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volume 4
october 2001

Words of love and isolation


  Individualism and alienation in popular love songs, 1930-1999
by Thomas J. Scheff
  Since modern Western societies focus on individuals rather than relationships, we would expect individualist, rather than relational patterns in U.S. popular lyrics. Investigating this hypothesis Thomas Scheff counted romance words in all titles in the Top 40 for a seventy-year period, and analyzed the discourse of romantic lyrics for one sample year in each of seven decades. Most of the romance lyrics prove to be highly individualistic, concerned with the lover, rather than mutuality between lover and beloved. There are indications that alienation in romance lyrics has increased over the last seventy years.
1 The continuum of love. Research in the sociology of culture has two main branches, ethnography and semiotics (Fiske, 1989: 97). [1] Ethnographic studies of the means of production of cultural objects are more numerous, but there is also a substantial body of studies of the signification of cultural objects, both their surface and hidden meanings. These meanings, however, do not stand apart from the extra-textual social realities of power and ideology. As Fiske (1989: 97) points out:
  "... the signifieds exist not in the text itself, but extra-textually, in the myths, counter-myths, and ideology of their culture. ... the distribution of power in society is paralleled by the distribution of meanings in texts, and ... struggles for social power are paralleled by semiotic struggles for meaning."
  In this article I present some of the results of my research of both the surface and hidden meanings of one such an extra-textual cultural conglomerate, clustering around the idiom of "romance". The texts I studied are the lyrics of popular love songs. My purpose is to suggest how the Western myth of the self-contained individual — Elias (1970) called it homo clausus — is propagated in songs. In particular, I try to discover the implications of these songs along the continuum of individualistic and relational meanings of love. Two studies are reported, one quantitative, the other qualitative. For the first study, I counted all title words for seventy years of Top 40 lyrics, about ten thousand titles. For the second, I used discourse analysis for all romance lyrics in one sample year in each of the seven decades.
  The continuum of individualistic and relational meanings can be interpreted, as I will argue, as a dimension of alienation — though not a simple one. The evidence I report, however, is not a direct indication of increasing alienation, since it does not measure the social and psychological impact of lyrics on listeners. Showing that lyrics are becoming more alienated does not demonstrate increasing alienation in our society, it is merely a plausible interpretation. But in this respect it is no different than most other studies of alienation, since they don't measure alienation directly either. For example, increases in divorce rates are widely interpreted to mean increasing alienation, but alternative interpretations are possible. One would be that divorce occurs mostly between alienated couples, allowing the possibility of establishing new marriages that are less alienated than the former ones.
  Other studies that suggest alienation seldom measure alienation directly. An example that recently has stimulated much discussion would be Putnam's widely noted study, Bowling Alone (2000). Along with an enormous array of other indicators, Putnam noted that although the number of bowlers in the United States has not decreased in the last twenty years, membership in bowling leagues has fallen precipitously (Putnam, 2000: 112-113). This particular study frames the problem as dealing with decreasing social capital, rather than alienation. But since Putnam uses the idea of social capital in ways that suggest alienation — decreasing reciprocity, civic engagement, etcetera — sociologists often equate his study with many others which suggested that alienation is increasing in modern societies. But the study does not even define social capital, let alone alienation, in a way that allows direct measurement. As with divorce statistics, the indicators are merely plausible. The present study, like the earlier ones, adds one more set of indicators that may be plausibly interpreted as suggesting alienation in modern societies.
2 Romance in popular songs. My first step was to examine lyrics for recurring patterns in the Top 40. Romance songs come in a variety of forms. [2] I begin this study by proposing three major types: a "love" lyric involves reciprocated attraction and fulfillment. As it turns out, this type is only a small minority. The large majority involves unreciprocated attraction. I will call "heartbreak" those that involve attraction to a lost love, and "infatuation" those that involve attraction to someone desired but who does not reciprocate. Finally, there is a miscellany of romance lyrics that are not classifiable as one of these three types.
I surveyed the Top 40 popular lyrics in the United States during a seventy-year period, utilizing the website Lyrics World (1999). It contains all of the titles of the Top 40 for the years 1930-1999, some 12,500 titles. [3] The lyrics actually available are less complete. About 9% of the lyrics of the titles listed for the various years were not available on this website. For a preliminary impression of the place of romance lyrics in the Top 40, I used statistical software (SAS) to count the occurrence of romance words in the titles. To detect changes during the seventy years, I divided the titles into three groups: 1930-1949 (3,594 titles); 1950-1979 (5,385 titles), and 1980-1999 (3,521 titles).
  As it turns out, the changes in proportions of the three types of lyric were very slight:
  • The most significant word for romance lyrics was "love". It occurred 276 times during the first period, which is 7.6% of the titles, 490 times (9.1%) for the second period, and 365 times (10.4%) for the latest period. Another word associated with romance is "baby". It is always used as a term of familiar address, rather than referring to an infant. It occurred 60 times (1.7%) in the first period, 149 (2.8%) in the second, and 36 (.67%) in the last.
  • As an indicator of what I will call heartbreak lyrics, I combined the counts of a group of words: "heartbreak", "heartache", "crying", "tears", "lonely", "hurt", and "pain". The combined count for this group of words was 60 (1.7%) for 1930-1949, 122 (2.2%) for 1950-1979, and 81 (2.3 %) for 1980-1999.
  • Finally, as an indicator of what I will be calling infatuation lyrics, I used the words "crazy", "mad", "madly", "madness", "fall", and "falling" — as in falling in love. The words "infatuation" and "crush", by the way, are seldom used in titles: I counted only three instances during the entire seventy-year period. The combined count for this group of words was 32 (.90%) for the first period, 71 (1.2%) for the second, and 36 (1.0%) for the third.
  These figures show a slight increase in the use of the word "love" and the heartbreak words in titles, and a slight variation in the use of "baby" and infatuation words. Perhaps a more significant implication is the stability in the use of these words over the three periods. The word counts suggest that types of popular romance songs may have the characteristic stability of collective representations.
3 A sample of lyrics. One obvious problem in using counts of title words is that most romance lyrics do not contain the word "love" or any of the other indicator words in their titles. Indeed, many romance songs do not even contain them in their lyrics, e.g. Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got A Hold On Me" (1962); or the Beatles' composition "Got To Get You Into My Life" (1966). Both of these lyrics concern romance of a particular kind, infatuation, but do not use any of the indicator words. In order to survey indicators of alienation in romance lyrics, it was necessary to analyze them in the context of the entire song. As already indicated, about 9% of the lyrics were not available on the website. The size of the lyric base that must be read is further reduced because of multiple entries of titles. Some of the most popular songs made the Top 40 several times, as sung by different artists. Duplication reduces the number of titles to be read to about 9,000 over the seventy years.
Because of the large number of lyrics available, I took a one-year sample of the Top 40 for each of seven decades, with the years chosen at random. [4] In my sample overall I read 771 lyrics. For reasons of comparison I arranged the results in a slightly different periodization. The bulk of the lyrics (408) were from the period 1970-1999. As will be indicated below, these lyrics were not only more numerous but also much more diverse and slightly more difficult to classify than those of the earlier period. Even so, I was able to divide the lyrics for all the sample years I read into five categories: love, heartbreak, infatuation, miscellaneous romance, and not-romance. The results of my analysis are shown in the table below (Table 1).
  Table 1: Types of songs, 1930-1999
  1930-1959 1960's 1970-1999 Total

