I was 8 years old when I joined the Club of People Who Listen to the Radio in the Morning on the Way to School and Work and Things. As an adult I still love Top 40 with the same fire and fury I did when I was in elementary school. That hasn’t changed. What have changed are the songs themselves. Specifically love songs. They are REALLY not making love songs the way they used to. Sappy, sentimental, feelings-soaked love songs, if they still exist, are NOT getting mainstream radio play.
The mushy-gushy love song, an early-Beatles-staple that evolved into the eighties power ballad that evolved into basically every Boyz II Men song seems to have gone all but extinct. And is it better for all of songkind that this breed of song has been basically wiped out?
Let’s take that time machine back to the mid 90s. The first song I ever fell in love with (that wasn’t sung by a Shark, Jet, or mermaid who wanted to be where the people were) was Selena’s “Dreaming of You.” They played this ALL the time on the radio in 1995 and I assumed this song played every hour on the hour because it was the BEST SONG EVER. (It is the best song ever, but the real reason it was being played was because the singer’s life had just been tragically and violently cut short.)
The song, if you remember, tells the tale of Selena sitting alone in her room, late at night, when all the world is sleeping, refusing to go to bed at a reasonable hour like a functional human being because she has to stay up and sing about her crush. In the last verse it turns out that her crush was secretly in love with her the whole time and after he tells her they presumably live happily ever after because that’s where the song ends.
“If you love someone, you’re supposed to sit in your room and dream about them until they realize they’re also in love with you,” I internalized. “I know how to sit in my room and also how to dream, I’m an introverted and socially awkward child, I can totally be like the girl in this song.”
The mid 90s became the late 90s, and the last half of the decade brought us Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” (“Every night in my dreams I’m supposed to see and feel the boy I love, and even if he’s dead I’m just supposed to sit on the bow of a ship and dream about him forever,” was my takeaway), Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” (“A boy is supposed to talk sweet, look fine, and basically not be a real person because the whole point of boys is to dream about them all the time.”), Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” and “I Knew I Loved You” (“When you love somebody, you know even before you meet them, you dream them into life, and you stand/swim with them in various idyllic locations and you are both self-important and overly serious about everything.”). The Backstreet Boys and N’Sync hit the scene at the end of the millennium and, yes, they brought us fast-dance get-downs a plenty, but there were at least five moony-goony love songs on each one of those albums.
I listened to other music too, you guys -- it was the 90s, you couldn’t be, like, a person without owning TLC’s "Crazy Sexy Cool" and Alanis Morissette’s "Jagged Little Pill" and those CDs are probably the only reason I’m even a little bit cool. But love songs were my literal and figurative jam. If you wrote a song about a boy bringing a girl flowers and professing his love and basically having no sense of humor or perceptible sex drive, I listened to your CD every night 40 times in a row before going to sleep.
I was ruined by the time it was time for me to have a real-life relationship. People talk about Disney movies and rom-coms ruining them for love. Well, pop music ruined me. The music of my era taught me to be to be the most passive person in the history of passivity, to sit in my room and dream about what I want as opposed to going out into the world and making things happen. It taught me to want a man who was all hyperboles and grand romantic gestures. It taught me to want a fantasy instead of a human being. Pop songs taught me to want all the wrong things. They set me up for disaster. I didn't even realize all these verses and choruses and bridges were pushing me off a cliff because the cliff was JUST SO PRETTY.
I’m not saying all children of the 90s were ruined by our ridiculous music. You might have grown up in the same era immune to the sirens’ song, or maybe, like Odysseus, you plugged your ears up and sailed right on by. But I was not you. I just thought the sirens’ song had a really awesome hook so I dove overboard and swam straight for the rocks.
I eventually fixed my brain. I figured out how to be in a relationship. I got married. And the next generation of young’uns doesn’t have to worry about being ruined by love songs because they basically don’t exist anymore. When I think about music that is popular and relevant (and I know what this music is because I still listen to Top 40 like a not-adult) I think of Taylor Swift, who knew you were trouble when she met you and now you guys are never (ever) getting back together, and Miley Cyrus dumping your ass like a wrecking ball, which is maybe a metaphor you understand if you are, like, young? Or more familiar with construction equipment? I don’t know! Gaga loves applause more than she loves boyfriends and Lorde loves black lipstick and her best friends more than she will ever love diamonds or expensive alcohol or the trust fund dudes that accessorize these luxuries.
There is an unapologetic, self-assured, take-charge undercurrent running through the pop zeitgeist. Girls do not hang out in their bedrooms and dream about boys anymore. Girls deal with the complications and disappointments of real life with swagger and grit. They don’t need a boyfriend. They need freedom and friendship and the courage to have conviction in their actions. God I wish I had been listening to this music when I was at formative age figuring out what kind of person I wanted to be. I would have loved to have been this kind of girl growing up.
Of course, we have the exceptions to the rules, the outliers that do not march to the beat of this movement’s drum. The music of One Direction, The Boy (Band) Who Lived, comes to mind. One Direction is still peddling this “The Story of my Life is to Give Girls Unrealistic Relationship Expectations” archaic BS. They’re like the Jurassic Park of the Top 40.
Of course there are still popular love songs. There will always be popular love songs as long as there are people and musical instruments. With it being spring and prom season being just around the corner (or The Middle School Springtime Soiree, whatever they call it for the younger set) I can’t help but wonder what songs the kids will be slow dancing to this dance season. Wait, are slow dances still a thing?