I found more clouds of grey than any Russian play could guarantee… Are love songs evil?

Zizek! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the post about naming and shaming rubbish customers was supposed to be scheduled for the morning.  Alas, I’m an idiot and hit ‘publish’ instead of ‘schedule’.  Thus, a quick content post!

Are love songs evil?  Here’s Zizek in How to Read Lacan:

Not only does the other address me with an enigmatic desire, it also confronts me with the fact that I myself do not know what I really desire, with the enigma of my own desire. […] It is for this reason that finding oneself in the position of the beloved is so violent a discovery, even traumatic: being loved makes me feel directly the gap between what I am as a determinate being and the unfathomable X in me that causes love.  Lacan’s definition of love — ‘Love is giving something one doesn’t have…’ — has to be supplemented with ‘… to someone who doesn’t want it.’  Is this not confirmed by our most elementary experience when somebody unexpectedly declares passionate love to us?  The first reaction, preceding the possible positive reply, is that something obscene, intrusive, is being foced upon us. [Source: Zizek, S. ‘From “Che vuoi” to fantasy: Lacan with Eyes Wide Shut‘, How to Read Lacan]

It is interesting to explore this self-as-object of another’s desire with Zizek’s comments about the nature of our own desire (from the excellent and highly recommended The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema):

All too often, when we love somebody, we don’t accept him or her as what the person effectively is. We accept him or her insofar as this person fits the co-ordinates of our fantasy. We misidentify, wrongly identify him or her, which is why, when we discover that we were wrong, love can quickly turn into violence. There is nothing more dangerous, more lethal for the loved person than to be loved, as it were, for not what he or she is, but for fitting the ideal. [Source: Zizek, S. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema]

There are two issues.  The first is the unknowability of other people.  Other people exist beyond the wall of language that separates my internal cognitive world from the actual world of things-in-themselves.  I can form all these ideas about who a person is, but I have no way of knowing whether those concepts correspond to the actual person.  Indeed, it’s certain that my concept of the person is an incomplete sketch of the actual person.

The second is related to the first: the unknowability of me to any person who encounters and gets to ‘know’ me.  There’s the me that exists out here in my space and an imperfect facsimile that exists in the cognitive language of others (using anachronistic language, Kant can also be seen to argue that we are unknowable to ourselves in exactly the same way: there’s an actual us that exists and we create a concept of ourselves in apprehension through the synthesis of perception and imagination).

Back to love.

Love, then, is either a relation between the self and the concept you have for another person or — as I actually think — it’s a description of a feeling within the self.

But pop culture presents a very different understanding of love and, in its shallowness and self-interestedness, causes us to develop those co-ordinates of fantasy that Zizek mentions above.  It’s in this sense that love songs are evil: they construct the language of an ideal emotion which is unattainable and creates the fantasy of love (and of the person who will be loved).

Let’s go through some examples.

There’s an episode of The Patridge Family called ‘My son, the feminist’:

To impress his latest girlfriend Tina (Jane Actman), Keith (David Cassidy) pretends to be a staunch supporter of the Women’s Liberation Movement. As a result, the reluctant Partridges are expected to perform Tina’s wretched “activist” songs at an upcoming rally for P.O.W. (Power of Women)–and to make this a true “between a rock and a hard place” situation, the family will be carefully scrutinized by a group of anal-retentive parents calling themselves “The Morality Watchdogs.” [Source]

In the below clip, Keith asserts his masculinity by forcing his way into Tina’s space and then performs the song, I Think I Love You:

The song was later covered by Voice of The Beehive:

The song’s title mentions the self twice and the object of the self’s love once.  The word ‘I’ or ‘my’ appears in every single line of the song; the word ‘you’, on the other hand, doesn’t appear in the first verse, and only once in the second.  The clip from Voice of The Beehive reveals more clearly the narcissism of the song.  Despite showing us scenes of parties, we are never informed of the identity (/object) of the author’s love.

The love itself is described as some kind of illness with the authorial voice compelled to experience the feeling of love.  ‘I wake up from something that keeps knocking at my brain.  Before I go insane, I hold my pillow to my head and spring up in my bed screaming out the words I dread.’  Although emotions — love, in particular — are often described as being non-rational (sometimes illogical) events, the song presents love as both something which bubbles up from the darkness of the unknown self (‘knocking at my brain’) and something which is an external affliction: ‘I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for’.