- Love 16 15.5% 43 16.6% 44 10.8% 103 13.4%
- Heartbreak 23 22.3% 76 29.2% 103 25.2% 202 26.2%
- Infatuation 20 19.4% 50 19.2% 60 14.7% 130 16.9%
- Miscellaneous 18 17.5% 25 9.6% 90 22.1% 133 17.2%
Not-romance 26 25.3% 66 25.4% 111 27.2% 203 26.3%

  103 100% 260 100% 408 100% 771 100%
  This classification of romance songs is in close agreement with two earlier surveys. Christenson and Roberts (1998: 121) classified Top 40 songs 1980-1990, reporting that 73% of the 240 lyrics they examined concerned love relationships. Edwards (1994) surveyed the Top 20 for 1980-1989, finding 72% of the 200 lyrics she analyzed, refer to romantic or sexual relationships. Their figures, 73% and 72%, are quite close to the 72.8% that I found for romance songs in the closest comparable period in my analysis of the three sample years during 1970-1999.
  The proportion of love songs decreased slightly in the period 1970-1999 (10.8%) compared to the proportion in the period 1930-1959 (15.5%). The proportion of heartbreak songs increased slightly in the later period, from 22.3% to 25.2%, and the proportion of infatuation songs decreased, from 19.4% to 14.7%. Perhaps the most significant pattern is the stability of the lyric patterns over the seventy year period. The predominance of romance songs — especially in the categories heartbreak and infatuation, as I will try to show — suggests alienation over the entire period. Since there were many larger changes in the nature of popular songs that occurred in this period, I will return to the issue of change later on.
  What can be learned by an inspection of romance lyrics? The direction I have taken was to note recurring patterns in the romance lyrics, circling around the question if both the viewpoints of the lover and the beloved are acknowledged as being interdependent — what Elias (1991) calls the "I - We balance". For the elaboration that follows, by the way, I did not limit my search to the Top 40 sample years, but called upon all lyrics from the entire seventy years. Here I will concentrate my attention on the relevant features of infatuation and heartbreak songs, starting with the former.
4 Love at first sight. The dictionary definition of infatuation, unlike the many definitions of love, is simple and straightforward: an unreasonable or foolish attraction to another person — "a strong but not usually lasting feeling of love or attraction for someone" (Cambridge International Dictionary). However, my reading of the romance lyrics suggests that description to be somewhat ambiguous. This ambiguity can be seen in the idea of "love at first sight" — also a sometimes foolish, feeling of attraction. This phenomenon, however, is not only the topic of infatuation songs, but frequently returns in all kinds of popular songs. Love at first sight means that one can "fall in love" upon seeing the loved one, usually without any other form of communication. For example:
  Love walked right in and drove the shadows away
Love walked right in and brought my sunniest day
One magic moment and my heart seemed to know
That love said: "Hello", though not a word was spoken
  ["Love Walked In", 1938]
  A similar idea is expressed in many romance lyrics of more recent periods, often very crudely, as in:
  Just one look, that's all it took ...
I thought I was dreamin' but I was wrong
But I'm going to keep on schemin', yeah, yeah, yeah
Till I can a-make you my own ...
  ["Just One Look", 1963]
  Several Beatles' songs also involve love at first sight, as in "I Saw Her Standing There":
  Well she was just seventeen
You know what I mean
And the way she looked
Was way beyond compare
So how could I dance with another
Oh, when I saw her standing there
  ["I Saw Her Standing There", 1964]
  The central idea in all love-at-first-sight lyrics is that a single glance is all that is needed; falling in love is instantaneous and based completely only on the appearance of the beloved. Being unreasonable of foolish, moreover, seems to be a general mark of love as voiced in the idiom of popular music. Many songs of romance virtually equate love with mental disorder, often expressed with a vivid imagery of mental disorder, of being crazy or insane. Here are some examples:
  Well, I think I'm goin' out of my head
Yes, I think I'm goin' out of my head
I want you to want me, I need you so badly
I can't think of anything but you ...
  ["Goin' Out Of My Head", 1964]
  It [love] surrounds me
Over me like a sea of madness
It controls me
  ["Think I'm In Love", 1982]
  Hey, I'm a loaded gun
I'm crazy about her, crazy about her
Hey, I'm a lovesick son
I'm crazy about her
  ["Crazy About Her", 1989]
  I'm losin' my mind, girl
'Cause I'm goin' crazy
  ["Crazy", 1994]
  Other examples, especially of song titles are "Crazy" (1961); "You're Driving Me Out Of My Mind" (1966); "Crazy On You" (1976); "Crazy Love" (1978); "Crazy For You" (1985); and "Crazy In The Night" (1985). The equation is so complete that some lyrics use craziness as a synonym for love without implying any impairment of function ("Crazy 'Bout Ya Baby", 1954), which is also common in ordinary discourse.
  A second theme of many, but not all of romance lyrics is that the beloved is a coming into reality of an idealized image held long before she or he appeared, as in these lyrics:
  Dearly beloved, how clearly I see
Somewhere in Heaven you were fashioned for me
  ["Dearly Beloved", 1942]
  And also:
  Long ago and far away, I dreamed a dream one day
And now that dream is here beside me

