Well I asked for it.
I asked my Facebook on this Valentine’s Day morning for “the greatest love song of all time” and folks showed up for it. There’s something about a music convo that brings people out like nothing else. The responses I got were as varied as you might expect… which tells me, for one thing, there’s no accounting for taste. Some folks listed songs that are also on my all-time faves list, while others made me cringe and bite back a “that’s not even music!” But to each their own.
Because the bigger message is not about music itself, but about love in general. It’s a truth I’ve long believed, and one that we would all do well to remember on this day that can be so fraught with expectations. So take this and hold it close: There are all kinds of love.
And all love is good.
The range of responses I got today shows not just the diversity of musical tastes we harbor– it is about the experience of love itself. Its many forms and expressions; its many pains and joys; its many seasons and stories. Love is, above all else, effing complicated… so if there is not a pink glittery Hallmark card on the shelf that captures yours today, know that 1) you are not alone; 2) you are deeply loved anyway; 3) there’s probably a song for that.
You’ve got your songs of parent-child love: from Isn’t She Lovely, by Stevie Wonder, to Always Be My Baby, ala Mariah Carey. You’ve got your sibling love– Murder in the City (thanks for the ugly cry, Avett Bros) and your BFF love– which is probably unique to your particular tribe, but for general purposes there’s James Taylor standard You’ve Got a Friend, or the Beatles I Get By With a Little Help From… well, you know.
Then you’ve got your love song dance-jams, if you’re still Crazy for Beyonce; and your old married people “I love you so much I go to a dark place when I think about one of us dying someday” songs, like Jason Isbell’s If We Were Vampires.
There are the old standbys- At Last, by Etta James, and George Straight’s Cross My Heart. (I’m not sorry. It’s classic. Don’t @me).
You’ve got your country and your angsty alt-rock. Your jazz standards and your big hair ballads. I am always transported to middle school when Damn Yankees High Enough, or Mr. Big’s To Be With You creeps across the radio waves.
You’ve got your grandma’s love song and your tween daughter’s love song. Thanks to Brandi Carlile and The Highwomen, we now even have a Country. Lesbian. Love Song… which I’m pretty sure is a whole new thing, in the form of If She Ever Leaves Me. What a time to be alive when there are country lesbian love songs in the world.
And then you’ve got… well, the rest of them. The complicated story; the broken promise; the missed connection; the one that got away; the love that is still alive but maybe not what it once was; the sad, tortured love song that Hallmark will never, ever make the right card for… but that most of the best songs are actually about.
What does that tell you?
The recent podcast Dolly Parton’s America took a deep dive into the artist’s status as American icon– but it was also kind of about America itself; and beyond even that, it was about the role of music in human experience and connection. And the first episode is actually titled, of all things “Sad Ass Songs.” Dolly talks about the darker times in her own songwriting life, and in some of our musical history (especially if you claim Appalachian roots).
Dolly herself can probably claim the greatest sad love song of all time with I Will Always Love You. But our collective canon is full of this type of longing, lyrical masterpiece– from Patsy Cline’s Crazy to Zeppelin’s What Is And What Should Never Be. From a whole lotta Joni Mitchell (who is always “so bitter and so sweet”) to even more Johnny Cash– who spent his life so in love with his wife that he literally just stopped living when she died.
Speaking of that vampire song… “we’d go out on the sidewalk in smoke.” Isn’t that the dream?
But it’s not all roses. Love is complicated, and even that which stands the test of time has been… well, tested. Like anything worth having, it comes with growing pains, messes and meltdowns. It comes with days that are harder than others. It rolls in seasons. It changes form. Just remember today, no matter what kind of love is (or is not) in your life, that everybody’s got their stuff. And, today especially, everybody’s trying to sell you something. Don’t buy the narrative that your love has to look like your neighbor’s, or your sister’s, or FFS, what you see on tv. All of that is a lie. Don’t get caught up in the romantic claptrap that says all of life should be a rom-com or a Disney movie.
Real life, and real love, are far more mysterious than that. And you know what? The soundtrack’s better too.
There are many kinds of love songs because there are many kinds of love. Whatever love there is in your life today–celebrate it and hold it close. Whatever sadness or heaviness may come with this day– know that there’s probably a song for that, because someone else has been where you’ve been. Your story is your own, but you are never alone.
Dang, that rhymes even. Maybe I should write a song? But nah. I’m sure whatever I’m driving at has been said (and sung) better by a long line of artists before me. And will be said, and sung again down the road. Because this is our human story, this dance of love and loss and love again. The tune changes, but its truth stays the same: every kind of love is good. Even in loss, it makes us who we are, and transforms something in us that’s in need of growth or healing.
All love is good love. Sing on.