I was born the day John Lennon died; the poor man was shot in New York City in the year 1980. Later in my life, I got to know that among other things, Lennon had said, "All you need is love." As great a simplification this may be, I still find the subject rather complicated, though that may be a failure on my part due to lack of experience.
Just the other day, a friend emailed me a copy of an article he had found in a women's magazine (I still have not asked him how he came across that one). The apparently female author was going on about the search for the one and only love at the age of fourteen, first kisses and more, and just when I was about to drop my friend an exasperated mail asking the point of all this, I recognized the author's name as that of a girl back from school. So the second time around, I read the piece more carefully, but I only succeeded in nursing a latent nagging thought to a major self-doubt: this girl I used to know published an article -- in a national magazine, that is -- about things I have not got around to experience personally to this day.
I felt kind of like a voyeur when I read about how a boy took her face in his hands and kissed her on the tip of the nose and on the mouth, and I have got to be careful there, because I do not intend to tell you what I have done so far in imitation of Romeo and what not. I will only relate this little bit: my love-live was put to shame by that fourteen-year-old guy, so admittedly, I'm not a connoisseur when it comes to loving. And yet I feel I know something on the subject of love, though mostly not from my own personal experiences. I am referring to that sort of common knowledge we all acquire through the process of coming of age, until we realize it does not have the slightest bearing on what happens to us anyway.
Just take the idea of the love of your life: how do you recognize 'the one', what makes true romance? The man of a girl's dreams will always ride into town on a big white horse, prince in shining armor, white knight, whatever, and even the most hard-boiled workaholic bloke will turn into a handsome, caring lover, forsaking the high-society wench he was about to marry for the working-class girl revealed to him by angel's voices or a bright light from heaven. Sounds familiar, sort of Hollywood? True, this is what you learn from movies like "Pretty Woman" ; girls devour them curled up with a box of Kleenex, and guys commonly write them off as 'chicken flicks' for precisely that reason. Conclusion: "Romance is dead. It was acquired in a hostile takeover by Hallmark and Disney, homogenized, and sold off piece by piece." Thank you, Lisa Simpson, I would not have guessed otherwise. But give me some slack here; I grew up believing sternly in the existence of rules like how you are supposed to always kiss on the first date. There is more stuff similarly misleading: all this talk about 'the bases', for example. Employing expressions from baseball may seem like a strange way of describing the previous evening's date (as in "We made it all the way to third base.") when no one has a clear idea what each base actually represents, but then those expressions are utilized mostly by popular guys (i.e. 'jocks') whose popularity is directly connected to their affiliation with the football team.
Maybe grasping sports-related metaphors was beyond me because I resembled more one of the 'geeks' or 'nerds'. You know, those silent guys who get invited to parties only for laughs and whom you can spot by their pimply and bespectacled faces, but I may be stooping to the level of movie-induced clich?s again. However, this merely goes to prove a point, namely that films only add to the confusion that is inherent in love anyway. Seems I was spoiled a good deal by them. "The goddam movies. They can ruin you." -- already Holden Caulfield knew this.
Now there was a sixteen-year-old boy simply overwhelmed by love's confusion, totally tangled up in an emotional landslide: "Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. The really can." Just the one to idolize when you are the same age. I would like to say that Holden Caulfield introduced me to the inevitable suffering that is the twin sister of love, only I learned about it prior to reading The Catcher in the Rye. Raised eyebrows everywhere now, what am I talking about? I knew that love can hurt a great deal before I ever felt that pain myself, and believe me, I learned it from The Peanuts. Of course I used to laugh at those cartoons as a kid, but what I remember above anything else is how Charlie Brown was shaken with grief when he dropped such lines as "Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love." Sure, he was a pathetic blockhead who never managed to walk up to that little red-haired girl and ask her out, but when you sympathize with him, the feeling of "Good Grief!" just sticks like spilled diet-coke after a week.
Especially when it is rubbed in more by other means: music is an institution at least as important as Television and the movies when it comes to understanding love, and it is an equally misleading guide as well. You might probably remember from your own teenage days that listening to music can be a tool to drown out complaining parents (with the volume cranked up far enough, that is) or whatever else keeps bothering you in life. I took it one step further and began to strongly relate to certain lyrics. As with poetry, a lot of songs concentrate on the subject of love, which to some proves the redundancy of pop music. To me, it provided an endless source of knowledge I could also have acquired 'the hard way', but why experience the disappointment of rejection when pop songs can tell you all about it? I admired Robert Smith's self-declared search for the "perfect pop song", and the attempts of his band The Cure (the name says it all) at it were titled "Lovesong? or "The Lovecats" and clearly showed that love meant denial, pain, betrayal, suffering and sorrow. Until today, The Cure's definition of pop music seems to be a lonely guy singing in the rain about his broken heart. Nirvana hit in the same vein, only more vigorously. Ever since the release of Nevermind, which featured the 'teenage anthem' "Smells like Teen Spirit", their music was definitely pop because it was popular. The songs also connected love to desperation and confusion with lyrics such as "I love you I'm not gonna crack?, emphasized by Cobain's vocal gift which consisted of being able to vent his pain and misery in sustained screams at the top of his lungs, and you just had to relate to that. One of the 'truths' to be found in this music was that sadness would always prevail over love; this was underlined with the final statement Kurt Cobain made in 1994 when he committed suicide, leaving behind a lot of confusion. I could name other artists in addition (and I have not even proceeded to 'the classics' such as Elvis Costello yet), but the overall effect remains the same: before first love even considered making its entry into my life, I had armed myself with a collection of records. Not only did they predict how everything was going to turn abusive sooner or later, but I could also rely on favorite songs to provide me with comfort and solace at the times of sadness, since they were about exactly this kind of suffering.
I can hear you now, saying that the only thing suffering here is my credibility if I claim I really believed in all this. It is not as if I did not realize how blind belief creates self-fulfilling prophecies; looking at the world from a Leonard-Cohen-angle will make you discover cracks in everything, and I for one know it leaves you bruised in a way. But what is cause and effect here? To quote Nick Hornby: "Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?" By the time you arrive at the question whether the music or the misery came first you cannot even tell anymore, but what it boils down to is the question whether art is an imitation of life or if life is imitating art.
"The first mistake of Art is to assume that it's serious? is what Lester Bangs, "America's greatest rock critic", had to say on the topic. Nevertheless, I am tainted in the way that I am more than willing to regard every song in which someone is lonely in a way (and in another generalization I just assume this is true for the whole of pop music) as spookily relevant. I do not even have the consolation of saying it has done me any good, because it is indeed true that everything I gleaned from my Library of Musical Knowledge has not worked out to have any useful application in 'real life'. If you grant music (as well as books and movies and for that matter all of the aforementioned examples, anything that makes you feel) a central position in your life, you will constantly absorb an emotional energy from it, and once you have started to feed on that turmoil, love can in consequence never mean mere contentment.
People say that you will always remember your first love, and seeing now how I fell in love with music, I realize it is true. You might claim that all this is just another excuse for how I ended up like the men in Doris Day movies, but the unhappiest people I know are those moved to tears by their favorite love songs.