Just one look and then I knew
That all I longed for long ago was you
  ["Long Ago (And Far Away)", 1944]
  As we know, ideals are not easily fulfilled. As a consequence, the correspondence, or lack of it, between inner feelings and outer reality is an important issue in romance lyrics. Often the adored one fails to live up to the inner image, or even more frequently, fails to reciprocate sufficiently to enable the lover to know if she or he lives up to it.
  In a café or sometimes on a crowded street
I've been near you, but you never notice me
My cherie amour, won't you tell me how could you ignore
That behind that little smile I wore
How I wish that you were mine
  ["My Cherie Amour", 1969]
  So, summarizing my findings thus far, both "craziness" and a discrepancy between inner feelings and outer reality seem to be common characteristics of the general idiom of romance songs. Often, however, the borderlines between inner and outer reality become impermeable. As often, moreover, the idea of craziness in romantic lyrics literally implies impairment of function, to the point of mental disorder, since the songs describe actual symptoms. Here we enter the domain of obsession, which can be found in many love songs, but also proves to be a hallmark of most heartbreak as well as infatuation songs.
5 Obsession. Many lyrics suggest impairment without using the word crazy or one of its cognates: loss of control, delusion, obsession, compulsion, loss of judgement, and so on. The classic romance song of obsession, perhaps, is "Night And Day":
  I think of you ...
Day and night, night and day, why is it so
That this longing for you follows wherever I go
In the roaring traffic's boom
In the silence of my lonely room
I think of you
  ["Night And Day", 1932]
  In many romantic songs this obsession is related with other elements of mental impairment, of which compulsion seems to be the most important one. Compulsion is the inability to control one's thoughts or behavior: feeling or actually being out of control. The song "You Really Got A Hold On Me" illustrates loss of control:
  I don't like you but I love you
See that I'm always thinking of you

I want to leave you, don't want to stay here
Don't want to spend another day here
Oh, oh, oh, I want to split now
I just can't quit now ...
  ["You Really Got A Hold On Me", 1962]
  The same element of loss of control is also clear in this, more recent song:
  I try to change my thoughts
It's a waste of time
You keep my mind occupied
  ["Daydreamin'", 1998]
  Both of the lines "See that I'm always thinking of you" and "You keep my mind occupied" also introduce one of the most prominent impairments of thought in the infatuation lyrics, compulsive thinking — which is so strong, that:
  All day long I think of you
I can't even think of things to do
  ["Daydreamin'", 1998]
  The same theme is clear in "Sittin Up In My Room":
  Be sittin' up in my room
Back here thinkin' bout you
I must confess, I'm a mess for you
Be sittin' up in my room
  ["Sittin' Up In My Room", 1994]
  This idea often takes an extreme form, that life is meaningless without the love object, as in:
  I can't live, if living is without you
I can't live, I can't give anymore
  ["Without You", 1994]
  The same idea is prominent in "I Just Want To Be Your Everything":
  Oh, if I stay here without you, darling, I will die.
  ["I Just Want To Be Your Everything", 1977]
  Obsession can result in several other feelings. Self-pity about being obsessed is one of them. In "Addicted To Love", for instance, the lovestruck singer complains about himself:
  ... Your heart beats in double time
Another kiss and you'll be mine, a one-track mind

You can't be saved
Oblivion is all you crave
  ["Addicted To Love", 1986]
  Obsession can even take an extreme form as stalking the love object, as in "Every Breath You Take":
  Every breath you take
And every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I'll be watching you
  ["Every Breath You Take", 1983]
  A noteworthy effect of obsession also is a clouding of judgment, as is shown by these lyrics:
  Each night I sit at home
Hoping that he will phone
But I know Bobbie has someone else

Still in my heart I pray
There will soon come the day
That I will have him all to myself
  ["Bobby's Girl", 1962]
  This lyric illustrates impairment to the point of living in a self-contained, unreal world. I will go into this topic later on. First I will take up the physical impairments, such as loss of appetite, sleep, etcetera, which in the context of obsession show up in many romance lyrics.
6 Physical impairment. The theme of impairment of bodily function is another common ingredient of infatuation lyrics. The next song actually is titled "Infatuation":
  Early in the morning, I can't sleep
I can't work and I can't eat
  ["Infatuation", 1985]
  "Addicted To Love" — already mentioned — has the same theme:
  You can't sleep, you can't eat
There's no doubt you're in deep
Your throat is tight, you can't breath
Another kiss is all you need
  ["Addicted To Love", 1986]
  The complaint in "I Get Weak" is similar:
  Can't walk, can't talk, can't eat, can't sleep.
  ["I Get Weak", 1988]
  "Crazy About Her" even involves a whole litany of suffering:
  I walk the streets at night
Until the morning light
Come shining through
Can't get a good night's sleep
Ain't been to work in weeks

