It was 1973 when Paul McCartney and Wings said “Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs,” and the statement holds true nearly fifty years later. Spotify’s has 100 songs and over 300,000 followers. While true love songs do exist, every so often a song will come on the radio, or on a love song playlist, that sounds beautiful...at first. Then, after a few listens and a close reading of the lyrics, that “love song” turns out to be about something else entirely. Here are a few tracks to consider taking off those Valentine’s playlists and mixtapes for crushes.
One common type of anti–love song is the song where the narrator’s relationship to the subject of their affections isn’t what it seems. At a fairly innocuous level, there exist songs like “Rhythm of Love” by Plain White T’s, whose acoustic guitars and sweet crooning voice distract from the fact that this is no true love but a one–night stand: “We may only have tonight,” Tim Lopez repeats before asking the subject to “Play the music low / and sway to the rhythm of love.”
Then there are the songs of unrequited love, crushes on the emotionally or physically unavailable. When the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” came out, much of the focus was on the stomp and holler chorus, which sounds sweet out of context: “I belong with you, you belong with me / You’re my sweetheart.” Buried in the verses was the full story: the narrator has yet to get over an old relationship and has “been living a lonely life.” Seeing his ex with a new man prompts a common thought, “I don’t think you’re right for him,” and that sweet chorus is asking her back.
Most of the Gaslight Anthem album Handwritten focuses on failed relationships and a fear of vulnerability, but Brian Fallon’s gritty Jersey voice makes every song sound a bit like a love song. “Biloxi Parish” stands out among these numbers, as the narrator tells the subject “I’ll be with you through the dark / So that you do not go through the dark alone / Or on your own.” That sweet sentiment takes a dark turn as the song goes on and the listener realizes that this is a case of pining by a man who believes himself better than a girl's other suitors (“Who else can take all your blood and your curses? / Nobody I’ve seen you hanging around”). Suddenly going through the dark alone sounds more appealing.
Of course, when it comes to stalker songs, it would be irresponsible not to mention “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, because nothing is more romantic than somebody watching "Every breath you take and every move you make / Every bond you break, every step you take.”
In these cases, artists use love as a convenient metaphor for their non–human obsessions. A pleasant example would be something like “Million Bucks” by Smallpools: “I feel like a million bucks / And I give no fucks when I'm with you” could be an appreciation of a lover who stuck through the narrator’s financial troubles, but frontman Sean Scanlon that the song is a love letter not to a person but to the city of Los Angeles.
More often, these anthropomorphized recipients of love are not cities but vices. The Dropkick Murphy's song “The Dirty Glass” sounds like a breakup anthem as the male narrator tells Darcy “You left me dying, crying there.” By the second verse, which mentions “kindness, a stool, and a tab,” one realizes that Darcy is not a girlfriend but a favored pub. Other songs of this variety, like The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” have such generic lyrics that they could be about just about anything, but Paul McCartney the Beatles song “an ode to pot,” and The Weeknd referenced “Can’t Feel My Face” on a later song, “Reminder”: "I just won a new award for a kids show / Talking 'bout a face numbing off a bag of blow.” At least he’s self-aware.
Finally, there’s the double bait–and–switch that is “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles. Any illusions from the title that this may be a romantic song are shattered with the first line of the chorus: “I’m not gonna write you a love song,” Bareilles sings, berating a subject that comes off as a needy lover who threatens to break up with Bareilles if she refuses to produce a suitable love song. In reality, this subject is a record label that, Bareilles , wanted her to produce more radio–friendly material. If the songs listed here are any indication, radio–friendly isn’t a synonym for “straightforward love song.”