Romantic Love: The Dominant Subject Matter of Western Popular Music

[Ted] Gioia shows that song lyrics about love, sex, marriage, and fertility can be traced all the way back to the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, and that once Jewish and Christian religious leaders came to terms with the iron determination of their own people to write and sing about romantic love, it quickly emerged as the dominant subject matter of Western popular music.

This tendency became overwhelming in 20th-century America. Both in the freestanding commercial pop songs of Tin Pan Alley and in musical-comedy lyrics, love is the near-universal theme. One can almost count on the fingers of both hands the number of standard ballads written between 1920 and 1960 that are not about romantic love, whether failed or successful. Even among such chronically disillusioned lyricists as Lorenz Hart, it is the singer’s desirable but unattainable ideal: This funny world/Makes fun of the things that you strive for/This funny world/Can laugh at the dreams you’re alive for. What is more, most of these perennially popular songs presuppose marriage as the natural consequence of love, sometimes implicitly but just as often explicitly, as in Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”: He’ll build a little home,/Just meant for two,/From which I’ll never roam,/Who would, would you?

Terry Teachout writing in Commentary about love songs, and music historian Ted Gioia’s new book Love Songs: The Hidden History.

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