Can't get her off my mind
I'm drinking too much wine
I'm burning up inside
  ["Crazy About Her", 1989]
  The song "Have You Ever" also complains about loss of sleep. It also introduces another impairment, lack of articulate speech:
  Have you ever tried the words
But they don't come out right
  ["Have You Ever", 1999]
  The same complaint occurs in "I Get Weak":
  My tongue is tied, it's crazy.
  ["I Get Weak", 1988]
  The song "I'm All Shook Up" also contains this kind of impairment:
  My tongue gets tied when I try to speak ...
  ["(I'm) All Shook Up", 1957]
  The inability to speak clearly is closely related to the inability to speak to the love-object at all, as in "I've Told Every Little Star":
  I've told every little star
Just how sweet I think you are
Why haven't I told you?
  ["I've Told Every Little Star", 1933]
  Very often infatuation lyrics imply that there has been no contact between the lover and the adored one. One example is "Shake Your Bon-Bon":
  I'm a desperado
Underneath your window
I see your silhouette
Are you my Juliet?
I feel a mad connection
With your body
  ["Shake Your Bon-Bon", 1999]
  The issue of contact and communication is important in understanding romantic love, but requires some theoretical background. I will take up this issue below. For the moment it suffices to say that allusions to mental and physical impairment recur frequently in romance songs. Some times, as the next song fragment shows, even to the point that "love" involves pain and impairment:
  This can't be love because I feel so well
No sobs, no sorrows, no sighs
This can't be love, I get no dizzy spell
My head is not in the skies
  ["This Can't Be Love", 1940]
  Just as the pain of loss is the defining characteristic of heartbreak lyrics, impairment of mental and, especially, physical functioning is the most prominent characteristic of infatuation lyrics. This pattern is relevant to the I - We balance, since the impairment that is described involves only the lover, not the loved one. Next I will consider the second most prominent characteristic, being lost in one's own bubble, which is also relevant.
7 Seeing the actual person. In many of these lyrics, there is no speech between the lover and the love object because there has been, and may never be, any contact: love at first sight, or at a distance. In some love songs, in contrast, it is clear that there is or has been intimate contact. "The Way You Look Tonight" provides an example:
  Some day, when I'm awfully low
When the world is cold, I will feel a glow
Just thinking of you and the way you look tonight

With each word your tenderness grows
tearing my fear apart ...
  ["The Way You Look Tonight", 1936]
  The idea of little or no contact in infatuation raises the possibility that most of what takes place is in the smitten one's head, not in the real world, and certainly not in the love object. This idea is not expressed directly in infatuation lyrics, but may be implied by the way in which they describe the other person.
  Infatuation lyrics are unrealistic in regard the adored one. They speak abstractly, in the language of idealization and exaggeration. Infatuation lyrics go into great detail about the lover's feelings, but about the desired one, use only abstract generalizations that could be applied to many persons. The adored one is beautiful, good, virtuous, generous, etcetera, but concrete features that might make them unique are never mentioned. Some examples:
  You're just too good to be true
Can't take my eyes off of you
You'd be like heaven to touch
I wanna hold you so much
  ["Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", 1967]
  It's just like heaven being here with you
You're like an angel, too good to be true
  ["Angel Baby", 1958]
  I've told every little star
Just how sweet I think you are
  ["I've Told Every Little Star", 1932]
  Infatuation lyrics leave out particulars, as when they assert that the adored is better in some undisclosed way than all others:
  And the way she looked
Was beyond compare
  ["I Saw Her Standing There", 1964]
  However, in the case of some of the earlier lyrics, the descriptions are more detailed and concrete, and therefore exceptional. These songs focus on the other person, noticing particulars about the loved one that make that person unique:
  Moonlight becomes you, it goes your hair
You certainly know the right thing to wear
Moonlight becomes you, I'm thrilled at the sight
  ["Moonlight Becomes You", 1942]
  The absence of precise details and the prominence of generalized images tends toward sentimentality or fatuousness. Here is an example of the latter:
  I love him, I love him, I love him
And where he goes I'll follow, I'll follow, I'll follow
I will follow him, follow him wherever he may go
There isn't an ocean too deep
A mountain so high it can keep me away ...
  ["I Will Follow Him", 1963]
  These and quite similar lines are repeated to the point that one may think that the record is broken.
  To summarize: the second prominent feature of infatuation lyrics — and most other romantic lyrics as well — is that they describe the adored one only abstractly. The feelings treated in these songs virtually all belong to the lover; very few of the adored one's feelings are mentioned. These features imply that the infatuated one is inside his or her own bubble, hardly considering the person that they think they love — as indicated below, this is also true of most heartbreak and love lyrics. These lyrics are individualistic in the isolated mode. Finally, as I shall show next, they suggest a constricted view of the world.
8 Constricted versus expanded view. The viewpoint of the infatuated one in these lyrics is always focused only on the adored one, who is the be-all and end-all; nothing else in the whole world matters. Most of these songs say or imply that the infatuated one's vision is narrowly constricted to a single person. In some of the earlier romance lyrics, by contrast, the lover's viewpoint seems to be expanded. In this lyric, the lover's view of the world expands to include sounds that he or she hadn't noticed before:
  There were bells on a hill
But I never heard them ringing
No I never heard them at all
Till there was you
  ["Till There Was You", 1957]
  In the next lyric, the lover's vision expands to include both the world of nature and the human world:
  I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you
  ["What a Wonderful World", 1959]
  In this last instance, the lover's vision expands to include all of humanity:
  What a day this has been
What a rare mood I'm in
Why, its almost like being in love