The author then realises that this compulsive behaviour arising from external affliction could be seen as threatening or menacing.  Unintentionally exploring Zizek’s comment that something obscene, intrusive, is being forced upon us when declarations of love are expressed, the narrator reassures the object of the affection: ‘Believe me you really don’t have to worry.’  However, this is immediately followed up with a statement that the author wishes to intrude on the emotional space of their object: ‘I only want to make you happy.’

This profession of narcissism within love continues even when the author is abnegating.  Kylie Minogue’s Come Into My World explores the problem of neediness:

In this song, the author looks to the object of their affection to fulfill something missing within themselves, asking them to ‘lift [her] up, up, high upon [their] love’.  In return, the author offers parts of their body up for the other’s use.  ‘Take these arms that were made for lovin’, and this heart that will beat for two. Take these eyes that were meant for watching over you… Take these lips that were made for kissing, and this heart that will see you through, and these hands that were made to touch and feel you.’  Rather than being an affection forced upon the other person — as was the case in I Think I Love You — Come Into My World is about neediness, offering one’s own body for the use of a person who might not reciprocate the feeling of love.  ‘Here I am,’ says Come Into My World, ‘use my physical body as you will and invade my space.’

The music clip offers some support for this interpretation.  Minogue sings her song, somewhat oblivious to the world around her, never noticing that she’s walking around in circles alongside ghost versions of her past self.  On each cycle of the clip, she becomes less unique and individuated.  She is trapped and incomplete in this Groundhog Day street, forced to occupy space alongside her past.  She drops her baggage and then later picks it back up again, representing her inability to escape from her own history, forced to repeat her past footsteps.  She’s not connected with the world around her, minimally interacting with it and mostly avoiding it.  The object of the affection exists behind the camera in the viewer, and she invites that person into the haunted world that she occupies.  Which of the Minogue selves will the viewer choose to accept?  Does the multiplication of the Minogue-self make Minogue more desirable (four for the price of one)?

The other Minogues in the clip seem unaware of each other, except to the point of non-interaction with each other.  They are, in this sense, as hidden from Minogue as the other people in the clip.  By inviting the viewer to reduce her to her physical parts, Minogue has become alienated from herself.

All of this happens, of course, without any activity on behalf of the beloved object of the song (who exists in the actual world on the other side of the camera).  The request that the object of affection ‘come into [her] world’ suggests that the beloved does not occupy the same world but is at a distance.  The camera is the one-way transmission of information, meaning Minogue has no knowledge of the person she desires who lives on the other side of the camera.

So despite the self abasement theme of the song, this is still a depiction of love as a narcissistic act.

Both of these songs have the element of the cerebral about them.  Love is a sensation which comes from the body to be interpreted by the mind and transformed into will.  The song Starstrukk by 3OH!3 (featuring Katy Perry), on the other hand, presents love as a fake cognitive interpretation of the bodily manifestation of physical desire.

The song begins by declaring sexual desire as a natural, biologically determined result of a man viewing a woman as a sexual object.  ‘Nice legs, Daisy Dukes makes a man go… Tight jeans, double D’s makin’ me go. All the people on the street know.’  Love itself is reduced to a physical act — ‘I think I should know wow to make love to something innocent without leaving my fingerprints’ — that shouldn’t be understood as a higher concept: ‘L O V E is just another word I never learned to pronounce.’  Given that the word ‘love’ appears in the sense of ‘copulate’ earlier in the chorus, it’s clear that this use of the word ‘pronounce’ is actually referring to the translation of the event into the language of concepts.

There are two interesting features to the song.  The song presents the way in which men and women objectify their desired person as being somewhat equivalent.  The first part of the chorus is sung by Katy Perry where she explains that she uses the biological reality of male sexuality to ‘set them up to knock them down’.  The second part is by one of the men who repeats the idea.  In both cases, the author is in control of the sexual interaction with the other person.  But this is contrasted with the way in which male gaze is presented at the start of the song, and female ownership of sexuality is presented at the end of the song.  At the start of the song, the men sing of how women are reduced to objects of desire as their body parts are listed.  At the end of the song, Perry sings of how her sexuality reduces men to animals who will not be able to get their desires fulfilled: ‘that type of shit just don’t work on me. Listen, no trying to flirt with me… It doesn’t really matter who you say you are, singing out the window of your car.’

