Monday, November 8, 2010

"I love you": The saddest words in pop?

Love and happiness.
They are, as Al Green sang in his 1972 classic of that name, "something that can make you do wrong, make you do right." They also seem to bring out the best and the worst in us -- in life and in song. Maybe it's because both joy and romantic love are generally fleeting, and we know it.

Sort of like fantastic weather. The other day, I was listening to "Blue Skies," the first single from Jamiroquai's excellent new album, "Rock Dust Light Star," when it dawned on me: Like love and happiness, blue skies bring out the worst in singers and songwriters. Willie Nelson crooned Irving Berlin's gorgeous "Blue Skies" (same name, different song) on his 1978 album "Stardust" as if his emotional forecast actually called for pain. Listening to Jamiroquai's Jay Kay singing about sunny weather ahead on his "Blue Skies," I almost expect a thunderstorm to break out mid-song.

It's unclear what's got him sounding so, well, blue, but I'd venture to blame it on love. Songs about love come in every kind of mood, but those three words, "I love you," seem to bring so many singers and songwriters down. Mary J. Blige, Sarah McLachlan and Faith Evans used them for the title of songs; Stevie Wonder just called to say I love you. But if love is such a beautiful thing, why don't any of them sound particularly overjoyed singing about it. (Martina BcBride, in an interesting break from pop tradition, sang her biggest hit, 1999's "I Love You," like she really meant it.) No wonder Annie Lennox declared on her 1994 hit "No More I Love You's."

I recently went through a '70s love song phase, and as I backtracked to Phoebe Snow's "Poetry Man," Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" and Karen Carpenter's "All Because of You," I couldn't help but notice that as gorgeously sung and poetic as these songs were (and are), none of these women in love sounded like they were in a much better emotional space than Dorothy Moore on her tear-jerking 1976 hit "Misty Blue."

But that's the thing about love. When it sneaks up on you, fear and insecurity are never far behind, and heartbreak lurks in the shadows. It's the most complex state of being, and if it doesn't end in tears, singing about it is almost certain to bring on the rain.

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