Sociologist looks at 80 years of love songs

Musical styles might change a bit as time passes but an ever-present feature of rock or pop music is the love song. One sociology professor has a new book looking at such songs and they messages they send:

UC Santa Barbara professor of sociology Thomas Scheff’s new book, What’s Love Got to Do With It? Emotions and Relationships in Pop Songs, reveals why love songs may actually be negative representations of love and relationships for romantics both hopeless and otherwise.

“Music informs our ideas about emotions, and love in particular, but most love songs are terrible models. Lyrics maintain the mystery of love, but they reveal next to nothing about the look and feel of actual love,” asserts Scheff in his book.

Scheff, who studied 80 year’s worth of American song lyrics, reprimands the machine of pop love songs for setting unrealistic expectations about love for listeners. He questions the disconnect between real world expectations and actual outcomes in relationships that listeners formulate from growing up with their favorite love songs, from George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” to N’Sync and Backstreet Boy ballads. Scheff also discusses the pitfalls of pop culture influences.

On the one hand, I can imagine people suggesting that Scheff is simply writing about common sense: of course we know that love songs don’t actually reflect reality. On the other hand, I also imagine there could be some rich ground to cover here, particularly in thinking about how people readily consume such things and then go out and live more complicated relationships. How might Scheff’s thoughts about love songs fit with Ann Swidler’s look at the two dominant motifs regarding love in the United States in Talk of Love? (And in the middle, perhaps there are disc jockeys/radio hosts who will comment that this book is validation for playing love songs. This one’s for you Delilah.)

I will be interested to see if Scheff’s book looks at how love songs have changed over this 80 year period. Are the Gershwins and Adele covering the same ground?