Reading History with Music

How has the representation of love in music changed over the years? In music, you can see ideas of love develop and reflect the social views of each time. Music is a way of self expression all generations take advantage of and gives us a road map to how each time period collectively viewed love and relationships. In this post I’ll go through the past and present, using music to come to conclusions about the time periods relationship with love.

The year is 1959, the world is being rocked by the untimely death of Buddy Holly and Rock and Roll is topping the charts. It is also the year that Paul Anka released his hit “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” which is commonly known today because of it’s popularity on Tik Tok and of course it’s timelessness. The sweet tenderness of this song has touched the hearts of many. “Great Balls of Fire” was released by Jerry Lee Lewis one year earlier. Both of these songs like many songs of this time talk about love in a monogamous and PG-13 way. Divorce was not common during this time and love was viewed as something exciting yet honeyed. Women were viewed as attractive when they were perceived as delicate and soft-spoken.

In love - Dublin, Ireland - Black and white street photography

GoIn love – Dublin, Ireland – Black and white street photography” by Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com) is marked with CC BY 2.0.

In the 60s things slowly started to change. The release of “Runaround Sue” in 1961 shows the idea of scandalous women being talked about but it starts under a negative light. The song is about a frisky woman who sleeps around and the artist Dion DiMucci urges all men to stay away from her. You can see a mainstream audience become more and more comfortable talking about things that are not exactly prudish. All of the lyrics are written in a type of code and are not put out there in all of their vulgar glory. This implies that relationships are still private and monogamous but not so perfect after all.

By the 70s, we have blown the lid off this “secret” in a major way. We have The Rolling Stones writing songs like “Brown Sugar” and “Lola” being written by The Kinks. Both are not hiding what they are about in the slightest. “Brown Sugar” is so crass that The Rolling Stones stopped playing it in their shows as of 2021. This lyrical free for all has people saying whatever they want but romance and relationships are still present in music ideology. This wordy flexibility could have to do with women’s rights starting the slow march to equality like women’s right to vote taken in 1970. The male narrative now allows many kinds of women to be seen as desirable including women perceived as scandalous.

For the next two decades society gets more and more comfortable with the idea of sex in a public forum as well as equality for women although sexism was still prevalent. One example of this is “Ain’t No Fun” by Snoop Dogg released in 1993 where he talks about a girl letting him down if she doesn’t sleep with all of his friends. He also sings that he lost all respect for this woman as soon as she slept with him. It was not intended to be hateful towards women but it was normal during the time to say these things. Romance is slowly heading out the door and hook-up culture is setting in. There has now been a full 180 and the more frisky a woman the more attractive she is to the male gaze.

Relationships have gone from serial monogamy to dirty fun in only 50 years. In the 90s and 2000s onward is when women slowly join the conversation. This changes the conversation because of the added perspective and men not completely controlling the narrative. Obviously, there were women releasing music in earlier times and their societal presence should be mentioned and admired but it wasn’t until later when there was a substantial amount of women in the charts to make a difference in the way society viewed relationships. With this came the rise of the independent and confident women we see today.

Puppy Kiss” by ChristyInTheSky is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Nowadays, music tells us that romance is out the window and being nasty is the preferred relationship. Does music properly represent relationships and love through all of these years? In some ways, yes. We as a society continue to grow more and more progressive so it makes sense to slowly be more open to different things. There is definitely a multitude of countercultures to every time period and generalizing is not my goal. All together, we can see a steady arch in sexual liberation and comfortability within society and a steady decrease in the romanticism of romance itself. Music holds up as the way we as a society express our beliefs and it continues to influence all of us. Is romance and love out the window or is this just the societal swing of the pengellum from all those years ago? Write what you think in the comments.

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