There's a smile on my face
For the whole human race
Why, it's almost like being in love
  ["Almost Like Being In Love", 1947]
  To summarize the features of infatuation songs: they involve impairment of both mental and — specifically — physical functions, they speak the language of idealized abstractions, and they usually involve constriction of vision.
9 Heartbreak. The lyrics of heartbreak and infatuation differ in two ways. As already indicated, infatuation lyrics concern desire for someone that one has not been involved with, heartbreak with someone that one has lost. The second difference is that some infatuation songs describe the state as pleasurable, but heartbreak songs rarely do; they usually concern pain and suffering, particularly the pain of grief and loneliness. Crying and tears recur in these lyrics. Just as impairment is one of the chief features of infatuation, pain is the chief feature of heartbreak. These lyrics contain less physical impairment than infatuation lyrics, but they are long on mental impairment, particularly compulsion and obsession. Hints of suicidal ideation are also not rare.
  The lyrics of "Can't Let Go", repeat these themes, with an emphasis on compulsion and obsession:
  You're all I know, I can't let go

Just cast aside, you don't even know I'm alive
You just walk on by, don't care to see me cry

I try and try to deny that I need you
But still you remain on my mind
  ["Can't Let Go", 1992]
  It was somewhat of a surprise to find that heartbreak lyrics, like infatuation lyrics, suggest that the heartbroken one is also lost in his or her own bubble. That is, like infatuation songs, heartbreak lyrics usually speak the language of abstract generalities, rather than the particulars that bring to life the words on a page, and almost entirely concern the heartbroken one's feelings, rather than those of the lost one. Also like infatuation songs, virtually all heartbreak lyrics imply a constriction of vision, in this case a focus on the lost one. "Let Me Let Go", for instance, implies obsession:
  But I can't go a day without your face
Goin' through my mind

In fact, not a single minute
Passes without you in it
Your voice, your touch, memories of your love
Are with me all of the times
  ["Let Me Let Go", 1999]
  The torments and pain described in heartbreak songs, are mostly mental. They often reside in the inevitable repetitions of compulsive thinking itself:
  I'm lying alone with my head on the phone
Thinking of you till it hurts
I know you hurt too but what else can we do
Tormented and torn apart
  ["All Out Of Love", 1980]
  Heartbreak lyrics usually concern the feelings of the heartbroken one alone, not those of the lost one. However, this lyric, unlike most, guesses that the lost one feels the same as the singer, "hurt, tormented, and torn apart." In addition to the pain of loneliness and feeling lost, this lyric implies an idea very common in heartbreak lyrics, that the heartbroken one is nothing without the lost lover. As we will see later on, this is an important issue in conceptualizing the social relationship implied in songs.
  The accompanying physical element of all the pain and suffering mainly is crying, also in songs written from the male point of view:
  When I can't sleep at night
Without holding you tight
Girl, each time I try I just break down and cry
Pain in my head
Oh, I'd rather be dead
  ["End Of The Road", 1992]
  This song is no exception. "Lately" is also male, and also features crying:
  Baby, I'm on my knees praying God help me please
Bring my baby back, right back to me
If lovin you was right then I don't wanna go wrong
So I drown myself with tears
Sittin' here, singin' another sad love song
  ["Lately", 1998]
  Some songs are more distanced and ironic, and as a consequence wittier. They retain, however, the main theme of compulsion:
  Well maybe nothing lasts forever
Even when you stay together
I don't need forever after
But it's your laughter won't let me go
So I'm holding on this way
  ["My Favorite Mistake", 1998]
  The lyric "Nobody Knows" continues the same themes, but also has the theme that the pain of denial can be added to the pain of heartbreak:
  Like a clown I put on a show
The pain is real even if nobody knows
Now I'm cryin' inside
And nobody knows it but me
  ["Nobody Knows", 1996]
10 Exceptions to the rule. Conceptually one might expect that some heartbreak lyrics would evoke a particular person who was lost, and the work of mourning. Like infatuation, there should be two types. First, a heartbreak of mourning which suggests the image of the lost one and/or, second, implies an expansion, rather than a constriction of vision. I have found few heartbreak lyrics that have these qualities. All the others are even more stereotyped than the infatuation lyrics. Only two heartbreak lyrics — both from the thirties — are different. The first one seems to be a song of successful mourning:
  A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces
An airline ticket to romantic places
And still my heart has wings
These foolish things remind me of you

How strange, how sweet, to find you still
These things are dear to me
They seem to bring you near to me

The sigh of midnight trains in empty stations
Silk stockings thrown aside, dance invitations
Oh, how the ghost of you clings ...
  ["These Foolish Things", 1936]
  This ballad is utterly unlike most heartbreak lyrics in that the memories of the lost one evoke strongly positive feelings — "How strange, how sweet, to find [the memory of] you still". This aspect of the lyric suggests successful mourning. In addition, the lost one is somewhat particularized. We know that she smoked, and wore lipstick and silk stockings. But all of the feelings that are described are those of the singer, as in the typical heartbreak lyric. The next lyric is still more unlike the typical heartbreak lyric:
  ... They may take you from me, I'll miss your fond caress
But though they take you from me, I'll still possess:

The way you wear your hat
The way you sip your tea
The memory of all that
No, no, they can't take that away from me

The way your smile just beams
The way you sing off key
The way you haunt my dreams
No, no, they can't take that away from me

Still, I'll always, always keep the memory of:

The way you hold your knife
The way we danced till three
The way you changed my life
  ["They Can't Take That Away From Me", 1937]
  In this lyric, written by Ira Gershwin, the lost one is highly particularized. There are several precise details that evoke a unique person. One of them — "The way you sing off key" — is not a compliment. The inclusion of this slightly negative memory highlights, by contrast, how unrealistically idealized most heartbreak and infatuation lyrics are. Like "These Foolish Things", this lyric recounts pleasurable memories, rather than the agony of most heartbreak lyrics. "They Can't Take This Away" models the discourse of unalienated love. Another lyric of this type, "I Love How You Love Me":
  I love how your eyes close whenever you kiss me
And when I'm away from you I love how you miss me
I love the way you always treat me tenderly
But, darling, most of all I love how you love me

