When popular music first turned to Tin Pan Alley songs of the 1920s, it was led by songwriting greats such as George and Ira Gershwin composing and penning, respectively, heartfelt ballads like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.” They were hopeful, elegant and dripping with uninhibited emotion.
This tradition of the love ballad carried out through several decades, turning more upbeat with ’50s crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and pop-rock driven with more recent musicians like Sting and Rod Stewart.
Yet somewhere between the ’80s and now marks the death of the love song. Perhaps it was the switch from soul and blues to dance-influenced popular music that did it in. Or maybe it was Madonna’s provocative hits that screamed women’s sexual liberation in the face of Ronald Reagan’s conservatism that turned the tide.
Whatever the reason, the closest we get to love nowadays is either T-Pain’s “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper)” or contrived vampire melodramas. Lady Gaga sings about being beautiful and rich, Taylor Swift aches with sugar-coated pain and even the alternative Kings of Leon have resorted to crafting songs around the motivation of going through with a one-night stand.
But if you dig deep enough into the realm of indie pretension, you’ll find tunes — whether optimistic, ironic or downright forlorn — that still have a trace of warmth and power to engage the listener in a semblance of a feeling.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, I’ve delved into that realm of indie pretension and compiled a list of songs that embody the complexity, fragility and overall quirkiness of modern love. None are traditional ballads or overly weepy in sentiment but, instead, explore facets of the ambivalence most of us feel toward that four-letter word today. In the words of John Cusak’s Rob from High Fidelity: “The making of a great compilation tape — like breaking up — is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem.”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs — “Maps”
The quintessential indie love ballad from the most unexpected alternative band, “Maps” offers a glimpse into these eclectic New Yorkers’ hearts as vocalist Karen O strains to get out the words, Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.
The Magnetic Fields — “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure”
The members of The Magnetic Fields might claim not to know anything about love on “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure,” but they do know they are nothing without it. With its sprite, toe-tapping melody, “Ferdinand de Saussure” will convince you to just accept what you know and go along with the flow.
She & Him — “I Was Made For You”
Zooey Deschanel, the “she” to M. Ward’s “him,” emulates ’60s girl-group pop on this sunny track from the pair’s debut album, Volume 1. Like much of the album, Deschanel ditches cynicism and keeps it positive as she finds a dream come true while taking a walk. Backed by airy vocals and a bouncy drumbeat, it’s a pleasant pop throw-back.
The Smiths — “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”
Although (500) Days of Summer revived The Smith’s popularity last year, for the angst-ridden teens hanging out in dive bars in the late 1980s, Steven Patrick Morrissey and company were the leaders among the despondent and broken-hearted. Moz is still sad on this one, but he’s found a dark, kindred spirit to take him out tonight as he wails, If a double-decker bus crashes into us / To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die. Welcome to the genesis of emo culture.
The Dandy Warhols — “Bohemian Like You”
This is a song about falling in love with a girl that has a great car, is in a band and waits tables. With its endless refrain of I like you, it’s hard to play “Bohemian Like You” and not get the message across.
PJ Harvey — “This Is Love”
The guitars are harsh and gritty on the emotionally charged “This Is Love,” as expected from the indie-rock queen. But when the usually disenchanted Harvey sings, I can’t believe that life’s so complex / When I just want to sit here and watch you undress, and howls with raw power, This is love / This is love that I’m feeling, it makes one stop and wonder: Wait, is Polly Jean finally in love? It sounds that way, until Harvey tosses in a dirty little secret during the song’s bridge. End result: You’ll need a shower after this one.
Elliott Smith — “Twilight”
The tale Elliott Smith weaves in “Twilight” — one of finding love and losing it — is bittersweet. Armed with nothing but his acoustic guitar and a backing track of chirping birds, Smith creates a wave of emotion as ambivalent as the coming of twilight as he croons, I could make you smile / If you stayed awhile / But how long will you stay with me, baby?
Au Pairs — “We’re So Cool”
Frontwoman Lesley Woods of the British post-punk outfit Au Pairs singlehandedly lead the Riot Grrrl movement more than a decade before the movement was actually recognized with her gender-bending lyrics and outspoken feminism. Over the scratchy guitars on “We’re So Cool,” Woods is again ahead of her time, delivering an anthem for those who live by the church of casual dating and open relationships.
Guillemots — “Made-Up Lovesong #43”
The avant-garde pop group’s “Made-Up Lovesong #43” is a melodramatic yet never over-the-top proclamation of love, complete with escalating orchestration and lead singer Fyfe Dangerfield’s soaring vocal range. The feeling might be unrequited (I love you, I don’t think you care), but the zeal behind Dangerfield’s voice isn’t.
Velvet Underground — “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
The ever-pleasing Nico might as well be reciting John Keats’ poetry on V.U.’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” which is possibly the most traditionally romantic song on this list. Crafted out of lovely metaphors of the wind, the rain and the sunsets and light on your door over fluid guitars and the wisps of tambourines, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” expresses what it means to have a solid, lasting connection with someone.