, ‘Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face.’ I’m not sure if it’s a love song, but I love it.”

Oscar Nunez – 2nd Year, Sociology
Something About Us, by Daft Punk
“It’s a really good, slow electronic song. There’s this great lyric that gets repeated: ‘it might not be the right time, I might not be the right one, but there’s something
about us.’”

Marcello Landaverde – 2nd year, Political Science
La Malaguena, by Latin folk singer Salomon Flores
“This is a Mariachi song about a guy being in love with a girl from the upper crust. I guess good love songs are the ones that say what you want to hear.”

Lisa Allyn – 1st year, Science
Listen, by Beyonce
“I’m not sure if this is a love song, but it’s about communication in relationships and just saying what you need to say. Her voice is amazing -- it really makes you feel something.”

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Public Displays of Affection

While love songs have long since crossed over to film and television, UBC lecturer Gisele Baxter says they are now proliferating in interactive forums such as YouTube and karaoke bars, which give listeners the venue to perform their favourites.

“In a way, when you do these things you are saying, ‘this song has great meaning for me and I would like the opportunity to communicate it,’” she says. “Or of course you are just having a laugh.”


Last reviewed 30-Jan-2007

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