Weekend Reads: 'The dialectic of the love song'

by Bob Case
Posted 5/23/15, 08:33 am

Love Songs: The Hidden History

By Ted Gioia

Music critic, scholar and author Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History (Oxford University Press, 2015) is a serious and erudite encyclopedic and kaleidoscopic survey of the history of love songs. His thesis is that society’s “outsiders,” who are free to speak of romantic and explicit love, are the ones who create our love songs, not the “insiders”—i.e., mainstream cultures—who are reticent to admit such sentimental emotion and attraction in public. Thus, the formation of our love songs is hidden from the dominant culture until the songs evolve into popular acceptance. This is Gioia’s “dialectic of the love song.”

But I have a major and a minor quibble with the author: First, Gioia is puzzled by the “presence of erotic poetry in Judeo-Christian scripture.” There is nothing puzzling about this at all. Yahweh publicly celebrates sex between a husband and a wife and insists we are to enjoy and sing of physical intimacy (see Song of Solomon, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, et al). Gioia confuses sinful churchmen with biblical Christianity, as he often repeats the slander that “Christianity”—and not the church—“eradicated” and “oppressed the love song for a thousand years.”

Second, Gioia has a loose definition of the love song. As he moves to the era of blues, rock, videos, and rap, the “sweet talk” of yesteryear’s love songs descends into the “street talk” of eroticized ballads. Back in 1990 George Will, no evangelical, quoted the court testimony of a Manhattan gang rape by referencing the lyrics of a popular song by the rap group 2 Live Crew, which was the inspiration for the sadistic violence. Will apologized for the vulgarity of his quote and then concluded that America was “sliding into the sewer,” as indicated by its popular music. While Gioia acknowledges that the lyrics of today’s popular love songs have been degraded by “disenfranchised” rap artists (once again, hidden elements of our society are writing our popular love songs), he still defines the songs as love songs. My minor quibble is that today’s violence-drenched love songs are not “love” songs by any measure.

But it is all sadly to be expected from our post-Christian society.