From Sappho to Elvis and beyond
Love Songs: The Hidden History By Ted Gioia Oxford University Press, 315pp $35.95 “The book of love has music in it. In fact that’s where music comes from.”
That title-page quotation from Stephen Merritt, a pop/rock singer-songwriter, arguably overstates the case but the importance of love songs is undeniable. In Love Songs: The Hidden History, American music historian Ted Gioia argues the love song deserves respect as a ‘‘battle-hardened mode of artistic expression … trailblazing for social change’’.
The origins of love songs go so far back in history that their earliest emergence may never be known, but Gioia begins by tracing them to Mesopotamian fertility rites in 2300 BC. He also turns to Charles Darwin, who said: ‘‘Just as birds sing to attract the opposite sex, some early progenitor of man probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences ... especially exerted during courtship of the sexes.’’ (‘‘Put simply,’’ Gioia comments, “all songs were originally love songs.’’)
Greek poet Sappho from the seventh century BC is seen as someone who ‘‘taught the rest of us how to express romantic sentiments in song form’’, and who might, if she were alive today, ‘‘spread her message as a singersongwriter akin to ... Joni Mitchell’’. The recurring repression of love songs emerges: Gioia cites the burning of Sappho’s works in AD 380, and again in 1073 on papal orders.
The sixth century BC Chinese philosopher Confucius was appointed to select the best of 3000 works in the Shijing, or Book of Songs.
These songs often relied on scenes from nature to evoke human longings for a beloved. Here, as throughout its history, powerful interests tried to prove that love song lyrics apparently focusing on love were really about something else.
In the third century AD, Quintilianis described Roman ritual music becoming entertainment with personal ecstasy as the primary goal, but once the connection with the divine was lost and songs dealt with love and sex, sung by women, slaves and outcasts, and Christianity was the dominant religion, suspicions were raised by people in power.
For a thousand years Christianity tried to eradicate the love song, but with little success and although few love songs have survived from late antiquity to the early medieval period, Gioia is certain they existed, “if only by the vehemence with which authorities condemned them’’.
By the late medieval period the love song breaks out of its repression in Christian Europe and ‘‘takes centre stage via the troubadours, gaining acceptance and serving as a path to fame and acclaim’’. For 250 years troubadours’ songs were important in the emotional life of southern Europe, often embodying ‘‘courtly love’’, which oddly evoked both erotic intensity and spiritual devotion, praising women married to others.
As the Renaissance begins, an earthier attitude appears in the love song in Italy, expressing carnal impulses.
Carnival and folk songs gave insights into love and marriage, but the Renaissance demanded greater depth and innovation.
The result in the music of love was the madrigal with its contrapuntal complexity. Between 1530 and 1600, 2000 volumes of madrigals were published. However, audiences found the qualities of the madrigal could be raised to an even higher pitch in the performance of opera where the most popular love songs were embedded in elaborate spectacles. The chapter titled Divas and Deviancy outlines the ‘‘aura of scandal and romantic intrigue that
Love Me Tender surrounded the art form’’, and brings the book up to the modern era.
Another chapter is devoted to the impact of black musicians on American song from the late 19th century, ‘‘laying the groundwork for a revolution in song that is still reverberating today’’. Examining why the love song has a hidden history reveals that ‘‘we feel compelled to sing about love but are deeply embarrassed by this compulsion’’, but the exclusion of slaves from the dominant culture freed them from such strictures.
Crooners, torch songs and bobbysoxers are all explored, Gioia noting an intensification of emotional impact and eroticism in popular music in the 1920s following the introduction of recordings. By 1950 less inhibited love songs were on the rise, but mostly in black communities, where rhythm and blues became a category name. The advent of rock ’n’ roll in the mid50s led to Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, with performances charged with unprecedented erotic energy.
By the 70s, after glam rock, disco arrived and performers were replaced in clubs by DJs often supplying just a mesmerising beat or ‘‘shorthand advice’’ to Shake Your Booty or Get Down Tonight.
During the 80s other styles appeared: house music, techno, trance and acid jazz. Rave parties replaced lyrics with beats and programmed sounds, but many fans craved something stronger, ‘‘just plain nastier’’, and turned to punk rock and new wave, with romance and eroticism mostly removed.
Then ‘‘ MTV and the video format brought them back … in a new formula, redefining the love song in the modern age’’.
This book, researched for 10 years, is extremely comprehensive, covering a huge swath of global music history in a conversational yet knowledgeable style. It is dense with statistics — names, dates, titles — as well as analysis, anecdotes and historical data. Sometimes those in the teeming cavalcade of people are simply named, when a short explanation would have been welcome.
The book concludes with a reminder that love has spurred many musical revolutions in the past and can do so again. ‘‘When love finally calls the tune it’s likely to be from an unexpected direction: from the bohemian, the outcast, the excluded, the marginalised ... and the most hidden places.’’
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