Pop Love Songs

Pop Love Songs: Breaking the Emotion Code


Thomas J. Scheff


Preface: What is love, its pains and pleasures?


Ch. 1. Conceptions of Love: the eternal debate

Ch. 2 Emotion Languages: love, pride, anger, grief, fear, and shame

Ch. 3. Top 40 songs 1930-2000: types of “love.”

Ch. 4. Curtailment of Feeling in Top40 songs

Ch. 5. Defining Genuine Love.

Ch. 6. What Emotion is the Shadow of Love?

Ch. 7. Conclusion: discovering the world of emotions




This book explores two closely related questions about emotions in pop songs. The first: how do these lyrics define love? That’s Amore (1953) provides one kind of example: “When the moon hits your eye like a big-a pizza in the sky, that’s amore.” This lyric is probably the champion of goofyness, but it appears that most other pop lyrics also don’t provide realistic definitions.


The meaning of love has been hotly debated by scholars for thousands of years, and continues to be, as discussed in Chapter 1. One of the many divisive issues concerns whether love is ineffable, a mystery, the less talked about, the better. The “big-a pizza” lyric contributes to maintaining the mystery, since it reveals next to the nothing about the look and feel of the actual emotion of love.


On another side of the debate there has been a call for realistic descriptions. This book proposes that since most pop songs help preserve the mystery, we also need realistic approaches if we are to understand the meaning of these songs, much less real love itself. The first chapter introduces the longtime debate on the meaning of love, and the fifth chapter describes and illustrates my own provisional definitions of both romantic and non-erotic (family) love.


The second question: What are the pleasures and pains of love? A French folk song is eloquent on this topic:


The joys of love
Are but a moment long

The pain of love endures
A whole life long. (Plaisir d'Amour)


This lyric is blunt to the point of despair: the pleasures of love are brief, the pains are life-long. Although perhaps overstating the case, the implication that love is a mixture of pleasure and pain counters the tendency in pop songs toward idealization and fantasy. This lyric doesn’t quite involve another aspect of the question, however: the intensity of the pleasures and pains. Pop songs speak to both aspects in loud voices. In particular they suggest an answer to the intensity question: most lyrics about the earliest stages of love suggest that the pleasures are virtually infinite. But songs about the later stages, especially those about heartbreak, the loss of love, intimate that the pain is not only of long duration, but also intense, sometimes to the point that it seems unbearable.


Understanding how pop songs portray the meaning of love and its pains and pleasures turns out to be more complex than one would first think. What we understand depends on how we define love and other emotions, not a simple task. In some ways, the two questions asked here are just different sides of the same coin. The pains and pleasures of love that we identify depend largely on how we define love and the emotions that are found to usually accompany it.


Pop songs overwhelmingly define love very broadly and loosely. The big-a pizza lyric is only an extreme instance of this practice.  For one thing, most include “falling in love,” even with a person that one has only seen at a distance. This kind of “love” brings up the question of whether one can love a person one doesn’t know. In the English language, at least, one can even love an inanimate object: “I love red wine, old farmhouses, etc.” In English, love is cheap, at least cheaper than in other languages.


Pop love songs also take other liberties. For example, they take the intensity of the pain of heartbreak as a measure of love: the more intense and longer lasting the pain of loss, the greater the love. As will be suggested below, there are alternative possibilities. Love in pop song lyrics can also mean many different kinds of feeling, not only affection and sexual desire, but also infatuation and sexual desire without affection. It is can also mean loving someone that you don’t even like. In order to get a better understanding of romance as it is described in pop songs, and perhaps as it is lived in real life, a more exact definition of love may be needed.


The second question that drives this book: what other emotions besides love can be identified in pop lyrics? This book considers the language of emotion used in pop love songs in the United States over a period of seventy-five years (1930-2004). In some ways the language of emotion is fairly transparent, but in other ways it is shockingly ambiguous and unclear. One problem that has been referred to above is the extremely broad meaning of love as it is described in lyrics. Another problem might be called the enigma of the missing emotions. What emotions frequently represented in Top40 love lyrics are obvious, and what emotions are only hinted at?  This issue is especially germane to pop songs about heartbreak.