I love how your heart beats whenever I hold you
I love how you think of me without being told to
I love the way your touch is always heavenly ...
  ["I Love How You Love Me", 1961]
  This lyric is somewhat exceptional for the period 1960-1999, since it particularizes the loved one, describing her thoughts and feelings as well as the lover's.
  There are more recent romance songs that attempt to particularize the beloved, but the result is usually vague or narrow. The Beatles' lyric "Something" provides an example:
  Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me

Somewhere in her smile she knows
That I don't need no other lover
Something in her style that shows me ...
  ["Something", 1969]
  The cues to the beloved lack concreteness. She does not come alive from them. In more recent periods, a few lyrics involve a single concrete description, most often eye color. But this single brief reference seems insufficient to particularize the beloved.
  In my search of the lyrics from 1970 to 1999, I could find only one obvious exception to the trend I have described, "The Lady In Red":
  I've never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight
I've never seen you shine so bright

I have never seen that dress you're wearing
Or the highlights in your head that catch your eyes ...
  ["The Lady In Red", 1986]
  The beloved is described in one fairly concrete way, in the style of the exceptional romance lyrics of 1930-1969. Another possible exception is the song "The Best Things In Life Are Free", which implies that love brings an expansion of vision, which charted in 1992. But this song is something of an anomaly for my purposes since it first charted in 1927. I would appreciate it if any reader could name another Top 40 romance song from the period 1970-1999 that is an exception.
11 An intermezzo on individualism. I have divided romance songs into four types, heartbreak, infatuation, love, and other. Obsession seems to be an feature of all types of romantic songs, but there are also four discriminating features: mental and physical impairment, idealized abstraction, constriction of vision, and pain and suffering.
  Some of these features seem more or less specific for some types of songs. Physical impairment dominates in infatuation lyrics, whereas mental impairment forms an important characteristic of heartbreak songs as are pain and suffering. My analysis suggests that all infatuation lyrics and almost all heartbreak lyrics in the Top 40 are individualistic to the point of implying alienation in the isolated mode. I now will try to interpret this finding in terms of a theory of social integration.
Western societies currently focus on individuals to the extent that our relationship vocabulary is impoverished, especially relationships involving mutual understanding. Traditional and Asian societies, on the other hand, emphasize relationships to the point that the lexicon for individuality is meager. Neither East nor West has a vocabulary that equally includes relationship and individual. [5] Emerson, one of the prophets of Western individualism, promoted self-reliance as an antidote to blind conformity: "When my genius calls, I have no father and mother, no brothers or sisters." But in a traditional society, there is nothing more important than one's relationships. Freeing up the individual from her relational / emotional world has been at the core of modernization. Since one's relationships and emotions don't show up on a resumé, they have been de-emphasized to the point of disappearance.
  The individual-relationship problem is reflected in a longstanding dispute among scholars. At one extreme is a current perspective in the discipline of philosophy known as the problem of "Other Minds". These scholars ask the question "can one ever really know the mind of another person?" and answer the question with a resounding "No!" From this perspective, each individual is fated to standing alone, isolated from others. However, there is older tradition of scholarship that answers the question affirmatively. Historians, phenomenologists, and social psychologists have suggested that not only can one know the mind of others, but that the development of intelligence, cooperation, and even the individual self depends on being able to enter other minds. The social philosopher G.H. Mead built his theory of society on the ability that humans have to "take the role — that is, the viewpoint — of the other."
  Like Mead, the psychiatrist Stern (1977) has pointed out that infant learning is dependent on what he calls "attunement" between infant and caretaker. The proponents of the intersubjective view argue that humans spend most of their waking lives imagining the viewpoints of others, and that a society exists to the extent that their imagination is accurate. In this point of view, consciousness is partly subjective, but it is also partly intersubjective. Cooperation with others, even avoiding automobile collisions, depends in large part on accurately understanding the intentions of others. In intimate relationships, the issue of connectedness has an added dimension, not only the sharing of outlook, but also the sharing of feeling. Surely mutual understanding of thoughts and feelings is a key element in love between two people. A widespread failure to accurately imagine the minds of other bespeaks of dysfunctional relationships. A society in which such alienation occurs, one would think, is in danger of falling apart.
12 A theory of social integration. In theories of social integration, alienation takes two forms: separation from others — isolation — or estrangement from self — engulfment with others out of loyalty. The theoretical approach most useful for this study is found in Elias's (l987, Introduction) discussion of the "I - Self" (isolation), the "We - Self" (engulfment), and the "I - We balance" (solidarity). Elias proposed a three-part typology: independence: too much social distance; interdependence: a balance between self and other that allows for effective cooperation; and dependence: too little social distance. In solidarity, one understands the viewpoint of the other, but does not sacrifice one's own viewpoint to it.
  The issues of solidarity and alienation were at the core of the foundations of the discipline of sociology. European social philosophers were deeply concerned that in the breakup of rural communities and the growth of cities, rural communities of closely connected persons were being replaced by cities largely composed of isolated individuals. Later, more sophisticated thinkers, like Durkheim, in Suicide (1897), expanded the dichotomy between solidarity and alienation into three terms, as indicated in the comments on Elias above. Durkheim's terminology was different, but the idea is very similar to Elias's: groups in which relationships are either too close or too distant cause suicide or other pathologies. Not stated implicitly in Durkheim but implied is that it is possible for groups to have relationships that are secure, neither too close nor too distant. The threefold continuum of social integration is stated or implied in many sociological and social psychological theories in addition to Elias's (Scheff, 1997: Chapter 4)
