When I was in high school, I had a teacher who delighted in showing Predator to his students on Valentine’s Day. His broader meaning was clear: Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday worthy of ridicule. His deeper meaning wasn't clear to me as a teenager, but it's crystal clear to me as an adult: Predator is a metaphor for what "grown-up love" will do to you, if a little over-the-top.
Puppy love gets all the pop songs and all the ennui, but it’s grown-up love that devastates you. One of the things nobody tells you about adulthood, until you find yourself mired in it, is how complicated and insane and ill-timed grown-up love can be. Why? Because the stakes are so much higher. Love has always been a gamble, but now you're standing at the roulette wheel with way too much riding on red.
But what really makes grown-up love so different than the very real, very heartbreaking stuff of youth? Laugh all you want, but Nicolas Cage as Ronny Cammareri in Moonstruck gives the best description of the difference that I've ever heard:
Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn't know this either, but love don't make things nice—it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren't here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit! Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!Naturally, this speech works splendidly in the movie; Loretta and Ronny wind up together in a hilarious finish. That’s Hollywood, where grown-up love works out for the best. In real life, of course, love gets increasingly complicated the older you get. And nobody tells you that!
On this Valentine's Day, I’d like to explore some songs that deal with the ups and downs of grown-up love; songs that are beyond simple broken hearts and he-said-she-said emo posturing. These are the songs of people who were a little bit destroyed by grown-up love. They may have moved on by now, but the record remains.
Happy Valentine's Day.
Pardon My Heart—Neil Young
They say the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. That seems to be what “Pardon My Heart” is all about. Sometimes, there’s no big breakup. Sometimes, things just change. Sometimes, things get comfortable. You don’t realize the spark is gone until you try to get it back. And many times, it doesn't come back. With grown-up love, you bring it all on yourself.
Grown-up love can leave you aggrieved in ways that young love does not. Sometimes you can’t cry about it. You drive around in your car, listening to music, wishing you could just walk into the ocean. “Ventura” could be about death or the end of a relationship; it’s so far from being on-the-nose that the distinction between the two is blurred, as it often is in real life.
Love Reign O’er Me—The Who
I was friends with someone who told me that Quadrophenia helped him get through his 30s. I never understood what he was on about until I reached my 30s. After all, the album is the story of a mod teenager trying to find his way. But the resilience of youth is strikingly absent. The landscape is so bleak and the prospects are so hazy that “Love Reign O’er Me” fits within an adult’s experience perfectly. Sometimes there’s nothing to do except stand out in the rain and scream and hope it brings you relief somehow.
Somebody That I Used to Know—Gotye
Say what you will about the most ubiquitous song of the past year (second only to “Call Me Maybe” or “Gangnam Style”), but Wally De Backer wrote a refreshingly unique earworm about the boring, humiliating, ridiculous ugliness of a grown-up breakup. There’s no big fight, no dramatic exit, no obsessive pleading; just a collection of personal belongings and the changing of phone numbers. It’s so anti-climactic it hurts.
The Actor—The Moody Blues
Infatuation doesn't end when you grow up, and the desire to escape grows more intense the older you get and the more tied into life you become. “The Actor” describes a woman who becomes besotted with an actor she sees on television. This kind of separation from reality is something that we, as adults, experience more as the years go on and our lives solidify. Things seem more unattainable than ever before, including love, especially if we haven’t found it yet.
Can You Get to That—Funkadelic
Writing checks for love that your heart can’t cash. This is another grown-up break-up song, but one that acknowledges the price of our indiscretions. As we enter into ever more serious relationships, the increasing (potential) consequences to our actions can become the reason why we shrink from responsibility. Sometimes being honest in a relationship is the toughest thing you can do, but it’s a big way grown-up love is different from puppy love. Grown-up love sometimes requires us to be mature when we don’t want to be, when it doesn't seem fair, and when doesn't feel good. Can you get to that?
Enchanting Ghost—Sufjan Stevens
It’s hard to know if Sufjan is writing with religious or romantic overtones, so I’ll keep with the theme of this post and extrapolate the latter meaning from this song: Sometimes we want to know why someone wanted to be with us in the first place. Grown-ups like to over-think like that. Other times, we can’t bear to disrupt the few fond memories we may have of the person we once gave all our love to. That “enchanting ghost” that keeps us from feeling like we've been fooled, that we've wasted years of our lives—years that are suddenly more precious than we could have ever imagined in our younger days. The end result is that sometimes we stay with the wrong person because who they were, and who we want them to be, mean more to us than who they really are.
Teenagers: You've been warned!
What are your favorite “Grown-Up Love Songs”? Let us know in the comments!