Individualism and Alienation in Popular Love Songs, 1930-1999

Individualism and Alienation in Popular Love Songs, 1930-1999

Abstract: The sociology of culture investigates both the production of culture and the meaning of the products. This article explores one type of collective representation, the most popular of pop love songs. Since modern Western societies focus on individuals rather than relationships, we would expect individualist, rather than relational patterns in U. S. popular lyrics. This study counts romance words in all titles in the Top 40 for a seventy-year period, and analyzes the discourse of romantic lyrics for one sample year in each of seven decades. The proportions of the three main types, heartbreak, infatuation and love, are stable despite massive changes in lyric and musical forms in the sixties. Most of the romance lyrics are highly individualistic, concerned with the lover, rather than mutuality between lover and beloved. They are dominated by vivid images of the lover's desire, suffering or impairment, treating the beloved only abstractly. Since there are strongly exceptional romance songs from the earlier period implying joy and mutuality, indications of alienation in romance lyrics have increased over the last 70 years.

Research in the sociology of culture has two main branches, ethnography and semiotics (Fiske 1989, p.97; for a wide variety of approaches, see Crane 1994). Ethnographic studies of the means of production of cultural objects are more numerous, but there is also a substantial body of studies of the signification of cultural objects, both their surface and hidden meanings.

Fiske has articulated a theme close to that of the present article:

"Öthe signifieds exist not in the text itself, but extra-texually, in the myths, counter-myths, and ideology of their culture. Öthe distribution of power in society is paralleled by the distribution of meanings in texts, and Östruggles for social power are paralleled by semiotic struggles for meaning." (p. 97). . (Robert Samuels called this book to my attention.)

This study involves both the surface and hidden meanings of popular love lyrics. In particular, it shows the implications of these songs along the continuum of individualistic and relational meanings of love. Its purpose is to suggest how the Western myth of the self-contained individual (Elias [1996] called it homo clausus) is propagated in songs Two studies are reported, one quantitative, the other qualitative. For the first study, I counted all title words for seventy years of Top 40 lyrics, about ten thousand titles. For the second, I used discourse analysis for all romance lyrics in one sample year in each of the seven decades.

The evidence I report is not a direct indication of increasing alienation, since it does not measure the social and psychological impact of lyrics on listeners. Showing that lyrics are becoming more alienated does not demonstrate increasing alienation in our society, it is merely a plausible interpretation. But in this respect it is no different than most other studies of alienation, since they donít measure alienation directly either. For example, increases in divorce rates are widely interpreted to mean increasing alienation, but alternative interpretations are possible. One would be that divorce occurs mostly between alienated couples, allowing the possibility of establishing new marriages that are less alienated than the former ones.

Other studies that suggest alienation seldom measure alienation directly. An example that has stimulated much discussion would be Putnamís (2000) widely noted study, Bowling Alone. Along with an enormous array of other indicators, Putnam noted that although the number of bowlers in the United States has not decreased in the last twenty years, membership in bowling leagues has fallen precipitously (pp. 112-113). This particular study frames the problem as dealing with decreasing social capital, rather than alienation. But since Putnam uses the idea of social capital in ways that suggest alienation (decreasing reciprocity, civic engagement, etc ) sociologists often equate his study with many others which suggested that alienation is increasing in modern societies. But the study does not even define social capital, let alone alienation, in a way that allows direct measurement. As with divorce statistics, the indicators are merely plausible. The present study, like the earlier ones, adds one more set of indicators that may be plausibly interpreted as suggesting alienation in modern societies.

Romance in Popular Songs

My first step was to examine lyrics for recurring patterns in the Top40. Romance songs come in a variety of forms. I begin this study by proposing three major types: a love lyric involves reciprocated attraction and fulfillment. As it turns out, this type is only a small minority. The large majority involves unreciprocated attraction. I will call heartbreak those that involve attraction to a lost love, and infatuation those that involve attraction to someone desired but who does not reciprocate. Finally, there is a miscellany of romance lyrics that are not classifiable as one of these three types.

I surveyed the Top Forty popular lyrics in the United States during a seventy-year period, utilizing the website Lyrics World (1999). It contains all of the titles of the Top 40 for the years 1930-1999, some 12,500 titles. The lyrics actually available are less complete. About 9 % of the lyrics of the titles listed for the various years were not available on this website.

For a preliminary impression of the place of romance lyrics in the Top 40, I used statistical software (SAS) to count the occurrence of romance words in the titles. To detect changes during the seventy years, I divided the titles into three groups: 1930-1949 (3, 594), which I will refer to as 1930Ö) 1950-79 (5,385) (1950Ö), and 1980-1999 (3,521) (1980Ö). As it turns out, the changes in proportions of the three types of lyric were very slight.

The most significant word for romance lyrics was love. It occurred 276 times during the first period, which is 7.6% of the titles, 490 times (9.1%) for the second period, and 365 times (10.4%) for the latest period. Another word associated with romance is baby. It is always used as a term of familiar address, rather than referring to an infant. It occurred 60 times (1.7%) in the first period, 149 (2.8%) in the second, and 36 (.67%) in the last.

As an indicator of what I will call heartbreak lyrics, I combined the counts of a group of words: heartbreak, heartache, crying, tears, lonely, hurt, and pain. The combined count for this group of words was 60 (1.7%) for 1930Ö, 122 (2.2%) for 1950Ö, and 81 (2.3 %) for 1980Ö

Finally, as an indicator of what I will be calling infatuation lyrics, I used the words crazy, mad, madly, madness, fall, and falling (as in falling in love). (The words infatuation and crush are seldom used in titles: I counted only three instances during the entire 70-year period.) The combined count for this group of words was 32 (.90%) for the first period, 71 (1.2%) for the second, and 36 (1.0%) for the third.