  Of course, there is also another side to the issue of alienation: power. It was Marx who put this element to the fore in sociological theory. His work proposed that the central dynamism of social change was power rather than social integration. His focus on class and class conflict was mostly concerned with sources and consequences of power. But Marx also retained the older interest in social integration, through his concern with alienation. Marx proposed that persons in capitalist societies become alienated not only from the means of production, but from others and from self. That is, that capitalism reflects and generates disturbances in social relationships and in the self. In his review of empirical studies of alienation, Seeman (1975) found evidence of both kinds of alienation: alienation from others and from self. Seeman referred to the latter as "self-estrangement," which is comparable to my term engulfment. In suffocatingly close relationships, by the way, one gives up important parts of one's self in order to be loyal to the other(s).
  Although Marx supplemented his theory of class and power with a theory of alienation, there is great disparity in his development of the two theories. The political / economic theory is lavishly elaborated. The bulk of his commentary on alienation takes place in his early work. Even there, as in later works, the formulation of theory of alienation is brief and casual. It is easy to understand why Marx's followers have also made it secondary to material interests. It seems to me that any analysis of social structure and process should contain both axes: power and integration. Perhaps these are the two major dimensions of any society. In this paper, I emphasize solidarity and alienation, even though I acknowledge the importance of power.
  The threefold continuum of social integration suggests a way of analyzing the individual-relationship balance in song lyrics: to what extent do they evoke thoughts and feelings of self and other equally, suggesting solidarity rather than alienation? An empirical approach to the issue of solidarity/alienation in modern societies is to analyze collective representations, such as rites of mass mourning, mass advertising, or popular songs. In this article I have reported stable patterns of popular romance songs. Samples during the last thirty years suggest alienation in the isolated mode, rather than solidarity. The samples were similar during the period 1930-1950, but more songs during that period suggest solidarity, and suggest it more vividly.
13 Stability and change. My analysis so far has suggested that types of romance songs and the proportion of each type have been fairly stable over the past seventy years, with only very slight changes in proportions. These findings need qualification and elaboration, however. First, my analysis to this point has concerned only lyrics. Beginning in the 1960's, massive changes in musical forms took place, which are much greater than the changes in the lyrics that I have reported.
The typical romance song of the 1930-1960 was a ballad. The musical form of the ballad is slow, somewhat detached in tone, with fairly simple orchestration as accompaniment. Beginning in the 1960's, however, the various forms of rock and roll appeared. The tempo and strong emphasis on rhythm increased so greatly as to suggest urgency, even desperation. The effect of this change is most noticeable in infatuation songs. A comparison illustrates the change. Classic infatuation songs like "Night And Day", and "Long Ago (And Far Away)" were ballads. They suggest emotion, but emotion that is under control. There is balance between thinking and feeling. More recent infatuation songs, such as "You Really Got A Hold On Me" (1962) and "Got To Get You Into My Life" (1966), with fast tempo and crashing rock rhythms, suggest more intense and overt emotions. The balance has shifted to the point that feeling dominates thinking. [6]
  Furthermore, beginning in the 1960's, a change in the relative weight of the verbal and non-verbal elements began. In the later period, the music is increasingly dominant. Songs became longer, but with more repetitions of lines, decreasing the weight of the lines. Musical form and orchestration became more complex, but the lyrics are simplified. These changes, like the increasing tempo and strong rhythm, increase emphasis on feeling. The mode of delivery by singers of romance songs also changed in this direction. The sixties saw the beginning of artists who yelled or screamed, like Aretha Franklin, rather than singing in a form resembling speech. James Brown is not a screamer, but his cries of delight are non-verbal, dominating usually somewhat insubstantial lyrics. All of these changes taken together are in the direction of emphasizing feelings over talking and thinking.
Even lyrics themselves have changed over the seventy year period more significantly than is suggested by the small changes and fluctuations shown in the word counts and lyric analysis reported above. Among romance songs, there are now many more genres than there were in the earlier period, all of which I have classified as other in my analysis. There are now romance songs about quarrels and disputes; some of these songs involve three persons. Typically, a woman is complaining about the competition for a man by another woman. A whole new genre is the overt proposition, many of them floridly sexual. Although there were sexual songs in the earlier period, sex was seldom mentioned explicitly. [7] Some of the Top 40 songs of the 1990's, however, are crudely sexual.
  In terms of my analysis, perhaps the most significant change has been the loosening and overlapping of the three types of romance songs. The heartbreak lyrics have the least loosening, love next, and infatuation, the most. There are still many clearly identifiable representatives of each type in the most recent periods, but others show fewer indicators, especially love and infatuation. Another change is a tendency toward overlap between the types. Love lyrics that have some of the characteristics of heartbreak or infatuation, for example. Here is an example of a love lyric that has considerable overlap with heartbreak ("How Do I Live"):
  How do I get through the night without you
If I had to live without you
What kinda life would that be
Oh I need you in my arms, need you to hold
You are my world, my heart, my soul
  ["How Do I Live", 1997]
  This lyric is in the subjunctive mood. The singer's attraction is reciprocated, but he or she anticipates heartbreak.
A love lyric from the thirties stands in stark contrast; rather than anticipating pain, it anticipates pleasure:
  Some day, when I'm awfully low
when the world is cold
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight
  ["The Way You Look Tonight", 1936]
  Here the future is anticipated positively, thankful for the present moment, whatever may happen afterward. It is a stirring tribute to the loved one, without idealizing her or him, and without being self-absorbed. In the thirties and forties, there were a few romance lyrics that implied solidarity rather than alienation. I have not been able to find any comparable lyrics for the last forty years. There are exceptional lyrics during this period, but they deviate only very weakly from the patterns of the four discriminating features. [8]
