By John Del Rosario
There is a famous story about a young American anthropologist who shadowed a man from a Hopi Native American tribe in the 1960s. He would have the man sing Hopi folk songs so that he could study their melody, meaning and lyrics. Whenever the old man would finish one, the anthropologist would ask him what it was about and the old man would tell the story behind the song and translate the words. After about a dozen songs the anthropologist found it odd that every song that the man sang was, in some way, about water. A little peeved, he asked the old man why that was. The old man replied, “Our people have been on this land for centuries. Our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people, to our nations. Most of our songs are about our greatest need.”
“I have a transistor radio back home and after my day’s work, I listen to a lot of American radio stations,” the Hopi man continued, turning the tables on the anthropologist. “Seems like most American music is about love. Is that why? Is it because you don’t have very much of it?”
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, four female singers and songwriters of local bands (Nicole Boudreaux of the Royalty, Karen Perales of Electric Social, Chantal Diaz of Sublevels and Emily Davis of Emily Davis and the Altar Boys) sat down with me to meditate on the topic of love songs.
Why, in the year 2013, are there still love songs?
Nicole Boudreaux: I think love is something that everyone is trying to attain in life. It’s very parallel to that story (of the Hopi folk songs) because it’s something that everyone wants to find before they die. It’s one of the goals of existence, I think. I think each generation would have to start fresh in the pursuit for love in happiness. I don’t think we can evolve to where we’re all going to be loving, caring people. Each person has to find that individual journey in themselves. So there’s always going to be love songs.
Karen Perales: It’s not like we don’t have enough of them, but I think everyone experiences love in many different ways. I think once in a while, there’s someone that can write and put it in words that you couldn’t, and when you hear it, you feel like you know this person. Then there’s some people that maybe they listen to love songs because they haven’t experienced love for themselves, or at least to the level that the songs seem to be representing. They wish it could happen to them and feel that way.
In today’s musical climate Electronic Dance Music is becoming more pervasive in popular music. With its greater emphasis on a driving beat than on evocative melodies and lyrics, what is becoming of the love song?
Chantal Diaz: I think the love song is being translated differently. My favorite love songs are mariachi songs because they’re basic, but they have such feeling to them. Nowadays, there’s so much going on that it takes away because you’re so overwhelmed with it. To me, a definition of a love song is when you take it back to basics.
KP: They’re harder to find. My favorite love songs are ones from a long time ago. I cannot think of a love song now that’s genuine. I just don’t know why an audience would listen to this. I don’t know what they find so attractive. The audience is the ones that make these artists create this type of music. I think that’s what’s sad. Genuine love songs, I think, you won’t be able to find as much.
Are break-up songs love songs?
NB: Yes. I think that sadness is a part of loving someone. It just says how much you love them from a different angle of the relationship. A lot of times sad break up songs are the most tangible. It’s easy to convey it. I think it’s easier to write when you’re sad than when you’re happy. Happiness almost seems one-dimensional, but I feel like sadness carries a wider range of emotion. It’s kind of like a eulogy. You’re expressing love for a relationship that has passed.
CD: It depends. There’s angry break up songs. There’s heartache break up songs. My favorites are the ones that Shakira did, the old Shakira, the “unplugged” Shakira. She did that song, “Sombra de Ti.” I can have a bottle of tequila and that song on repeat when someone breaks up with me… I think it is a love song, but it’s not a positive one. She’s talking about love, it just didn’t go the way she wanted it to. That one gets me right in the heart.
Which is more damaging to society: love songs or romantic comedies?
Emily Davis: Romantic comedies. Those can go away forever. It seems like if the entire plot of a movie is romance and comedy, it’s bound to fail. I see movies that have romance as a part of a plot, it’s not the whole plot, and it works, it’s nice and it achieves its goals. But I haven’t seen a romantic comedy in years where I say, “Man, that was so groundbreaking and I was so moved by it!” If there was one genre I could pick in the movie world, it has to be romantic comedies.
CD: Romantic comedies, because I’m a visual learner. (Laughs) I’m the type of girl that if I see a girl calling a guy and that’s the way they ask each other out, then I’m going to do it exactly like they did in the movie because that’s how I think it’s going to work out. They’re more damaging because you can physically see it and everyone is going to expect that it will happen like that. Especially a number-one movie, everyone’s going to watch it and everyone’s going to change their mindset and be on that level. It has more power than anyone realizes. I think music is so versatile. It’s metaphorical. You can envision a line someone sings and it can be something different than what they meant.
What makes a love song corny?
ED: Clichés and making it easy. If your mind is telling you to write a lyric because that’s the way it should be, it’s too easy. I think if it’s easy for you to write a love song then you’re not challenging yourself enough.
NB: I think if there are phrases stolen that have been said so many times before, it kind of takes away the sincerity of it. I think a lot of pop songs are following a recipe that has been done before and there are certain phrases that are going to work because they have been tried and true. You don’t present a different angle. There are so many different angles for each person’s experience. Any little detail that you lay out that has never been said before makes a love song unique.
Have you ever been serenaded on Valentine’s Day?
CD: In middle school, someone sent me a singing-gram. But I was also in the group singing the singing-grams. So, it was a surprise to me! It was a solo and this guy sang it to me. And I turned red because I was so embarrassed because he was singing it so bad! Another time, someone tried to do it on the phone and I hung up. He called me back and asked, “What happened?” I told him it was disconnected. Then it happened again. I was having such a bad day and he sang to me. And that was the only time I actually enjoyed it. He knows he can’t sing, but I was having such a bad day and he knew it would soothe me and calm me down. And he did.
NB: Yes, I have been. He wrote and recorded a song, put in on a CD and made a case for it and everything. It was really romantic and sweet. To me, I don’t feel it’s as romantic for me because I write songs, too. So, I’m like, “Uh-huh. Oh, I like the chords.” I start thinking about it too much.
ED: No. I don’t usually don’t date guys that like to sing. I usually end up with guys who don’t want to sing at all.