These figures show a slight increase in the use of the word love and the heartbreak words in titles, and a slight variation in the use of baby and infatuation words. Perhaps a more significant implication is the stability in the use of these words over the three periods. The word counts suggest that types of popular romance songs may have the characteristic stability of collective representations.

One obvious problem in using counts of title words is that most romance lyrics do not contain the word love or any of the other indicator words in their titles. Indeed, many romance songs do not even contain them in their lyrics, e.g.łYouíve Really got a Hold on Me; Iíve Got to Get You into My Life. Both of these lyrics concern romance of a particular kind, infatuation, but do not use any of the indicator words. In order to survey indicators of alienation in romance lyrics, it was necessary to analyze them in the context of the entire song.

As already indicated, about 9% of the lyrics were not available on the website. The size of the lyric base that must be read is further reduced because of multiple entries of titles. Some of the most popular songs made the Top 40 several times, as sung by different artists. Duplication reduces the number of titles to be read to about 9,000 over the seventy years.

Because of the large number of lyrics available, I took a one-year sample of the Top 40 for each of seven decades, with the years chosen at random. In my sample overall I read 776 lyrics. The bulk of the lyrics (408) were from the period 1970-1999. As will be indicated below, these lyrics were not only more numerous but also much more diverse and and slightly more difficult to classify than those of the earlier period.

Even so, I was able to divide the lyrics for all the sample years I read into five categories: Not-romance, heartbreak, infatuation, love, and miscellaneous romance. The results of my analysis are shown in the table below.


TYPES OF SONGS, 1930-1999.





Not Romance



66 25%








76 29%








50 19%








43 16%





Misc. Romance



25 15%





103 99%

260 99%

408 100%

771 99%


My classification of romance songs is in close agreement with two earlier surveys. Christenson and Roberts (1998, p. 121) classified Top 40 songs 1980-1990, reporting that 73% of the 240 lyrics they examined concerned love relationships. Edwards (1994) surveyed the Top 20 for 1980-89, finding 72% of the 200 lyrics she analyzed refer to romantic or sexual relationships. Their figures, 73 and 72%, are quite close to the 73% that I found for romance songs in the closest comparable period in my analysis of the three sample years during 1970-1999.

The proportion of love songs decreased slightly in the period 1970-1999 (21%) compared to the proportion in the period 1930-1959 (27%). The proportion of heartbreak songs increased slightly in the later period, from 22% to 25%, and the proportion of infatuation songs decreased, from 16% to 11%. Perhaps the most significant pattern is the stability of the lyric patterns over the 70 year period. The majority of romance songs (heartbreak and infatuation) suggest alienation over the entire period. Since there were many larger changes in the nature of popular songs that occurred in this period, I will return to the issue of change below.

Infatuation, Love, and Heartbreak

What can be learned by an inspection of romance lyrics? The direction I have taken was to note recurring patterns in the romance lyrics, especially those related to the I- We balance. (For the elaboration that follows, I did not limit my search to the Top 40 sample years, but called upon all lyrics from the entire 70 years.)

The dictionary definition of infatuation, unlike the many definitions of love, is simple and straightforward: an unreasonable or foolish attraction to another person ("a strong but not usually lasting feeling of love or attraction for someone". Cambridge International Dictionary). However, my reading of the romance lyrics suggests that word is somewhat ambiguous. This ambiguity can be seen in the idea of "love at first sight", a frequent topic in popular songs.

Love at first sight means that one can "fall in love" upon seeing the loved one, usually without any other form of communication. For example, Love Walked In (1938):

Love walked right in and drove the shadows away

Love walked right in and brought my sunniest day

One magic moment and my heart seemed to know

That love said hello though not a word was spoken.

A similar idea is expressed in many romance lyrics, often very crudely, as in Just One Look (1963):

Just one look, thatís all it tookÖ

I thought I was dreaminí but I was wrong

Iím going to keep on scheminí

Til I can make you mineÖ

Several Beatle songs involve love at first sight, as in I Saw You Standing There, 1964:

Well she was just seventeen

You know what I mean

And the way she looked

Was way beyond compare

So how could I dance with another

When I saw her standing there.

The central idea in all love-at-first-sight lyrics is that a single glance was all that was needed; falling in love is instantaneous and based completely only on the appearance of the beloved. A second theme of many, but not all of these lyrics is that the beloved is a coming into reality of an idealized image held long before she or he appeared, as in Long Ago and Far Away, 1944:

Long ago and far away, I dreamed a dream one day

And now that dream is here beside meÖ

Just one look and then I knew

That all I longed for long ago was you.

And also:

Dearly beloved, how clearly I see,

Somewhere in Heaven you were fashioned for me (Dearly Beloved 1942)

The correspondence, or lack of it, between inner feelings and outer reality is an important issue in romance lyrics. Often the adored one fails to live up to the inner image, or even more frequently, fails to reciprocate sufficiently to enable the lover to know if she or he lives up to it.

In a café or sometimes on a crowded street

Iíve been near you, but you never notice me

My cherie amour, wonít you tell me how could you ignore

That behind the little smile I wore

How I wish you were mine (Cherie Amour, 1969)

Most love-at-first-sight lyrics don't disclose the outcome. Those that do involve unreciprocated attraction, what I have been calling infatuation. But in real life, as contrasted with songs, love at first sight may also lead to reciprocated attraction; it is sometimes an accurate, if intuitive, understanding of the loved one. The dictionary definition doesn't allow for this case, but scholars have noted it. The most insistent is Persons (1988), who urges the idea that infatuation (she uses the word "crush") is a foretelling and a rehearsal of love.