  Of Top 40 romance lyrics, I rated 4 out of 77 (5.2%) of the sample years 1930-1959 as having only one of the four discriminating features and thus suggesting solidarity; for the sample years 1969-1999 this score is 8 out of 568 (1.4%). There are even less lyrics that do not show any of the discriminating features in the later period: 3 (3.9%) for 1930-1959, and only 1 (0.2%) for 1969-1999. Moreover, the vividness of the images that make lyrics suggestive of solidarity, accentuates the difference between the two periods. Most of the exceptions in the earlier period are vivid, most of those in the later period are rather narrow or vague.
14 Conclusion. This study has shown that over the last seventy years, most romance lyrics involve patterns that feature individual desire rather than love relationships. A theory of social integration suggests that such lyrics imply alienation rather than solidarity. In this framework, solidarity involves a secure bond, a relationship featuring a degree of attunement between the lovers, and expansion of vision that includes the larger world beyond the immediate relationship. Most romance lyrics, on the other hand involve only one side of the relationship, the lovers, their pain, impairment, and constriction of vision. The finding of fewer instances of lyrics that imply a mutual love relationship in the last forty years than in 1930-1960 suggests that alienation is increasing in romance lyrics.
  To what extent does this change in romance lyrics correspond to changes in actual relationships in our society? The fact that these patterns have been relatively stable over many years may mean only that the songs that contain them have market appeal. It doesn't guarantee correspondence with social reality (Frith, 1996). It is conceivable that the patterns I have described are merely songwriting conventions. We cannot assume that mass appeal of heartbreak, infatuation, and love forms means that the audience is recognizing their own relationships in them. For example, the slight tendency in recent years to combine elements from the three genres, noted above, may be market driven. If a song can appeal to two of the three genres as a crossover, it could increase the size of the group that recognizes the form of the lyric, and therefore its market appeal. I believe that market forces explain the formation of these lyric genres, but only in part.
  One market consideration likely to have considerable effect on the changes found in this study cannot be ignored: the increase in the youth market. The majority of the consumers in the earlier period were probably adults, but the majority in the later period were undoubtedly youths. This change might explain some of the simplification of romance lyrics reported here. Flagrant images of infatuation and heartbreak are more dramatic and easier for a ten-year-old to understand than mutuality, and idea not easily understood in Western societies, even by adults.
  The theory of social integration outlined above provides an unexpected insight into the structure of romance songs. The narrowing of vision to the point of obsessing only about the beloved in the majority of romance lyrics suggests a dynamic frequently found in Western societies. The isolated person yearns for union — engulfment — with the other(s), the dynamic that seems to drive adherence to sects, cults, religions and nations. In romance songs, the isolated lover, yearning for the beloved not yet attained, or lost, voices this desire. This yearning is part of a cruel trap, because it seems to suggest movement and growth, but may result only in a new form of alienation.
The most telling evidence of increasing alienation in this study is not found in the word counts and in the sampling of lyrics. The systematic techniques I used for this purpose giving, at best, only partial renderings of the contextual meaning of lyrics. The evidence that seems difficult to discount is that the lyrics that strongly imply security and solidarity in romantic bonds all come from the period 1930-1960. The indications of attunement, widening of vision, and enhancement of life are virtually absent in the sixties and after. Most of the romance lyrics since then imply lack of attunement, constriction of vision, or impairment of function — images of solipsistic self-absorption. The acceptance of such forms as romantic by songwriters, scholars, and the mass public hints at widespread alienation in our society. [9] But to make the point once again, the main findings reported here demonstrate alienation only in the lyrics, not necessarily in the larger society. These findings only add a further indication, like the increasing divorce and crime rates, and the decreasing rates of connectedness, that can be plausibly interpreted to suggest increasing alienation.
1. Robert Samuels called this book to my attention. For a wide variety of approaches, see: Crane, 1994. Return to text
2. For a descriptive study of romance songs as stages of courtship, see: Horton 1957. Return to text
3. The count of titles for each year after 1950 is far greater than 40. The lists for 1950-1999 include titles on the Top 40 for even a single week during the year, which can lead to as many as two hundred and sixty one (1963) titles for each year. The years 1930-1949 deal only with the Top 10 for each week, so that the total for these two decades is less than a hundred songs per year. Return to text
4. The years chosen at random were 1932 (28), 1946 (41), 1951 (34), 1961 (263) 1974 (160), 1985 (172), and 1997 (78). Return to text
5. Stolorow and Atwood (1992) give exact parity to self and relationship, and Gergen and MacNamee (1999) come close to doing so. These two books look toward a relational psychology, and therefore to integration between psychology and the social sciences. Return to text
6. Lyrics which involved curtailment of feeling were rare before 1960, but plentiful ever since. This change will be the topic of a future article. Return to text
7. There are some exceptions, of course. See for instance The Dominoes' hit song "Sixty-Minute Man" (1951). Return to text
8. Two supplementary studies of charted romance lyrics in less modernized societies suggest that they have more and stronger exceptions currently than the U.S. Erika Moreno (2000) found seven exception Spanish language lyrics in the charts of Spain and Costa Rica in 1999 alone. One of these was strongly exceptional, involving four concrete characteristics of the beloved. Frank Ha (2000) has found that charted Korean heartbreak lyrics tend to emphasize the beloved's pain more than the lovers, suggesting alienation in the engulfed mode, rather than the isolation of Western romance lyrics. Return to text
9. The scholarly literature on love in the West is particularly surprising in this respect. The conception of love expressed there is every bit as individualistic as popular romance songs. But this subject is too broad to be covered here, since there is a vast literature, both classic and modern, on the meaning of love. This literature will be the topic of a future article. Return to text
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  Thomas J. Scheff (email: scheff@sscf.ucsb.edu) is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Being Mentally Ill (1971), Microsociology 1990), Emotions and Violence (1991; with Suzanne Retzinger), Bloody Revenge (1994), Emotions, the Social Bond, and Human Reality (1997), and other books and articles.
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