Family car rides being what they are, and commercial radio being what it is, I’ve been hearing a lot of love songs lately. Out of the speakers they come, in heavy rotation, zooming at my skull in little Frisbees of processed desire. Every time that you get undressed / I hear symphonies in my head. That’s the sugary falsetto of Jason Derulo.
Then there’s Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder,” a cushioned club pulse quaking the inner walls: And if in the moment I bite my lip / Baby, in that moment you’ll know this is / Something bigger than us and beyond bliss. Beyond bliss? Symphonies in the head? Are these love songs or sex songs or some kind of new religion? All three, evidently. Lust chimes in Derulo’s molars. Grande struts and flutters. Ooh, ooh, we’re in the moment. You and me, me and you. Transcendence is the promise, or the commodity—escape from the self via big, jangling booty. Surface-to-air sensuality, fornication on the heights. Spritz it with the eros of late late capitalism, that fizzing, unappeasable need, and you’ve got yourself a hit.
Not that all the love songs on the radio are so saucy-celestial. Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” is platonically chaste by comparison (I’ve got a blank space, baby / And I’ll write your name). And “Habits (Stay High),” the sleeper hit by Tove Lo, is sorrowful and world-darkened: You’re gone and I gotta stay / High all the time / To keep you off my mind. (The first time I heard this song, driving along, I started shouting. “Now this is a bit more like it! Are you hearing this? This is fantastic. This is real. She’s saying that she’s doing drugs because her heart is broken!”) But the beautiful confusion of soul and body, the prickle in the ether and the prickle in the underpants, is—according to Ted Gioia’s fascinating new volume, Love Songs: The Hidden History—intrinsic to the genre. “In a very real sense,” Gioia writes, “our modern discourse of love, even at its most carnal, is constructed on a foundation of spiritual aspirations and metaphysical paradigms.” Go, cat, go!