Personís point is important in understanding infatuation, if at the same time one concedes, as she doesnít, that some infatuations are not an accurate foretelling of love at all. Rather than leading to love, these other infatuations simply persist as desire at a distance, either with one adored person, or a succession of them. For this reason, we need to distinguish between two types of infatuation, the intuitive kind, based on an accurate, even if instantaneous understanding of the loved one, and another, and probably more frequent kind that entails little or no understanding of the adored person. Tennov (1979) probably decided to use a neutral term, limerance, to include both love and infatuation, because of this ambiguity.

To clarify the distinction between the two types, it will be necessary to examine some infatuation lyrics in detail. What are their chief characteristics? In my reading of heartbreak lyrics, it was clear that they involved pain and suffering. That is, they express the pain of loss.

But pain is not the main feature of infatuation lyrics, although it is expressed in some of them, the suffering of unrequited love. The chief feature is not pain, but impairment. But the dominant feeling of infatuation is positive. The idea of infatuation as a pleasurable experience in spite of impairment is expressed in Iím All Shook Up (Elvis Presley, 1957):

Well, please donít ask me whatís on my mind

Iím a little mixed up, but Iím feeling fine.

These lines make a useful point about infatuation. Even though many infatuation lyrics state or imply mental confusion or other impairments, as this one does, this state is often experienced as pleasurable (the lover is "a little mixed up, butÖfeeling fine."). Mental confusion, as in this instance, and other kinds of impairment, are found in virtually all infatuation lyrics.

The idea of mental impairment is often expressed with a vivid imagery of mental disorder, of being crazy or insane. Many songs of romance virtually equate love with mental disorder:

Iím losiní my mind, girl

ĎCause Iím goiní crazy. (Crazy, 1994).

Hey, Iím a loaded gun

Iím crazy about her, crazy about her

Hey, Iím a lovesick son

Iím crazy about her. (Crazy about Her, 1989)

It (love) surrounds me

Over me like a sea of madness

It controls me. (Think Iím in Love, 1982)

Well, I think I'm goin' out of my head.

Yes, I think I'm goin' out of my head

I want you to want me.

I need you so badly I can't think of anything but you-- (Goin' out of My Head, 1964)

Other examples are:

Youíre Driving Me out of My Mind ( 1966)

Crazy for You (1985)

Crazy in the Night (1985)

Crazy Love (1978)

Crazy on You (1976)

Crazy (1961)

The equation is so complete that some lyrics use craziness as a synonym for love without implying impairment of function (Crazy ĎBout Ya Baby 1954), which is also common in ordinary discourse. But the idea of craziness in most romantic lyrics literally implies impairment of function, to the point of mental disorder, since the songs describe actual symptoms.

Types of Impairment: Mental and Physical

Many lyrics suggest impairment without using the word crazy or one of its cognates: loss of control, delusion, obsession, compulsion, loss of judgement, and so on. In addition, many romance lyrics describe physical impairments, such as loss of appetite, sleep, etc.

Compulsion is the inability to control oneís thoughts or behavior: feeling or actually being out of control. The song You Really Got a Hold on Me (1962) illustrates loss of control:

I donít like you but I love you.

See that Iím always thinking of you.Ö

I want to leave you, donít want to stay here

Donít want to spend another day here.

Oh, oh, oh, I want to split now.

I just canít quit nowÖ

The element of compulsive thinking is clear in Daydreaming (1998):

I try to change my thoughts,

Itís a waste of time.

You keep my mind occupied.

Both of the lines "See that Iím always thinking of you" and "You keep my mind occupied" introduce one of the most prominent impairments of thought in the infatuation lyrics, obsessive thinking. This idea often takes an extreme form, that life is meaningless without the love object, as in Without You (1994):

I canít live, if living is without you.

I canít live, I canít give anymore.

The same idea is prominent in I Just Want to be your Everything (1977):

Oh, if I stay here without you, darling, I will die.

Obsession also can take an extreme form as stalking the love object, as in Every Breath You Take (1983):

Every breath you take and every move you make

Every bond you break, every step you take,

Iíll be watching you.

In Addicted to Love (1986), the lovestruck singer complains about himself:

ÖYour heart beats at double time

Another kiss and youíll be mine

One-track mind, you canít be saved

Another young love is all you crave.

In the song Daydreaming, mentioned above, the singerís compulsive thinking is an aspect of her obsession:

All day long I think of you

I canít even think of things to do.

The same theme is clear in Sittin up in My Room (1994):

Baby, baby, baby, baby

You know that youíre so fine

Baby, baby, baby, baby

Think about you all the time.

The classic romance song of obsession is Night and Day (1932):

ÖI think of you

Day and night, night and day, why is it so

That this longing for you follows wherever I go

In the roaring traffic's boom

In the silence of my lonely room

I think of you

Day and night, night and day

Under the hide of me

There's an oh such a hungry yearning burning inside of me

And this torment won't be through

Until you let me spend my life making love to youÖ

Bobbyís Girl (1962) shows obsession and clouding of judgment:

Each night I sit at home

Hoping that he will phone,

But I know Bobbie has someone else.

Still in my heart I pray

There will soon come a day

That I will have him all to myself.

This lyric illustrates impairment to the point of living in an unreal world.

Physical impairment: the theme of impairment of bodily function is another common ingredient of infatuation lyrics. This song is actually titled Infatuation (1985):

Early in the morning, I canít sleep

I canít work and I canít eat

Addicted to Love (already mentioned) has the same theme:

You canít eat, you canít sleep

Thereís no doubt youíre in deep

Your throat is tight, you canít breath

Another kiss is all you need.