Heartbreak lyrics have long been the single largest category of pop love songs. At least for the period 1930-1000, 25 percent of the Top40 concern the pain of losing one’s beloved. Songs about requited love, on the one hand, and infatuation, on the other, also appear repeatedly, but much less frequently than heartbreak; each of these other topics involves less than ten percent of the Top40. Finally, there is always a miscellaneous group that includes many kinds of romantic issues, such as mere sexual attraction. Although the content of the miscellaneous category of Top40 love lyrics has changed somewhat over the last 75 years, the proportion has remained the same, at about 17% of the Top40.


Emotions that accompany love


Here are some representative heartbreak lyrics in which the representation of emotions other than love is fairly transparent. They all involve an extreme situation, loss of the loved one, usually because of rejection. Less extreme situations, such as those that don’t involve complete loss and/or rejection, are seldom considered.  Emotional pain within requited love, for example, is little referred to. Many heartbreak songs are straightforwardly about the kind of complete and dramatic loss that gives rise to intense grief.


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 (Lately 1998)


As is the case with most heartbreak lyrics, this one doesn’t actually mention grief, the emotion of loss. Yet the reference is clear because of the prominence of tears and sadness, as in this song also:


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… (End of the Road 1992)


The last line, particularly, is of interest, because like many heartbreak lyrics, it implies that the pain of loss is near to being unbearable. As discussed above, this unending battle with pain is usually assumed to register the depth of love. Other possible interpretations are that it might only imply the inability to work through the pain of loss in order to get on with one’s life, or some combination of the two.


The continuing, overwhelming presence of the pain of loss and rejection is emphasized in the following lyric. The ironic and somewhat playful tone is unusual for a heartbreak lyric.


Hope life's been good to you

since you've been gone

I'm doin' fine now-I've finally moved on

It's not so bad-I'm not that sad


I'm not surprised just how well I survived

I'm over the worst, and I feel so alive

I can't complain-I'm free again



And it only hurts when I'm breathing

My heart only breaks when it's beating

My dreams only die when I'm dreaming


Don't think I'm lyin' 'round cryin' at night

There's no need to worry, I'm really all right

I've never looked back-as a matter of fact (It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing, 2004)


This lyric also refers, playfully and therefore indirectly, to another prominent theme in heartbreak lyrics, what I call the curtailment of feeling (Chapter 4).  In this particular lyric, curtailment is only hinted at through irony. As will be noted in Chapter 4, the curtailment of feeling in Top40 lyrics was generalized and abstract between 1930 and 1958. After 1958, it became detailed and intense.


This is another lyric that focuses on continuous pain by a detailed review of the events of a whole day, from awaking in the morning to sleep at night (abbreviated):


…Brush my teeth and put the cap back on
I know you hate it when I leave the light on
I pick a book up. Turn the sheets down.
Take a deep breath and a good look around
Put on my pj's and hot into bed
I'm half alive but I feel mostly dead
I try and tell myself it'll be all right
I just shouldn't think anymore tonight
Dreams last so long
Even after you're gone
I know you love me
And soon you will see
You were meant for me
And I was meant for you (You Were Meant for Me, 1996)


These two lyrics are unusually concrete in describing the details of constant pain. The overall theme of the songs is mourning the loss of a lover. As indicated by the line “I'm half alive but I feel mostly dead,” the pain of loss is represented as intense to the  point of being unbearable.


A second type of heartbreak lyric also implies grief, but includes anger as well, even though the anger is represented somewhat indirectly:

If you had just one tear rollin' down your cheek
Maybe I could cope
Maybe I’d get some sleep
If I had just one moment at your expense
Maybe all my misery would be well spent
Could you cry a little
Lie just a little
Pretend that you’re feeling a little more pain (Cry, 2002)


The desire for revenge, wanting the lost lover to feel pain also, is a manifestation of anger. The hints that the lover lies and only pretends to care is another indication of  blame and anger.

