Hearts in 4/4 Time

Ninety-nine percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice. That’s what makes the jukeboxes play.

-Willie Nelson

Long before we start to bargain with Cupid, long before desire whistles its insistent tune, long before we even know to want love, we are exposed to its never-changing, self-generating soundtrack. The wispy serenades, the downhearted break-up records, the seething hate songs, the bright-eyed, bubble-will-never-burst pop tunes: this was the music that deluged and overwhelmed us before we were even old enough to read a lyric sheet. It’s strange to know all the key words to seduction long before you can spell the term or before you even register that the gender you’re supposed to fall for is anything more than the manifestation of pure grossness (man). How funny that a boy band marketed to us primary school girls would be called ‘Indecent Obsession’, when we couldn’t fathom the meaning of the two words alone, let alone together. We certainly weren’t going to look it up, and when we did, it sounded creepily adult. You might as well have called the band Sinister Tax Evasion, or Colostomy Bag. The idea of passion (ew) that was a bit twisted (ew again) just didn’t marry well with our cutesy idea of love, upheld visually by ice pink love heart illustrations; anything darker than that was a bit too “other side” to contemplate. I wonder though how much having love songs (in all their hopeful and hellbent guises) IV-dripped to you via supermarket speakers and friends’ radios and Saturday morning TV as you grow up, I wonder how much it does mould and remould your idea of what that four-letter word means.

Of course, the shadowy, unending connection between love and music began long before there were pop charts and power ballads and pretty singers blinking wet-eyed at TV cameras. Charles Darwin believed that music was first developed by our male and female ancestors “for the sake of charming the opposite sex” and Shakespeare penned that pithy line in
Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on”. Perhaps the 19th Century French composer Hector Berlioz summed it up best for romantic music aesthetes when he said, “Love can not give me an idea of music, but music can give me an idea of love”.

Certainly in all its moody, dazzling, frenzied, sober forms, music can pitch us an emotion we’d desperately clamber for; distill the lofty thrill of being in love; graze our sore points; stoke the discord of a worn-through relationship; or brightly feed us hope. Accordingly, there are so many ways music has been sounded in life and literature to demonstrate love or love-gone-wrong. There are the obvious – such as the power ballads with the Hallmark-grafted sentiments. Growing up, these love songs always rankled with me because the singer advertised a certain clinginess, the person they pleaded to (and they always pleaded – power ballads are never done in assertively confident tones), that the ex/unrequited/oblivious lover they addressed always sounded more like a crutch than an equal. Desperation looks ugly, whether you’ve got a big-budget clip or not. I think Hal Hartley put it best in
Simple Men, when Kate remarks that love songs are all about weakness. And yet, Bill’s response has a truth to it too. He says, “you can learn a lot about love from popular music”.

Perhaps only to a degree though, as one character quips in Whit Stillman’s
Barcelona: “the words to pop songs are about the only literature of advice we have on romantic matters – most of the advice very bad.” When I asked Erlend Oye (Unrest, Kings of Convenience) about this in a previous zine, he laughed. “Unfortunately it’s the only advice you can find and it’s in rhyme,” he admitted. So mind the words in every alternating line, they’re just there to sound good.
Anyway, as one character remarked in
The Barbarian Invasions, you can’t build your life on pop-song philosophy.

A better bet for heart and sound may be in books. These are a handful of love-and-music incidents I remember from literature, and two are from Jeffrey Eugenides. Aside from an early point in Carson McCullers’
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, when Mick sits outside someone’s house, describing how much the symphony she’s overhearing is flooring her, my favourite music-related incident in a book is from Eugenides’ debut, The Virgin Suicides, when the boys ring the permanently housebound Lisbon girls, and simply play them vinyl records over the phone as a token of devotion, as a passport to the world they’ve been confined from. Perhaps the author has a sweet-eyed fixation with music and teenage seduction; in his follow-up, Middlesex, he has Milton press his clarinet to Tess’ knee on a whim, and simply blow a note. And so over time, by Milton simply sounding the clarinet over her body, the music lures Tess in an imaginative, secretive way that a standard serenade doesn’t.

Charles Darwin believed that music was first developed by our male and female ancestors “for the sake of charming the opposite sex”

On the flipside, in Adam Ford’s poem, ‘A Small Revenge’, an angered protagonist uses music to piss off their partner after a fight, simply by putting on the song their lover hates, leaving it stuck on repeat in the CD player, and fleeing the house.

Perhaps the best articulation about love and music though, is by Duke Ellington. In his book,
Music Is My Mistress, he says:

Lovers have come and gone, but only my mistress stays. She is beautiful and gentle. She waits on me hand and foot. She is a swinger. She has grace. To hear her speak, you can’t believe your ears. She is ten thousand years old. She is as modern as tomorrow, a brand new woman every day, and as endless as time mathematics. Living with her is a labyrinth of ramifications. I look forward to her every gesture. Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one.

Lee Tran Lam

Speak-easy #7: The Music Issue