But the music video adds another layer to the interpretation.  When the protagonists pick up coins from the fountain, they cause members of the opposite sex to be irresistibly attractive to them.  Women become reduced to their sexual desires in the same way that Katy Perry sings of men in the final verse.  The men are depicted as undertaking various power fantasies: beating up the thugs in the back alley, shooting defenseless animals, climbing mountains while eating sashimi.  Perry, on the other hand, is demonstrated to be increasingly unobtainable: far from being an object of the natural, base desire of ordinary men, she become a fantasy, ethereal entity synthesised from desire.

It’s her character within the music clip which gives away the lie of the song.  Desire isn’t something that’s natural, biologically determined but something that we are taught to do.  We’ve moved beyond the base grunting of desire as a means of reproduction to a state of desire as a linguistic, cognitive act for pleasure.  It’s yet another reason why evolutionary psychologists are full of crap: not all behaviors can be explained by appeal to internal psychological mechanisms but, instead, by the psychological mechanisms culturally taught (and, therefore, aren’t adaptations).

But if this desire is fake, then the love that was coextensive with this physical act is similarly fake according to 3OH!3 and Katy Perry.  It is, in a sense, the result of the positivistic understanding of emotion: there are no higher desires, merely those which are embodied by and in our flesh (a point with which the 19th century psychologist William James would agree).

The final aspect of pop cultures presentation of love that I’ll explore is the nature of it being an all-consumptive, obsessive act.  Here’s Martina Topley Bird’s Anything:

It’s a terrifying clip.  Opening lyrics are interesting: ‘No doubt, you’re gonna be thinkin’ I’ll run out. That’s where you’re so mistaken.’  The author understands the insecurity of her partner.  She is desirable and they is worried about losing her.  What they doesn’t realise — and what the song seeks to inform him — is that she neither wants nor needs anything else besides them.

Unlike in the first two songs discussed, the question is not who the object of the affection is.  The question is who the author is.

The music clip demonstrates that the narrator of the song is not actually a person in the ordinary sense.  It’s a glittery, shadowy, unsettling character singing the song.  There are a few options.  She could be the fantasy object of a thoroughly insecure person: the author is actually the object of the song’s desire projecting the words they want to hear into the mouth of a fantasy female.  Rather than being an actual person, she is the concept of an actual person who is reassuring the psychological construct of the author who desires to be wanted and needed.  This character and Katy Perry’s character above could be seen as quite similar: the synthetic object that is desired, is necessarily unobtainable, and is without correlation to an actual person.

An alternative is that the woman in the clip is the repressed, unspoken aspect of a real woman who is madly in love with a person but can’t express this feeling except through the language of obsession.  Woman suspects that the object of her desire thinks she is distant because she seeks to ‘run out’.  Instead, this hidden, shadowy, glittery desire dwells within her struggling to form a closer physical connection with the object of her desire.  There are no other people in the clip, but she seeks haptic, tactile interaction with the ground, and is slowly taken over by objects that belong to the air.  They are contradictory images reflecting the internal contradictions of a complicated, intelligent woman who intellectualises and rationalises her cravings.  She wants to be grounded and yet the lofty, flighty aspects of her also need to be acknolwedged.

As the clip goes on, she is completely smothered by the demonically possessed fabric which strips her of identity, engulfing her in an inescapable shroud.  Although the obvious interpretation is to view it as a viewer looking on to the oppression, subjugation, and dehumanisation of this person who is both desired and is consumed by their desire, it might be the wrong attitude.  Instead, we are invited to imagine it from the perspective of the author, whose senses are slowly deprived as she no longer needs or wants them.  Although the audience looks on as it happens to another person, it is shown several times from different angles to suggest that the person being smothered is actually the viewer.  This gives the third interpretation of who the character is: they are putting into language the audience’s feelings about another person, the self-consuming, obsessive desire that most of us have felt for another person.  This reading makes it similar to the Minogue song above: love is the abnegating, self-deprecating emotion that anchors us to a person and leaves us vulnerable to them.

It’s pretty gross.

These four songs and their music videos present us with different coordinates of desire.  They are evil insofar as they encourage us to fantasise about what it would mean to be in love — that is, they encourage us to fantasise about fantasising — rather than presenting us with the language to discuss our own emotions.  Despite their differences, they also argue for some reality to the idea of love between two people (even the song which reduced that love to merely physiological manifestation).

If you’re unconvinced by this reading, ask yourself why there aren’t more songs about hating people and why the songs that do exist about hating people don’t attempt to transcend that hatred into an ideal state of being…


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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