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Behind the music 

From dreamy crushes to devastating break-ups, there’s a song for every heartstring.

The love song. It is the single most powerful form of expression in musical language.

Don’t believe me? Case in point: Chris Martin, a lanky, crook-toothed Brit fresh out of university transformed into a sensitive heartthrob with “Yellow,” a cleverly sappy song that compared the colour of the stars to being in love. From your little sister to your grandmother, he captured the hearts of ladies everywhere. Martin’s band, Coldplay, went on to be one of the biggest acts in the world, and the skinny Bono-wannabe, albeit with less hair, hooked up with and married Gwyneth Paltrow, an Academy Award-winning actor who used to sleep with tabloid beefcake Brad Pitt. Indeed, the stars do shine—for Martin, that is.

In close competition with death, there is no other subject written about more in modern music than love. There is a song for every phase in the love cycle, from the initial stages of attraction to the final throes of a devastating break-up.

The crush, the first act of love, has been common fodder for musicians and songwriters. Without it, teen acts such as David Cassidy of Partridge Family fame wouldn’t have had a career. His signature hit “I Think I Love You” made millions of teenaged girls think that velvet jumpsuits were cool.

Halifax isn’t exempt from this phenomenon. Indie rockers Sloan couldn’t resist their urges, expressing their desire with “Underwhelmed,” from their first record Smeared. Written by Chris Murphy, “Underwhelmed” is the tale of a student who pines after an overachieving vegetarian with bad spelling. “The point is not the grammar,” Murphy reveals. “It’s the feeling/That is certainly in my heart/But not in hers.” Poor guy.

Two albums released last year by local artists are practically concept albums on the subject of crushes. The Maynards’ Break Out the Make Out is a party record in the spin-the-bottle, ’50s make-out tradition—enticing listeners to first dance, then get down to some good, clean hanky-panky.

The Halifax crush song came full circle when Mary Cobham of indie-pop band The Maughams released Songs In The Key Of Jay. Cobham’s long-standing admiration for Sloan guitarist Jay Ferguson and Tiger Beat teenage-love have inspired much of the record.

When it comes to actually being in love, boy bands hold the patent to the formula. The 1960s had The Beatles, who kick-started their career writing and performing love songs (“Love Me Do,” “And I Love Her,” among others) before heading towards deeper material. The ’70s had The Osmonds—“Oh, Donny!”—and The Jackson Five, who had a hit with “I Want You Back,” despite that it was eerily sung by a pre-teen Michael Jackson.

Those who were pre-adolescents or teenagers in the latter half of the ’80s got their first taste of boy-band mania with New Kids On The Block, five young men singing their hearts out about girls (“I’ll Be Loving You Forever,” “Step-By-Step”) while trying to act tough (“Hangin’ Tough”). Those love songs catapulted them to the top of the charts and into the psyche of the general public, for better or worse. The Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Take That, Boyz to Men and many other knock-offs followed suit in the 1990s. The common thread throughout remained the same—all had hits with love songs.

More often than not, love invariably ends with a smashing bout of heartache, to which music owes much of its identity. Break up with someone and almost immediately songs that had no previous meaning become anthems for your heartache. Who can forget the scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary when she drunkenly busts out into Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” while stuffing her face with chocolates? It could also be argued that post-punk bands such as The Smiths and The Cure wouldn’t have been as important, and millions of teenagers would have dressed in colours other than black, without songs about the depression that follows the collapse of love.

Although music has a way of bringing out the worst of bad feelings, it also has a way of carrying us past those tough patches, while giving a profound sense of liberation. In one of the strangest crossover hits of 2005, indie rockers and prestigious music outlets such as Rolling Stone and confessed their respect for Kelly Clarkson’s ode to moving on, “Since U Been Gone.”

Clarkson’s songwriters didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Alanis Morisette and her songwriter/producer Glen Ballard followed the same route to success with 1995’s “You Oughta Know,” which incorporated the grunge style of the day—heavy guitar, emotional angst, shocking references to blowjobs—with a sense of female power. The song helped former teen-pop singer Morisette sell over 10 million records of her full-length Jagged Little Pill and win credibility that Britney Spears only dreams about.

From weddings to prom nights, the love song has the power to evoke strong memories. They have the power to make people scream, cry and get naked. Name your poison or passion and guaranteed, there’s a love song to fit your mood, however heart-numbingly depressed or earth-shatteringly romantic you may feel.

Top five break-up songs

Joy Division, Love Will Tear Us ApartIan Curtis’s heartbreaking eulogy to a dying marriage. Tragically, he killed himself shortly before the release of the single that would catapult his band into the mainstream. Sinead O’Connor, Nothing Compares 2 USung over strings and little else, O’Connor pours her soul over a real-life lost love. But it was the minimalist video in which she cries real-life tears that made her an icon.

Gloria Gaynor, I Will SurviveThe ultimate post-break up song that is a dance club, wedding reception and bar mitzvah standard. When artists write break up songs, they look to this one.

The Smiths, How Soon As Now?Morrissey nails teenage loneliness and romantic yearning over a hammering Johnny Marr vibrato guitar riff. The line “I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everyone else does,” says it all.

The Beatles: Let It BeOne of the last songs written together by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, this isn’t a break-up song about a couple—it’s the sound of the world’s most famous band dissolving.

Top five love songs

Bjork, All Is Full Of LoveThe Icelandic pixie showcases her voice in a gorgeous ode to her artist lover and father of her second child. Michael Gondry’s futuristic video makes us believe that robots feel love too.

Elton John, Your SongAn example of why Elton John is so revered today: a man, his piano, and some of Bernie Taupin’s best lyrics. They don’t make ballads like this anymore.

Johnny Cash, Ring Of FireMade even more poignant with the release of the Oscar-nominated picture, it encapsulates how difficult and worthwhile true love can be.

Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston, I Will Always Love YouWhitney made it massive, but Dolly did the work. It remains one of Parton’s best-known songs after Kevin Costner flick The Bodyguard rocketed it to the top of the charts.

The Cure, Just Like Heaven/Love SongWho knew men dressed in black, best known for dark goth tunes, could sing such inspired love songs? Softie Robert Smith wrote the former for his then-fiancee.

-Johnston Farrow

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Vol 25, No 39
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