21st Century Romance in Contemporary Music
In the wake of the commercialist scheme known as Valentine’s Day, the aura of love and romance seeps into every imaginable facet of life, creeping into our thoughts and the way we see the world. Suddenly, we can’t think about anything without the visages of hearts lurking in our peripheries.
This is not an uncommon experience, and artists across the decades have found ways to express love and romance in the music they share with all of us. As the times have changed, the way we talk about love has changed as well. When addressing love and other romantic topics, modern music possesses a directness and truth to it that unmasks the idealism that pervades older music. Gone are the days where the Beatles repeatedly chanted “All You Need Is Love,” or Journey telling of hope-saturated romances of singers in smoky rooms, smelling of wine and cheap perfume. There’s an accuracy and bluntness in contemporary music that captures a truer picture of romance, replete with its insecurities and fumbles. However, instead of indicting the idea of romance and love, this sincere approach aids in generating sympathy for romance and its many forms. Taking a deeper look at these next five songs will hopefully highlight the honest and poignant ways in which artists address love in the 21st century.
Kevin Abstract’s 2016 album American Boyfriend shows us that not every love story is boy meets girl, or happily ever after. There’s heartbreak, hatred, misery, all in the name of something that might not be real. On the opening track “Empty,” Kevin Abstract recounts his secretive relationship with his closeted boyfriend, and his rejection from both school and his home life paints a picture of American suburbia. As a school reject who didn’t go to prom, he finds solace in this moment with the more popular boy, “just holding his hand”. His Mormon mother rejects her own son for his sexuality, and Kevin wrestles with his love for his boyfriend and the love he seeks from his mother: “I love my mom / I hate my boyfriend”. At the end of the song, he says “I wanna be American,” and these four words highlight the difficulty of fitting into American archetypes of manhood. There’s a poignancy to his words that demystify the idealized romances that coloured romances of before. He does nothing to hide how hard it is to be gay in suburban America, and everybody hates him for being him. And yet he persists, regardless of whether the relationship is actually good for him. He waits outside his lover’s house, on a 12 speed bike, needing this - whatever this may be.
“An anxiety also pervades contemporary romance, engendering paranoia everywhere we turn. Our lives are not story arcs, and neither is romance. After we take that plunge into love, that does not mean that it’s over and we’ve won.”
We are spoon-fed the notion that love is a special bond between two people who value each other equally and fully. When artists violate these pure sanctities in their music, this usually comes from the perspective of men who talk about side-chick love through a misogynistic lens as an affirmation of status and clout. Thankfully, SZA is here to deconstruct that dynamic from the other side, highlighting the realities of relationships in a Twitter age. On 'The Weekend' off of her smash hit CTRL, she speaks from the perspective of both main girl and side chick. The chorus captures the polygamy of men, one where “my man is your man / Heard that’s her man too”; however, rather than take issue with this SZA is understanding of the realities, and offers to share the time with other women. Other women can have him Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, as long as SZA keeps him throughout the weekend. Instead of appearing as a consolation, she turns it into empowerment. By dictating the terms of the relationship, SZA recentres the power from the man to the woman, and highlights that women do not need to be waiting around for men all week long. Because they are aware of the man’s inadequacies, they take from him what they want, rather than the other way around.
Romance in the 21st century is redefined in ways other than the depiction of social realities as well. Rather than be defined grand sweeping gestures, romance and heartbreak takes the shape of little moments in Frankie Cosmos’ “Fool”. From the silly opening lines “your name is triangle / your heart is a square” to the ruminations about the relationship that could’ve been, Greta Kline captures a blunt sincerity that must be taken for what it is. Her words are not symbolic of some grand romantic urge, but meant to be taken at face value. She feels like a fool for waiting for her love interest to take notice and appreciate her, and feels played when they do not rise up to the task. She fantasizes about eating bread and kicking off boots as they share sentimental moments under dark days. There’s a silliness to these words, and yet they’re still affecting. Perhaps this comes from the honesty that oozes from her lyrics. Greta Kline does not hide behind abstractions of love, but rather speaks from personal experience. Her lines are more conversational tidbits than formal declarations, lacking some message that we need to internalize in our own lives. She is speaking on behalf of herself and no one else, and this uniqueness should inspire us to find our own voices, rather than take them from some cheesy love song.
An anxiety also pervades contemporary romance, engendering paranoia everywhere we turn. Our lives are not story arcs, and neither is romance. After we take that plunge into love, that does not mean that it’s over and we’ve won. “Hannah Hunt” by Vampire Weekend paints the state of love in the time after the great escape. Hannah and the narrator of this story have embarked on a cross-country journey, going from Providence to Phoenix, and ending up in Santa Barbara. He receives warnings that their honeymooning might not be as it seems, and just as he learns that plants can morph before his very eyes, so can his relationship. The narrator believes that he and Hannah are meant to be, perfectly in sync to the point that she can read his own mind. To him they’ve “got their own sense of time,” believing their love is impervious to the laws of the universe. Soon enough, he learns he cannot trust Hannah, and her ripping apart of the New York Times symbolizes the deterioration of their relationship. His idealistic mirror shatters, and he learns that his romance is not as it seems. As Ezra Koenig breaks into screams in the final chorus, the instability of his voice mirrors the instability of the narrator’s relationship with Hannah. The fallen state of their love recontextualizes the meaning of the second chorus, and the line “we’ve got our own sense of time” serves to separate rather than unite the two. Nothing is certain, and happily ever after does not exist. Love twists, turns, and challenges, battering down its stricken victims till the fantasy dissipates.
The analysis of 21st century heartbreak in contemporary music presents a bleak state; however hope must lie somewhere. There’s a reason we continue to strive for romance in the hope for something great. As the bard of love in our decade, Frank Ocean reminds us of this. A few nights ago, the elusive icon dropped “Moon River,” a cover of the song performed by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961. I guess it’s a bit peculiar that out of all of Frank’s original material covering heartbreak I choose to talk about a cover of a song released in the 60s. However, perhaps he has good intentions in revitalizing this song for an audience that has likely never heard of it before. A bittersweetness empowers the lyrics, as Frank imbibes in optimism and anxiety. His voice is strengthful here, contrasting from Hepburn’s tender crooning in the film. These “two drifters off to see the world” are “chasing after our rainbow’s end,” and the underlying risk that the rainbow will give nothing lies in the back of all of our minds. In this crazy world, he recounts the tribulations of searching for love in one’s life. Despite choosing to embroil ourselves in the pursuit, there are always voices, within us or otherwise, that force us to question everything. The multi-tracked vocals either serve to unite all of us, or put our hopes and insecurities in conflict, making the search as difficult as ever. Despite the difficulties, in a world that offers all questions and no answers, we continue to chase after own ends, keeping the dream alive. Just as Frank does, we will always cross our own Moon River in style, no matter how vast it will be.