What's happened to the love song over the years is a pretty exact mirror of what's happened to society at the same time. Everything becomes more explicit, more obsessive, more dysfunctional. And so have the songs.
Let's review somoe evidence. In 1950, Nat King Cole sang "Mona Lisa" which went a little like this:
"Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you/You're so like the lady with the mystic smile/Is it only 'cause you're lonely they have blamed you/For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?"
Beautiful, isn't it? Elegant, restrained, and with a hint of sadness beneath. Textured and literate too.
So now we fast forward a decade, and here are the Beatles:
"Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover/Something in the way she woos me/I don't want to leave her now/You know I believe in how."
Equally elegant, equally beautiful and George Harrison's little guitar break is gorgeous.
But then, later in the song comoes this:
"You're asking me will my love grow/I don't know, I don't know/Stick around, and it may show/But I don't know, I don't know."
Suddenly love, commitment and the desire to cleave to one another became conditional, or at least uncertain, as the changes wrought in the 1960s filtered through into our very simple view of ourselves and our emotional relationships. Suddenly the world eas more of a playground and we didn't need to cleave to our partner quite as much as our parents did.
Now we hit the 1970s. For the purposes of demonstration, I'll take Billy Joel:
"Don't go changing, to try and please me/You never let me down before/Don't imagine you're too familiar/And I don't see you anymore."
Lordy! Suddenly the love song has admitted to the possibility of codependency, and that we have to really, really work at being just right for our partner. Why? Because they have an alternative now. Anyone who's read Tim Harford's "The Logic of Life" should understand: relationships have become a bargain struck in the market place. We take someone on because we calculate the costs and the benefits of being with them and for a while at least, the costs outweigh the benefits. For a while.
Still with me? On to the 1980s, then:
"I wanna know what love is/I want you to show me/I wanna feel what love is/I know you can show me."
Geez, talk about projection. So now we've all become emotional illiterates who can't identify our own feelings?
"If I should stay/I would only be in your way/So I'll go, but I know/I'll think of you ev'ry step of the way."
What, so now we didn't know we loved someone until we split up? Big oops. (And yeah, I know it was written a lot earlier.)
Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that the love song has mirrored our own emotional decay, to the point where love songs these days are more about obsessive codependency than soulful paeans to the one we purely, simply, love.
And I will now present to you what is, to me, the ultimate love song.
It's simple, it's real. The characters and the situations may not be pretty, but they're real. Honest. "Downtown Train" is a story rather than a shopping list of one person's lusts and insecurities. The line "Will I see you tonight/On a downtown train" could have come from a black & white film, a bygone era.
There's desire, sure, but it's emotional desire and not physical. The song aspires to something better, greater than so much of what we are forced to listen to these days. And it gives not a fig for codependency, obsession, need. It's generous, open, properly loving. And in a day, a time like this, it's a consolation to know that there are people who still love like that.