Obsession, or seven of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll songs

I can’t speak for you, but I always learn the most interesting things while researching something else. For example, yesterday, in a bit of mild curiosity, I wanted to know which group sang the song “Obsession” in the early to middle 1980s. (The answer is Animotion; it was their first and biggest hit.) Along with the answer to that question, I also found several interesting internet lists about popular songs related to the feeling or condition of obsession.

Earlier this month I posted an essay about the meaning of love. Three of the points I made were that love cares more about the other than about the self, that the opposite of love is selfishness, and that popular culture tends to confuse the two, expressing selfish thoughts and feelings as if they were love. I now wish that I had used the theme of obsession to show the difference between selfishness and true love. After all, obsession cares more about “what I want” and “how I feel” than it cares about “what you want” and “how you feel.”

Last night and this morning I started examining my favorite popular songs for themes of obsession. I did this because several of my favorite songs appeared on those lists of songs about obsession. About fifteen years ago I made a list of my favorite songs. Some preferences have changed over the years, but the top of the list has remained remarkably stable.

My favorite rock ‘n’ roll song for much more than fifteen years is “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys (1966). I have always loved this song for its harmony and polyphony, and the actual words have never been as important as the sound. In this anthem to love, the singer mentions a few details about the appearance and scent of his beloved, but the bulk of the song is dedicated to the good feelings and “excitations” he is experiencing. One might gather that she feels the same way about him, if the two of them have good vibrations, but from the lyrics alone it does not seem to matter to him whether she truly likes him or not.

A strong second favorite song is “Hey Jude” by the Beatles (1968). Hard-core Beatles fans know that Paul McCartney wrote this song to comfort Julian (“Jules”) Lennon on the divorce of his parents, John and Cynthia Lennon, and John’s on-going romance with Yoko Ono. Some of the song directly mentions the sorrow of the boy (“Take a sad song and make it better.”), and other lines seem to encourage him to accept his father’s second wife (“Let her into your heart.”). As Paul filled out the lyrics, though, he seemed to add just a touch of obsessive “love.” (“You have found her. Now go and get her.”) Neither of my two favorite songs made the lists of songs about obsession, but they contain elements of the feeling.

My solid third favorite song is “Cherish” by the Association (1966). This song was featured on every list of songs about obsession. “Cherish is the word I use to describe all the feeling that I have right in here for your inside.” The singer sings about how she makes him feel and laments the fact that she has no interest in him. Writers of these lists comment how strange it is that this song is sometimes featured at weddings, even though it describes unrequited love. I agree. The song seems more suited to the sad and lonely guy at the back of the church than to the happy bride and groom.

After this, my favorites clump as a group, so I will list them in chronological order. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley (1960) is a simple love long about a man who is helpless in the face of love. Elvis had already sung about the symptoms of love, making them sound much like a panic attack, in “All Shook Up.” Now Elvis sings more calmly about those feelings, but again the singer does not seem to care whether or not she feels the same way about him.

The most obvious song on this list of obsession songs is “Every Breath You Take” by the Police (1983). Sting even wrote this song to portray the thoughts of a stalker, and, according to interviews, he remains astounded by its popularity. Like many other people, though, I have been drawn to this song since the first time I heard it. Its simple tune and beat describe a feeling that might well be mistaken for love, even though the singer is so obsessed that he sings, “Oh, can’t you see you belong to me,” without even stopping to ask whether or not she wants to be with him.

“We Belong” by Pat Benatar is a much gentler song about love, but seen in this light it may be just as demanding as “Every Breath You Take.” Although the song is about us instead of me, unlike most of the songs on this list, the singer takes for granted that “we belong together.” One wonders if the song is being sung because the beloved has suggested a bit more distance between the two of them might be healthy.

I was surprised to see the deeply romantic “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” by the Moody Blues (1988) on the list of songs about obsession. This song would appear to be one of the healthiest expressions of true love on my list of favorites, with reminders of “the promise that we made each other” and, “My arms will close around you and protect you with the truth.” On the other hand, the singer is obsessed with someone who is not present at this time. He remembers the past and he hopes for the future, but his love has no reality right now. He sings, then, only about his obsession, not about a love that the two of them share.

Here, then, is a challenge: how many popular songs from the last sixty years actually sing about true love—love in which the beloved matters more than the lover—and not merely about how the lover feels toward the beloved? Are there many love songs from this era that really express love rather than an addiction to the feeling of love or a desire to own and control the beloved? Let me know what popular love songs you like that actually express true love.

J.

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