traffic jam

No One Ever Finds True Love

My car has an eighth-inch audio jack so I can listen to Rdio when I drive it, but the minivan is old; FM is its only option. The other day when I was on my way to pick up a van-load of children, I flipped on the radio and found myself listening to a top 40 pop song. Just from hearing the opening measures and noting what station it was playing on, I guessed what the lyrics would be. I went ahead and listened to the whole thing, mostly to see if my prediction was correct. It was. “There are no surprises on hit radio,” I thought. “I haven’t listened to this station for over a year, and I can still guess the lyrics of whatever comes on. Are pop songs really that predictable, that homogeneous?”

Later, I put my tongue in my cheek and wrote down a “track list” for an archetypal pop album:

  1. I am sad because my relationship has ended.
  2. I start a sex-based relationship with a hot stranger. (S/he is so hot!)
  3. I think I love this person! Could s/he be The One??
  4. I am sad because my relationship has ended.
  5. I have casual sex with multiple strangers. Sexual conquest makes me feel validated.
  6. I begin a sex-based relationship with a ex, even though I know s/he will hurt me again.
  7. I lament that I cannot find True Love.
  8. I am empty inside. All of my relationships are shallow frauds.
  9. I get drunk. Not sure what happens next, but I assume it involves sex.
  10. I start a sex-based relationship with a hot stranger. (S/he is so hot!)
  11. I think I love this person! Could s/he be The One??
  12. I am sad because my relationship has ended.
  13. I believe that I will find True Love one day! (True Love conquers all!)
  14. I have casual sex with multiple strangers. Sexual conquest makes me feel validated.

I wrote it as a joke, but then I was curious how it compared with an actual pop album. The song from the radio was Talking Body by Ebba Nilsson, from her album Queen of the Clouds. It seemed fair to use that as my test case. I looked up the lyrics, and I was mildly surprised to see just how accurate my track list was. By my count (and these lyrics aren’t particularly cryptic), Queen of the Clouds has six songs about breaking up with boyfriends, five about passion for a current boyfriend, four about seeking or having sex with strangers, three longing for True Love, and one lamenting the meaninglessness of it all. As if to undergird it’s thematic focus, there are three “interlude” tracks dispersed amongst the others. Their lyrics:

The passion in the beginning: it’s always gonna be the best part of it. And then you freak out ’cause suddenly you love this person. And then there’s no good way to end things, ’cause it’s ending, y’know?

In three lines, Nilsson encapsulates all of pop lyricism. If it were satire, it might be funny. But it isn’t satire. In earnest, these lyrics are very sad.

The “I” in a song isn’t necessarily the person singing it. Let’s think of “I” as a song’s protagonist, its hero. The album is a story about the character, and the songs are the story’s chapters. If a pop album is a story, what genre is it? Certainly, a quest.

Like Odysseus setting out for Ithaca, pop heroes set out to find The One. They traverse a Mediterranean of clubs, parties, and beds. They have adventures both blissful and harrowing, but these are only waypoints in their quest. But unlike Odysseus, pop heroes never reach their destination, or even make measurable progress toward it. They are like drivers in an eternal traffic jam, always on their way, but never any closer to arriving. What thwarts their quest? Why do none of them ever find True Love?

The answer is hinted at in Not on Drugs, where Nilsson describes her feelings for a boyfriend, saying, “I’m not on drugs. I’m just in love. You’re high enough for me.” That sort of language is extremely common in pop narration. The preferred metaphor for love in these stories is addiction. A compulsion, an instinct, a sub-rational urge. The hero is driven to their object of affection, as if the person were a substance their system needed. To feel an intense craving that must be satisfied: that is the “love” of pop lyrics.

But it is not the nature of compulsions to last, and it is not the nature of addiction to satisfy. No matter how powerful a compulsion, it will fade. No matter how potent a drug’s effect, an addict will build up a tolerance to it. There are no contented addicts. Eventually, the addict overdoses, quits, or moves on to a different drug. If love is like addiction, then that means that love, by nature, is temporary, and not only temporary, but fading after just a few “hits.”

That is not the True Love of the quest. True Love endures. “If you love me right, we f**k for life, on and on and on,” Nilsson says. The sentiment is superficially similar to the “’till death us do part” of wedding vows, but with an important difference. A wedding vow is a vow, both a promise and a plan of action. The person vowing has already decided that they are going to stay tomorrow, regardless of what happens today. In contrast, the pop hero states a conditional: if I still crave you tomorrow, then I will stay. But that conditional is meaningless, if you think about it. All animals stay near what they crave. To say that you will stay with someone as long as you crave them is really just saying that you will do what you feel like doing when you feel like doing it, without method, without foresight.

When a pop hero longs for True Love, they are longing

  1. to feel a sub-rational craving,
  2. for that feeling to last forever, and
  3. for this to happen to them as a happy accident, without any planning or forethought on their part.

So the longing for True Love is really just a wish to feel a feeling, for no reason. Such wishing is obviously idle, and even the wish came true, that “love” would be completely impersonal; The One might as well be a hallucination.

The quest for True Love never reaches its goal because there isn’t one. The object of the quest does not exist, and the quester has no plan for getting there. The drivers in the eternal jam make a show of fiddling with their cars’ controls, and they talk loudly about where they are going, but that place has no location. It is not in any direction. They drive in the sense they turn the wheel and press the peddles, but without method, their motions are random and sum to zero. Without forethought, they bump into other questers, sometimes laughing about it and other times feeling injured. They consider these random collisions to be the adventures of their quest. But it all becomes monotonous, and none of it gets them any closer to their goal.

Eventually the pop hero gets old or bored and gives up. No one ever finds True Love.

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