The complaint in I Get Weak (1988) is similar:

Canít walk, canít talk, canít eat, canít sleep.

Crazy about Her (1989) involves a litany of suffering:

I walk the streets at night, until the morning light come shining through.

Canít get a good nightís sleep, ainít been to work in weeksÖ

Canít get her off my mind, Iím drinking too much wine.

Iím burning up insideÖ

The song Have You Ever (1999) also complains about loss of sleep. It also introduces another impairment, lack of articulate speech:

Have you ever tried the words,

But they donít come out right?

The same complaint occurs in I Get Weak:

My tongue is tied, its crazy.

The song Iím All Shook Up also contains this kind of impairment:

My tongue gets tied when I try to speakÖ

The inability to speak clearly is closely related to the inability to speak to the love-object at all, as in Iíve Told Every Little Star (1933):

Iíve told every little star

Just how sweet I think you are

Why havenít I told you?

Very often infatuation lyrics imply that there has been no contact between the lover and the adored one. One example is Shake Your Bon-Bon (1999):

Iím a desperado underneath your window

I see your silhouette. Are you my Juliet?

I feel a mad connection with your bod.

The issue of contact and communication is important in understanding romantic love, but requires some theoretical background. I will take up this issue below.

The next song takes it as given that "love" involves pain and impairment:

This canít be love because I feel so well

No sobs, no sorrows, no sighs

This canít be love, I get no dizzy spells

My head is not in the skies. (This Can't Be Love, 1940).

Just as the pain of loss is the defining characteristic of heartbreak lyrics, impairment of mental and physical functioning is the most prominent characteristic of infatuation lyrics. This pattern is relevant to the I-We balance, since the impairment that is described involves only the lover, not the loved one. Next I will consider the second most prominent characteristic, being lost in one's own bubble, which is also relevant.

Seeing the Actual Person

In many of these lyrics, there is no speech between the lover and the love object because there has been, and may never be, any contact: love at first sight, or at a distance. In some love songs, in contrast, it is clear that there is or has been intimate contact. The Way You Look Tonight (1936) provides an example:

Some day, when Iím awfully low, when the world is cold,

I will feel a glow just thinking of you. And the way you look tonightÖ

With each word your tenderness grows, tearing my fear apartÖ

The idea of little or no contact in infatuation raises the possibility that most of what takes place is in the smitten oneís head, not in the real world, and certainly not in the love object. This idea is not expressed directly in infatuation lyrics, but may be implied by the way in which they describe the other person.

Infatuation lyrics are unrealistic in regard the adored one. They speak abstractly, in the language of idealization and exaggeration. Infatuation lyrics go into great detail about the loverís feelings, but about the desired one, use only abstract generalizations that could be applied to many persons. The adored one is beautiful, good, virtuous, generous, etc., but concrete features that might make them unique are never mentioned. Some examples:

You're just too good to be true.

Can't take my eyes off of you.

You'd be like heaven to touch.

I wanna hold you so much.

At long last, love has arrived

And I thank God I'm alive.

You're just too good to be true.

Can't take my eyes off of you. (CAN'T TAKE MY EYES OFF OF YOU, 1967)

Heís like an angel, too good to be true. (Angel Baby 1958).

Iíve told every little star

Just how sweet I think you are. (I've Told Every Little Star1932)

Infatuation lyrics leave out particulars, as when they assert that the adored is better in some undisclosed way than all others:

And the way she looked

Was beyond compare (I Saw You Standing There, 1964)

However, in the case of some of the earlier lyrics, the descriptions are more detailed and concrete, and therefore exceptional. These songs focus on the other person, noticing particulars about the loved one that make that person unique:

Moonlight becomes you, it softens your hair.

You certainly know the right things to wear.

Moonlight becomes you so (Moonlight Becomes You, 1942).

The absence of precise details and the prominence of generalized images tends toward sentimentality or fatuousness. Here is an example of the latter (I Will Follow Him)

I love him, I love him, I love him

And where he goes Iíll follow, Iíll follow, Iíll follow

I will follow him, follow him wherever he may go

There isnít an ocean too deep

A mountain so high it can keep me awayÖ(1963)

These and quite similar lines are repeated to the point that one may think that the record is broken.

To summarize: the second prominent feature of infatuation lyrics (and most other romantic lyrics as well) is that they describe the adored one only abstractly. The feelings treated in these songs virtually all belong to the lover; very few of the adored one's feelings are mentioned. These features imply that the infatuated one is inside his or her own bubble, hardly considering the person that they think they love (as indicated below, this is also true of most heartbreak and love lyrics also). These lyrics are individualistic in the isolated mode. Finally, they suggest a constricted view of the world.

Constricted vs. Expanded View

The viewpoint of the infatuated one in these lyrics is always focused only on the adored one, who is the be-all and end-all; nothing else in the whole world matters. Most of these songs say or imply that the infatuated one's vision is narrowly constricted to a single person.

In some of the earlier romance lyrics, by contrast, the lover's viewpoint seems to be expanded. In this lyric, the lover's view of the world expands to include sounds that he or she hadn't noticed before:

There were bells on the hills

But I didnít hear them ringing

I didnít hear them at all

Til there was you.

There were birds in the trees But I didnít hear them singing

I didnít hear them at all

Til there was you (Til There Was You, 1957 )

In the next lyric, the loverís vision expands to include both the world of nature and the human world:

ÖI see skies of blue and clouds of white

The bright blessed day, the dark sacred nightÖ

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

Are also on the faces of people going by

I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do

Theyíre really saying I love you.

