When my parents started feeding me music, they treated love songs like alcohol. Little tastes from their cups — sips of wine, accosting them if they guzzle down more beer than they’re allowed. And never any hard alcohol because who gives a 10-year-old a shot of vodka?
They played love songs that were fluffy and light, interspersed on mixed CDs that rotated in the car stereos on rides lasting no more than 10 or 15 minutes. One of the first was Bobby Vinton’s version of “Sealed With a Kiss,” a beachy tune about counting down summer’s end with letters between two lovers, each one “sealed with a kiss.” I can picture my mom driving the car and smiling warmly — her eyes closing for a tender moment at the red light as she sang along with Vinton.
Like a small kid’s tongue dipping into red wine, the song contained enough flavor of love to keep me wondering about the vast sweetness I could only experience when I was older, with the bitter aftertaste — the “cold, lonely summer” Vinton alludes to.
Through the succeeding years, my iPod was mostly pop songs and Broadway show tunes. The playlists on my iPod Nano were a flurry of jittery mid-2000s Britney Spears and Lady Gaga — easy enough to dance to, so the lyrical content was rendered as meaningless syllables.
When I was 13, however, my piano teacher gave me the shot of musical vodka. As I struggled to write my own songs, she suggested seeking inspiration in Joni Mitchell’s records. Her recommendation was “A Case of You,” a song about the determination Joni had to stay standing while taking swigs of her lover — like a case of wine — until she finished the bottle. It was too strong for this 13-year-old, being so potent with a longing that went deeper than any Bobby Vinton rendition. The song’s parent album, Blue, ran 10 songs long and sifted through every strain of heartbreak, insecurity and loneliness. If “A Case of You” was a shot, then Blue was a handle of liquor.
Yet, as though my taste buds weren’t ready, the meaning of each song was clear, but the heart of her words still proved illusory. Love was something that a 13-year-old was bound to feel only for his family, and even so, that kind of love was an entirely different beast. Still, I went through artists known to inspire and who have been inspired (which could include almost every singer-songwriter of the years following Blue) by Mitchell. I found Laura Nyro and dusted off her strongest bottle, the album New York Tendaberry.
Like Mitchell’s voice, Nyro’s was acrobatic, yet struck by the emotional paralysis of heartbreak. Her mood shifted from yearning anxiety to resigned fate. In the opening track, “You Don’t Love Me When I Cry,” she confronts her lover for only distancing himself when she is at her weakest. I couldn’t understand why her voice was pulling at me so hard. As I grew older, I felt disingenuous every time I let the words diffuse into my blood.
I had never been in love. For years, I had feigned attraction to the opposite gender, fabricating love more than most people my age did, even with their seventh or eighth-grade “boyfriend.” After I came out, love songs only distilled attraction and emotion more than before.
Love songs increasingly bog down my playlists, with heavy-hitters like D’Angelo’s ostensibly gentle profession of desire, “Really Love.” I thought I could transcribe the emotion into the bedroom of some guy I was hooking up with, putting on music in the background to make what D’Angelo was singing more palpable.
Instead, it feels like every time I accompany a Grindr hookup with one of my playlists, I just sully the meaning rather than connect with it. I’ve never been in a relationship — let alone felt love — and haven’t seen the prospects line up on the horizon.
Suddenly, the notes of each love song have unraveled into questions of my own inability to find love. They choke my capacity to connect by acting as reminders that I deceive myself when I try to feel, when I try to connect. I’ve failed in trying, and what was once a connection built on curiosity and longing is now just a sad, sputtering attempt at knowing what it means to be lovelorn.
As I’ve expanded my taste, I can connect with artists on different levels. I listen to Princess Nokia’s “Bart Simpson” and empathize with her experience as an outsider in school while still comprehending the vast contrasts in our lives. But, love songs continue to hinder the way I internalize music. The more my sex life becomes a smattering of empty kisses with strangers, the less I feel permitted to listen to songs that used to intoxicate my senses. Maybe the dizzying effect it once had on me is now too vertiginous, provoking a sense of guilt and self-pity for reasons I can’t fully grasp. I’ve become woozy — chugging like the college kid I am — lapping up the music as a substitute for the real thing and letting it pool up in the bowels of my mind. In the process, I think I’ve frustrated my sense for natural, real love.
I started shifting toward sinking myself into songs about being alone, like Mitski’s “Nobody,” a swelling indie-rock song about asking for nothing but meaningful, loving company.
But, as indulgent as works like that are, they just lead me in the direction of wanting the same thing the artist wants. And then I listen to another love song, knowing I shouldn’t be allowed.
Joel Danilewitz is a senior opinion editor and can be reached at email@example.com.