Most love songs suck. Trust me, it’s true. Most songs are love songs, meaning there exists an absolute truckload of love songs. Within that truckload there are a few gems, but the vast majority are either mediocre or lame.
The reason most love songs suck is because they operate on tropes. These tropes make love songs safe; we all know what to expect from a love song, so we write into that expectation, and the results are familiarly predictable clichés that pass as songs. This also makes it really, really hard to write a love song. As a musician, I struggle to break out of those expectations and clichés. I only really like two out of the dozens of love songs I have written.
One band which did an awesome job crunching up tropes in the garbage disposal was Nirvana. Nirvana is not typically associated with love songs, partly because they were so good at writing them that their love songs don’t sound like love songs (which is kinda the point here).
A paramount example of this is “Heart-Shaped Box,” from Nirvana’s third and final album. The track is admittedly a very crude and dark love song, but it is a love song nonetheless. (The heart-shaped box here is very yonic, as according to Kurt Cobain’s wife Courtney Love; he sings about her). However, one excellent example of creative writing is the following line: “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” This is basically a love song trope. It’s the classic “I wish I could take the pain away from you” that inhabits every love song in the most obvious terms, but Cobain takes that cliche concept and transforms it into something specific and direct, which carries infinitely more story and character than merely stating the sentiment. The use of the word cancer is harsh. The idea of his lover turning black with depression and illness is eerie; yet somehow that is an expression of affection.
Another great example of Cobain’s proficiency in this regard is in “About a Girl,” off of Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach. Cobain sings about trying to win the attention and time of a girl. He states his frustration in these very honest, narrative terms: “I’ll take advantage while you hang me out to dry.” In these very simple words, Cobain is taking the trope of wanting to be with someone who doesn’t seem interested, and pumping it full of frustration and desire and dark passion.
There’s a whole heck load of other musicians who write love songs well. Tomorrows Tulips nuance the idea of spending all your time with someone when you first start dating (or hanging out or whatever) in their song, “Glued to You.” Father John Misty reverses the labored theme of loving all the same things as someone into a love built on cynicism in “Chateau Lobby #4.”
The skill all of these musicians share, which allows them to exit Trope-Cliche Town, U.S.A., is that they can write outside of themselves. This difficult skill only comes with practice, but it is an essential piece of a good artist. As personal as love songs are, it is extremely important to write from other perspectives and embrace other contexts. Breaking out of one’s own mind and creating a story or character that isn’t necessarily oneself should liberate the artist to write whatever the heck s/he wants.
This means not every love song has to be perfect or happy or cliché. There can be a sad love song. Or an angry one. Or a confused one. By writing outside their own minds, artists create something that is more often than not realistic.
Part of creating characters is specificity. It isn’t enough for a lyricist to tell the listener how they feel or what they think — the artist needs to show these things to the audience. For example, when in “Glued to You,” Tomorrows Tulips singer Alex Knost says, “Now I have something to do other than just sit in my room,” he is creating a scene and building the idea within a context and story. He doesn’t just say, “I want to be around you all the time.” We can glean that Knost’s character in the song is a loner who sits in his room a whole lot, but now that he’s with a lover, he finally leaves his room. That is subtle, but interesting.
Scenes are cool too. Beach House uses scenes well in their song, “Levitation.” With the lines, “You and me with our long hair on the gold one, after midnight we could feel it all,” we picture a scene. There are two people with long hair sitting somewhere after midnight. Those details and that scene are relatable, but only because they are specific. A tone is set — a nostalgic love between reckless youths who feel like they are levitating (hence the name of the song) — and it is constructed with individual scenes.
Love songs don’t have to suck. They can tell stories. They can nuance tropes that everyone has heard six billion times, and maybe draw attention to the nature of romantic love itself. Sometimes it’s dark, like in “Heart-Shaped Box.” Sometimes it’s cynical, like “Chateau Lobby #4.” Sometimes it’s boring, like in “Glued to You.” But experiencing those moments and sentiments is a specific thing, and it requires the artist to build scenes, story, and character.