(What a Wonderful World, 1959)

In this last instance, the loverís vision expands to include all of humanity:

What a day this has been

What a rare mood Iím in

Why, its almost like being in love.

Thereís a smile on my face

For the whole human race

Why, itís almost like being in love (Almost Like Being in Love, 1947).

To summarize the features of infatuation songs: they involve impairment of both mental and physical functions, they speak the language of idealized abstractions, and they usually involve constriction of vision. My analysis suggests that all infatuation lyrics and almost all romance lyrics in the TOP 40 are individualistic to the point of implying alienation in the isolated mode.


The lyrics of heartbreak and infatuation differ in two ways. (Musical differences will be discussed below). As already indicated, infatuation lyrics concern desire for someone that one has not been involved with, heartbreak with someone that one has lost. The second difference is that some infatuation songs describe the state as pleasurable, but heartbreak songs rarely do; they usually concern pain and suffering, particularly the pain of grief and loneliness. Crying and tears recur in these lyrics. Just as impairment is one of the chief features of infatuation, pain is the chief feature of heartbreak. These lyrics contain less physical impairment than infatuation lyrics, but they are long on mental impairment, particularly compulsion and obsession. Hints of suicidal ideation are also not rare.

It was somewhat of a surprise to find that heartbreak lyrics, like infatuation lyrics, suggest that the heartbroken one is also lost in his or her own bubble. That is, like infatuation songs, heartbreak lyrics usually speak the language of abstract generalities, rather than the particulars that bring to life the words on a page, and almost entirely concern the heartbroken one's feelings, rather than those of the lost one. Also like infatuation songs, virtually all heartbreak lyrics imply a constriction of vision, a focus on the lost one.

Conceptually one might expect that some heartbreak lyrics would evoke a particular person who was lost, and the work of mourning. Like infatuation, there should be two types. First, a heartbreak of mourning which suggests the image of the lost one and/or implies an expansion, rather than a constriction of vision. I have found few heartbreak lyrics that have this quality (described below). All the others are even more stereotyped than the infatuation lyrics. For that reason, I will be brief in analyzing heartbreak lyrics.

Here are some excerpts:


I'm lying alone with my head on the phone

Thinking of you till it hurtsÖ

I know you hurt too but what else can we do

Tormented and torn apart

I'm all out of love, I'm so lost without youÖ

I'm all out of love, what am I without youÖ

Heartbreak lyrics usually concern the feelings of the heartbroken one alone, not those of the lost one. However, this lyric, unlike most, guesses that the lost one feels the same as the singer, "hurt, tormented, and torn apart."

In addition to the pain of loneliness and feeling lost, this lyric implies an idea very common in heartbreak lyrics, that the heartbroken one is nothing without the lost lover. This is an important issue in conceptualizing the social relationship implied in songs, which will be discussed below.

In CAN'T LET GO (1992), repeats these themes, with an emphasis on compulsion and obsession:

Ö You're all I know

I can't let go

Just cast aside

You don't even know I'm alive

You just walk on byÖ

I can't accept

My world is goneÖ

I try and try to deny that I need you

But still you remain on my mind

No I just can't get you out of my mindÖ

The lyric of End of the Road (1992) repeats the tears and crying theme, even though this song is from the male point of view:

When I can't sleep at night

Without holding you tight

Girl, each time I try I just break down and cry

Pain in my head

Oh, I'd rather be dead

Lately (1998), is also male, but also features crying:

baby i'm on my knees praying God help me please,

bring my baby back, right back to me

if lovin you was right then i don't wanna go wrong

so i drown myself with tears,

sittin' here, singin' another sad love song.

Let Me Let Go (1999), is sung by a woman, and implies obsession:

ÖI can't go a day without your face

Goin' through my mind

In fact, not a single minute

Passes without you in it

Your voice, your touch, memories of your love

Are with me all of the times

The lyric My Favorite Mistake (1998) is also sung by a woman. It is more distanced and ironic than most heartbreak lyrics, and wittier, but it retains the theme of compulsion:

ÖWell maybe nothing lasts forever,

even when you stay together.

I don't need forever after, but its your laughter won't let me go

so I'm holding on this way.

Did you know could you tell you were the only one

that I ever loved?

The lyric Nobody Knows (1996) continues the same themes, but also has the theme that the pain of denial can be added to the pain of heartbreak:

I pretended I'm glad you went away

These four walls closin' more every day

And I'm dying inside

And nobody knows it but me

Like a clown I put on a show

The pain is real even if nobody knows

Now I'm cryin' inside

And nobody knows it but me

Lyrics which involved curtailment of feeling were rare before 1960, but plentiful ever since. This change will be the topic of another paper.

Two heartbreak lyrics from the thirties are different in kind than all of the above. The first seems to be a song of successful mourning (These Foolish Things, 1936):

A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces

An airline ticket to romantic places

And still my heart has wings

These foolish things remind me of youÖ

How strange, how sweet, to find you still

These things are dear to me

They seem to bring you near to me

The sigh of midnight trains in empty stations

Silk stockings thrown aside, dance invitations

Oh, how the ghost of you clingsÖ

This ballad is utterly unlike most heartbreak lyrics in that the memories of the lost one evoke strongly positive feelings ("How strange, how sweet, to find [the memory of] you still"). This aspect of the lyric suggests successful mourning. In addition, the lost one is somewhat particularized. We know that she smoked, and wore lipstick and silk stockings. But all of the feelings that are described are those of the singer, as in the typical heartbreak lyric.

The next lyric is still more unlike the typical heartbreak lyric (They Can't Take That Away From Me 1937):

ÖThey may take you from me, I'll miss your fond caress.

