We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the flyers offering cash for all that gold we've got lying around are many smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, how to get through Valentine's Day with songs that neither celebrate someone else's love nor force us to wallow in our own loneliness.
Micah Elliott writes: "Sometimes you want a holiday to pass uneventfully. It's especially true when you don't have anyone to celebrate with. Are there any songs that serve as a distraction from love or the lack thereof? Most of my music mentions love or sex in some way — and I'm poor, so nothing about money, either!"
Valentine's Day, like so many phenomena, tends to cleave Americans into warring camps — the "What's wrong with love?" crowd and the "Don't rub my face in your made-up holiday" crowd. But even as a longtime, vocal opponent of Valentine's Day, I've gotta say: When it comes to things with little to no importance, the world needs more amiable indifference.
Really, it is no skin off my backside to delight in the happiness of others. Were I a Valentine's Day person, I could certainly think of ways to acknowledge the holiday warmly and discreetly, given the many and sundry ways for it to be celebrated indoors. I also understand the aversion to having love shoved in my face when I'm going without, but is it really an affront to me personally? Amiable indifference, people.
Beyond all that, there is an absolute metric crapload of sex-free popular music in the world, which is saying nothing of the absolute metric crapload of sex-free instrumental music in the world. Start with a global search for songs with the word "party" in the title, and you'll find non-love songs from "Party in the USA" all the way to "Party 'Til You Puke" and beyond. And remember that partying is about feeling good and feeling better — about back-burnering your woes, be they a broken heart or a crummy day on the job, and replacing loneliness or worry or frustration with awesomeness and celebration. Just as partying can serve as a stand-in for love, party songs can serve as a stand-in for love songs.
If you're looking for a specific recent recommendation, my favorite album of 2012 — Japandroids' fist-pumping Celebration Rock — contains exceedingly little in the way of love and loss. But look at the themes that keep popping up here: partying, celebration, fun. If you don't want to bet buried under an avalanche of unpleasant reminders (love, loss, lust, loneliness), spend Valentine's Day rolling around in the stupid and the sublime. Do it right, and Feb. 15 may come too soon.
Marie Ingram writes: "What is it about human psychology that makes most songs about relationships? Just fallen in love, breakups, hookups... Is this all we care about in life? I guess love is the driving force behind all our actions, given that we can't even be jealous without it."
In the interest of hair-splitting, I wouldn't say "most" songs are about relationships, given the amount of music that reflects on everything from social justice and political strife to boredom and drinking. But we can agree that relationships and the issues surrounding them add up to a dominant subject in songs, particularly in the Americas and Europe. So why is that?
For one thing, the most successful songwriting taps into feelings to which large swaths of the population can relate. That's only one of the reasons Adele's "Someone Like You" was a massive hit and John Fogerty's "Zanz Kant Danz" — about the singer's disputes with label magnate Saul Zaentz — was a flop. (The fact that Fogerty had to rename the song "Vanz Kant Danz" to avoid more legal trouble didn't help, either. Sheesh.) I can't relate to a legal dispute over royalties between two rich guys, but I know what it's like to feel left behind. Empathy in songwriting, like empathy in acting or writing or any other creative pursuit, is crucial for closing the gaps that separate art from our feelings.
Not every song has to wire into our emotions — some prefer music that stirs the intellect, or moves our feet, or settles our nerves — but we all have emotions. In tackling the intricate and endlessly evolving puzzle of love, songwriters know they can spend the rest of their lives expounding on it, safe in the notion that no one will ruin everything for them by figuring it all out.