Anger and revenge are also implied in this lyric:

I went out driving trying to clear my head
I tried to sweep out all the ruins that my emotions left
I guess I'm feeling just a little tired of this…
Someday I'm gonna run across your mind
Don't worry, I'll be fine
I'm gonna be alright
While you're sleeping with your pride
Wishing I could hold you tight

I'll be over you and on with my life (You'll Think Of Me, 2002)

The hint of revenge is muffled: “Someday I'm gonna run across your mind…
While you're sleeping with your pride.” The implication seems to be that the lost lover may someday feel the pain of loss, no matter how faintly, that the singer is feeling.
Many heartbreak songs imply anger through sarcasm. An obvious example is the Bob Dylan classic Don’t Think Twice:
…Ain’t saying you treated me unkind.
Could have been better but I don’t mind.
Let’s just say you wasted my precious time.
But don’t think twice its alright. 
The sarcasm of this lyric implies not only anger, but also, like It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing, mentioned above, curtailment of feeling, since the anger is expressed indirectly through sarcasm. Although the majority of Top40 love lyrics refer to grief alone, many also include anger. 
Hidden emotions

In addition to grief and anger, heartbreak lyrics often imply other emotions as well. The following Beatles heartbreak lyric doesn’t show the slightest hint of grief or anger.


Here I stand head in hand
Turn my face to the wall
If she's gone I can't go on
Feeling two foot small
Everywhere people stare
each and every day
I can see them laugh at me
And I hear them say

Hey, you've got to hide your love away… (You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away 1968)


The following lyric seems similar, even though it actually mentions the name of an emotion (pride). It also refers in the first line, casually and bye the bye to the habit of curtailment (hiding) of feeling, which will be discussed further below:


I've never been the kind to ever let my feelings show
And I thought that bein' strong meant never losin' your self-control
But I'm just drunk enough to let go of my pain

To hell with my pride, let it fall like rain

From my eyes
Tonight I wanna cry… ( Tonight I Wanna Cry, 2004)


The following lyric implies the emotion of grief (“crying inside”), but also refers to a highly abstract and generalized feeling (“pain”). It is quite explicit and raw, however, about curtailment:


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 (Nobody Knows 1996).


The following lyric also refers to grief (sad, tears) but it also introduces another highly abstract emotion word, “hurt:”


…But don't let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
Cos really I'm sad, Oh I'm sadder than sad
Well I'm hurt and I want you so bad
Like a clown I appear to be glad ooh yeah…(Tears of a Clown 1968)


The only direct indications of emotion are to grief (“crying inside”, sad and sadness). They are used, however, to imply not only grief but the pain of rejection. What is the emotion of rejection? It is pictured as doubly painful, since, like many heartbreak lyrics,  it implies that rejection is exquisitely painful in itself and also requires hiding it from others, introducing a second kind of pain.


Although this kind of emotional pain is quite common in heartbreak lyrics, most of those I have asked are unable to provide a specific name for it. It is clearly distinct from the three emotions that have been mentioned so far, love, grief and anger. It is obviously not joy or pride. Could it be fear or shame? No fair using the term hurt because it includes many kinds of emotional pain. What would you call it? Don’t worry if you can’t identify it, the problem will be discussed in Chapter 6, about the emotion that is the shadow of love.


 Some new issues about arise from the two problems discussed above. The first is, why is that there is so little agreement about defining love? The second, how should we name the emotion of rejection? To prepare to discuss these questions, the second chapter considers the problem of naming emotions, not just in song lyrics, but in the English language in general. Because of this link, the conclusions drawn from identifying emotions in pop song lyrics may have implications for the world of real emotions in which we live.


The last chapter takes up this theme. For sake of discussion, suppose we assume that the conclusions drawn about emotions in pop songs are applicable to the real world. What are the implications for interpersonal and societal relationships at large? In particular, can we identify the actual emotions underlying both individual love and heartbreak, and collective love and heartbreak, as a first step toward understanding and resolution?


*Erica Kraschinsky and Byron Miller helped with parts of the study on which this book is based.




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