But though they take you from me, I'll still possess:

The way you wear your hat

The way you sip your tea

The memory of all that

No, no, they can't take that away from me

The way your smile just beams

The way you sing off key

The way you haunt my dreams

No, no, they can't take that away from me

Ö I'll always, always keep the memory of:

The way you hold your knife

The way we danced till three

The way you changed my life (1937)

In this lyric (written by Ira Gershwin), the lost one is highly particularized. There are five precise details that evoke a unique person. One of them ("The way you sing off key") is not a compliment. The inclusion of this slightly negative memory highlights, by contrast, how unrealistically idealized most heartbreak and infatuation lyrics are. Like These Foolish Things, this lyric recounts pleasurable memories, rather than the agony of most heartbreak lyrics. They Canít Take This Away models the discourse of unalienated love.

Another lyric of this type, I Love How You Love Me (1961)

I love how your eyes close whenever you kiss me

And when Iím away from you I love how you miss me

I love the way you always treat me tenderly

But, darling, most of all I love how you love me.

I love how your heart beats whenever I hold you

I love how you think of me without being told to

I love the way your touch is always heavenlyÖ

This lyric is somewhat exceptional for the period 1960-1999, since it particularizes the loved one, describing her thoughts and feelings as well as the lover's.

There are more recent romance songs that attempt to particularize the beloved, but the result is usually vague or narrow. The Beatles lyric Something (1969) provides an example:

Something in the way she moves

Attracts me like no other lover

Something in the way she woos me

Somewhere in her smile she knows

That I don't need no other lover

Something in her style that shows meÖ

The cues to the beloved lack concreteness. She does not come alive from them.

In more recent periods, a few lyrics involve a single concrete description, most often eye color. But this single brief reference seems insufficient to particularlize the beloved.

In my search of the lyrics from 1970 to 1999, I could find only one obvious exception to the trend I have described, Lady in Red (1986):

I've never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight

I've never seen you shine so brightÖ

I have never seen that dress you're wearing

Or the highlights in your head that catch your eyes Ö

The beloved is described in one fairly concrete way, in the style of the exceptional romance lyrics of 1930-1969. Another possible exception is the song The Best Things in Life are Free, which implies that love brings an expansion of vision, which charted in 1992. But this song is something of an anomaly for my purposes since it first charted in 1927. I would appreciate it if any reader could name another Top 40 romance song from the period 1970-1999 that is an exception.


I have divided romance songs into four types, heartbreak, infatuation, love, and other. In this section, I will interpret the meaning of these types in terms of a theory of social integration. Western societies currently focus on individuals to the extent that our relationship vocabulary is impoverished, especially relationships involving mutual understanding. Traditional and Asian societies, on the other hand, emphasize relationships to the point that the lexicon for individuality is meager. Neither East nor West has a vocabulary that equally includes relationship and individual..

Emerson, one of the prophets of Western individualism, promoted self-reliance as an antidote to blind conformity: "When my genius calls, I have no father and mother, no brothers or sisters." But in a traditional society, there is NOTHING more important than oneís relationships. Freeing up the individual from her relational/emotional world has been at the core of modernization. Since oneís relationships and emotions donít show up on a resumeí, they have been de-emphasized to the point of disappearance.

The individual/relationship problem is reflected in a longstanding dispute among scholars. At one extreme is a current perspective in the discipline of philosophy known as the problem of Other Minds. These scholars ask the question "can one ever really know the mind of another person?" and answer the question with a resounding "No!" From this perspective, each individual is fated to standing alone, isolated from others.

However, there is older tradition of scholarship that answers the question affirmatively. Historians, phenomenologists, and social psychologists have suggested that not only can one know the mind of others, but that the development of intelligence, cooperation, and even the individual self depends on being able to enter other minds. The social philosopher G. H. Mead built his theory of society on the ability that humans have to "take the role (that is, the viewpoint) of the other."

Like Mead, the psychiatrist Stern (1977) has pointed out that infant learning is dependent on what he calls "attunement" between infant and caretaker. The proponents of the intersubjective view argue that humans spend most of their waking lives imagining the viewpoints of others, and that a society exists to the extent that their imagination is accurate. In this point of view, consciousness is partly subjective, but it is also partly intersubjective. Cooperation with others, even avoiding automobile collisions, depends in large part on accurately understanding the intentions of others. In intimate relationships, the issue of connectedness has an added dimension, not only the sharing of outlook, but also the sharing of feeling. Surely mutual understanding of thoughts and feelings is a key element in love between two people. A widespread failure to accurately imagine the minds of other bespeaks of dysfunctional relationships. A society in which such alienation occurs, one would think, is in danger of falling apart.

A Theory of Social integration

In theories of social integration, alienation takes two forms: separation from others (isolation) or estrangement from self (engulfment with others out of loyalty). The theoretical approach most useful for this study is found in Elias's (Introduction, l987) discussion of the "I-self" (isolation), the "we-self" (engulfment), and the "I-we balance" (solidarity). Elias proposed a three-part typology: independence (too much social distance), interdependence (a balance between self and other that allows for effective cooperation), and dependence (too little social distance). In solidarity, one understands the viewpoint of the other, but does not sacrifice one's own viewpoint to it.

The issue of solidarity and alienation were at the core of the foundations of the discipline of sociology. European social philosophers were deeply concerned that in the breakup of rural communities and the growth of cities, rural communities of closely connected persons were being replaced by cities largely composed of isolated individuals.

Later, more sophisticated thinkers, like Durkheim, in Suicide, expanded the dichotomy between solidarity and alienation into three terms, as indicated in the comments on Elias above. Durkheim's terminology was different, but the idea is very similar to Elias's: groups in which relationships are either too close or too distant cause suicide or other pathologies. Not stated implicitly in Durkheim but implied is that it is possible for groups to have relationships that are secure, neither too close nor too distant. The threefold continuum of social integration is stated or implied in many sociological and social psychological theories in addition to Elias's (Reference to authorís own writing, deleted to preserve anonymity.)

Marx's analysis of social systems resulted in a shift of focus in sociological theory. His work proposed that the central dynamism of social change was power rather than social integration. His focus on class and class conflict was mostly concerned with sources and consequences of power. But Marx also retained the older interest in social integration, through his concern with alienation.

Marx proposed that persons in capitalist societies become alienated not only from the means of production, but from others and from self. That is, that capitalism reflects and generates disturbances in social relationships and in the self. In his review of empirical studies of alienation, Seeman (1975) found evidence of both kinds of alienation: alienation from others and from self. Seeman referred to the latter as "self-estrangement," which is comparable to my term engulfment. (In suffocatingly close relationships, one gives up important parts of one's self in order to be loyal to the other(s)).

Although Marx supplemented his theory of class and power with a theory of alienation, there is great disparity in his development of the two theories. The political/economic theory is lavishly elaborated. The bulk of his commentary on alienation takes place in his early work. Even there, as in later works, the formulation of theory of alienation is brief and casual. It is easy to understand why Marxís followers have also made it secondary to material interests.

It seems to me that any analysis of social structure and process should contain both axes: power and integration. Perhaps these are the two major dimensions of any society. In this paper, I emphasize solidarity and alienation, even though I acknowledge the importance of power.

The threefold continuum of social integration suggests a way of analyzing the individual/relationship balance in song lyrics: to what extent do they evoke thoughts and feelings of self and other equally, suggesting solidarity rather than alienation? An empirical approach to the issue of solidarity/alienation in modern societies is to analyze collective representations, such as rites of mass mourning, mass advertising, or popular songs. In this article I have reported stable patterns of popular romance songs. Samples during the last 30 years suggest alienation in the isolated mode, rather than solidarity. The samples were similar during the period 1930-1950, but more songs during that period suggest solidarity, and suggest it more vividly.

My analysis so far has suggested that types of romance songs and the proportion of each type have been fairly stable over the past 70 years, with only very slight changes in proportions. These findings need qualification and elaboration, however. First, my analysis to this point has concerned only lyrics. Beginning in the 60's, massive changes in musical forms took place, which are much greater than the changes in the lyrics that I have reported.

The typical romance song of the 1930-1960 was a ballad. The musical form of the ballad is slow, somewhat detached in tone, with fairly simple orchestration as accompaniment. Beginning in the 60's, however, the various forms of rock and roll appeared. The tempo and strong emphasis on rhythm increased so greatly as to suggest urgency, even desperation. The effect of this change is most noticeable in infatuation songs.

A comparison illustrates the change. Classic infatuation songs like Night and Day, and Long Ago and Far Away were ballads. They suggest emotion, but emotion that is under control. There is balance between thinking and feeling. More recent infatuation songs, such as I've Got to Get You into My Life and You've Really Got a Hold on Me, with fast tempo and crashing rock rhythms, suggest more intense and overt emotions. The balance has shifted to the point that feeling dominates thinking.

Furthermore, beginning in the 60's, a change in the relative weight of the verbal and non-verbal elements began. In the later period, the music is increasingly dominant. Songs became longer, but with more repetitions of lines, decreasing the weight of the lines. Musical form and orchestration became more complex, but the lyrics are simplified. These changes, like the increasing tempo and strong rhythm, increase emphasis on feeling.

The mode of delivery by singers of romance songs also changed in this direction. The sixties saw the beginning of artists who yelled or screamed, like Aretha Franklin, rather than singing in a form resembling speech. James Brown is not a screamer, but his cries of delight are non-verbal, dominating usually somewhat insubstantial lyrics. All of these changes taken together are in the direction of emphasizing feelings over talking and thinking.

Even lyrics themselves have changed over the seventy year period more significantly than is suggested by the small changes and fluctuations shown in the word counts and lyric analysis reported above. Among romance songs, there are now many more genres than there were in the earlier period, all of which I have classified as other in my analysis. There are now romance songs about quarrels and disputes; some of these songs involve three persons. Typically, a woman is complaining about the competition for a man by another woman. A whole new genre is the overt proposition, many of them floridly sexual. Although there were sexual songs in the earlier period, sex was seldom mentioned explicitly (I'm a Sixty Minute Man). Some of the Top 40 songs of the 90's are crudely sexual.

In terms of my analysis, perhaps the most significant change has been the loosening and overlapping of the three types of romance songs. The heartbreak lyrics have the least loosening, love next, and infatuation, the most. There are still many clearly identifiable representatives of each type in the most recent periods, but others show fewer indicators, especially love and infatuation. Another change is a tendency toward overlap between the types. Love lyrics that have some of the characteristics of heartbreak or infatuation, for example. Here is an example of a love lyric that has considerable overlap with heartbreak (How Do I Live):

How do I get through the night without you

If I had to live without you

What kinda life would that be

Oh I need you in my arms, need you to hold

You are my world, my heart, my soul

This lyric is in the subjunctive mood. The singer's attraction is reciprocated, but he or she anticipates heartbreak.

A love lyric from the thirties stands in stark contrast; rather than anticipating pain, it anticipates pleasure (The Way You Look Tonight, 1936)

Some day, when Iím awfully low, when the world is cold,

I will feel a glow just thinking of you. And the way you look tonightÖ

Here the future is anticipated positively, thankful for the present moment, whatever may happen afterward. It is a stirring tribute to the loved one, without idealizing her or him, and without being self-absorbed. In the thirties and forties, there were a few romance lyrics that implied solidarity rather than alienation. I have not been able to find any comparable lyrics for the last 40 years. There are exceptional lyrics during this period, but they meet the four criteria only very weakly.

Of Top 40 romance lyrics, I rated 4% (4/103) of the sample years 1930-60 as meeting at least one of the four exception criteria that suggest solidarity; for the sample years 1960-1999, 1% (8/668). There are also less lyrics that meet more than one exception criteria in the later period: 3% for 1930-60, only 1 for 1969-99 (.002%). The vividness of the images that make lyrics suggestive of solidarity accentuates the difference between the two periods. Most of the exceptions in the earlier period are vivid, most of those in the later period are narrow or vague.


This study has shown that over the last seventy years, most romance lyrics involve patterns that feature individual desire rather than love relationships. A theory of social integration suggests that such lyrics imply alienation rather than solidarity. In this framework, solidarity involves a secure bond, a relationship featuring a degree of attunement between the lovers, and expansion of vision that includes the larger world beyond the immediate relationship. Most romance lyrics, on the other hand involve only one side of the relationship, the lovers, their pain, impairment, and constriction of vision. The finding of fewer instances of lyrics that imply a mutual love relationship in the last forty years than in 1930-1960 suggests that alienation is increasing in romance lyrics.

To what extent does this change in romance lyrics correspond to changes in actual relationships in our society? The fact that these patterns have been relatively stable over many years may mean only that the songs that contain them have market appeal. It doesn't guarantee correspondence with social reality (Frith 1996).

It is conceivable that the patterns I have described are merely songwriting conventions. We cannot assume that mass appeal of heartbreak, infatuation, and love forms means that the audience is recognizing their own relationships in them. For example, the slight tendency in recent years to combine elements from the three genres, noted above, may be market driven. If a song can appeal to two of the three genres as a crossover, it could increase the size of the group that recognizes the form of the lyric, and therefore its market appeal. I believe that market forces explain the formation of these lyric genres, but only in part.

One market consideration likely to have considerable effect on the changes found in this study cannot be ignored: the increase in the youth market. The majority of the consumers in the earlier period were probably adults, but the majority in the later period were undoubtedly youths. This change might explain some of the simplification of romance lyrics reported here. Flagrant images of infatuation and heartbreak are more dramatic and easier for a ten-year-old to understand than mutuality, and idea not easily understood in Western societies, even by adults..

The theory of social integration outlined above provides an unexpected insight into the structure of romance songs. The narrowing of vision to the point of obsessing only about the beloved in the majority of romance lyrics suggests a dynamic frequently found in Western societies. The isolated person yearns for union (engulfment) with the other(s), the dynamic that seems to drive adherence to sects, cults, religions and nations. In romance songs, the isolated lover, yearning for the beloved not yet attained, or lost, voices this desire. This yearning is part of a cruel trap, because it seems to suggest movement and growth, but may result only in a new form of alienation.

The most telling evidence of increasing alienation in this study is not found in the word counts and in the sampling of lyrics. The systematic techniques I used for this purpose giving, at best, only partial renderings of the contextual meaning of lyrics. The evidence that seems difficult to discount is that the lyrics that strongly imply security and solidarity in romantic bonds all come from the period 1930-1960. The indications of attunement, widening of vision, and enhancement of life are virtually absent in the sixties and after. Most of the romance lyrics since then imply lack of attunement, constriction of vision, or impairment of function -- images of solipsistic self-absorption. The acceptance of such forms as romantic by songwriters, scholars, and the mass public hints at widespread alienation in our society.

The scholarly literature on love in the West is particularly surprising in this respect. The conception of love expressed there is every bit as individualistic as popular romance songs. But this subject is too broad to be covered here, since there is a vast literature, both classic and modern, on the meaning of love. This literature will be the topic of a future article.

But to make the point once again, the main findings reported here demonstrate alienation only in the lyrics, not necessarily in the larger society. These findings only add a further indication, like the increasing divorce and crime rates, and the decreasing rates of civic engagement, that can be plausibly interpreted to suggest increasing alienation.

References (One of authorís own publications deleted to preserve anonymity).

Christenson, Peter and Donald Roberts. 1998. Its not Only Rock and Roll: Popular Music in the Lives of Adolescents. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Crane, Diana. 1994. The Sociology of Culture. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Elias, Norbert. 1972. What is Sociology? London: Hutcheson.

___________ 1996.

Edwards, Emily. 1994. Does Love Really Stink?: The Mean World of Love and Sex in Popular Music of the 1980s. in Jonathan Epstein (Editor), Adolescents and their Music. New York: Garland Publishing.

Fiske, John. 1989. Reading the Popular. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Frith, Simon. 1996. Performing Rites. Cambridge, MA. Harvard.

Gergen, Kenneth, and Sheila MacNamee. 1999. Relational Responsibility. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ha, Frank. 2000. Personal correspondence.

Horton, Donald. 1957. The Dialogue of Courtship in Popular Songs. American Journal of Sociology 62: 569-578.

Lyrics World. 1999.

Moreno, Erica. 2000. A comparison of Top 40 Spanish and English Language Romance Lyrics in 1999, unpublished paper.

Persons, Ethel. 1988. Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters. New York: Penguin.

Stolorow, Robert, and George Atwood. 1992. Contexts of Being: the Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life. Hillsdale, N. J.: Analytic Press

Stern, Daniel. 1977. The First Relationship. Cambridge: Harvard U. Press

Tennov, Dorothy. 1979. Love and Limerance. Scarborough House: Chelsea, MI.

love5 Feb 28, 2001 9, 300 words