Taylor Swift is the queen of the shady breakup song. She pretty much single-handedly created and perfected the genre. Airing couplet upon couplet of dirty laundry to set records straight, point fingers, or otherwise deliver someone their long over-due comeuppance. And in the process immortalizing all the petty squabbles and feigned offences that no one would know, or care about, had she not put pen to paper, rhyme to rhythm, berate to beat.
Truth be told, this isn’t new. A post-Beatles John Lennon wrote a scathing missive about Paul McCartney called “How Do You Sleep”. Ray Davies took aim at a former protégé whom he discovered was really a poser in “Prince of The Punks”. It’s suspected a few early Foo Fighter songs are rebukes of Courtney Love. Courtney Love, in turn, is rumored to have written diss tracks about both Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor. Even Bowie isn’t above it, penning a scathing rebuke of Gary Numan.
For most artists, it’s a one off: an exorcism of toxic anger, that once said, required no further discussion or thought, allowing them to return to creating the music we know and love. But no one has done it so often, with such regularity and consistency as Ms. Swift. It’s as if she can’t help herself, has nothing else to say, or worse, doubts anyone would be interested if she strayed from the formula.
But once upon a time, musicians had loftier intentions for their music than a passive aggressive missive: pleas to long lost loves or lovers who lost interest. Promises of eternal love and fidelity. And then there were declarations of unspoken feelings and attempts to finally give voice to the deep-seated emotions the artist had hitherto been unsuccessful.
Pattie Boyd has had a staggering eight songs written about her, four by George Harrison and another four by Eric Clapton. Some of the most beloved music of the 60’s and 70’s is about the love these men had for her. Songs like “Layla”, “Wonderful Tonight” and “Something”. Yeah, the song Frank Sinatra called “the greatest love song of the past 50 years”.
But for all the bravado of Layla, Clapton’s plea of unrequited love, or the beauty of Something, neither of these relationships lasted. In fact, it’s rare that any relationship that starts with a song last. More often than not, it is the song that goes the distance, not the relationship.
Let’s look at some examples: “My Sharona” by the Knack. Doug Fieger and Sharona Alperin’s relationship lasted only four years, although those years are considered Fieger’s most creative period.
Steve Perry wrote three songs for girlfriend Sherrie Swafford: besides the obvious “Oh Sherrie”, he bookended with “Open Arms” and “Separate Ways”. Which when looked at chronologically, gives insight into the course of their relationship.
Some other songs that outlasted the relationship they sparked: “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” By Paul Simon. Simon’s marriage to Carrie Fisher only lasted a year. “Uptown Girl” by Billie Joel. Joel and Christy Brinkley’s marriage lasted just shy of a decade. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns and Roses. Axl Rose and Erin Everly’s relationship lasted 5 years. “Day After Day” by Bad Finger. Pete Ham and Dixie’s relationship lasted roughly two years.
Now, this isn’t to say there haven’t been love songs written in which the couple lasted. John Lennon has a few songs he’d written for Yoko Ono, and Paul McCartney has a few he’s written for Linda Eastman, but they weren’t written to woo. They were written in the midst of the relationship, not at the start and not to spark.
No, it’s rare that a song used to woo proves to be successful in the long run. The only one I can come up with is “I Walk The Line” by Johnny Cash.
The reason all these relationships ultimately failed is because they could never live up to the hype. The romanticizing of the relationship established unreal expectations on both sides. And this is because the songs are ultimately more about the artist who wrote it than the muse that inspired it. The songs are an excising of intense emotions, feelings of desire, lust and longing that eclipse reciprocated and domestic love. But once these intense emotions are satiated, and reality set in, it eventually becomes unsustainable. Feelings subside, and what once seemed like a Herculean task, in retrospect becomes benign. In other words, the thrill of the chase is greater than its own success.
Sadly, this is a universal truth. The more romantic, the loftier, the greater the pleas, the greater the hype, the more to live up to, the larger the obstacle, the greater the odds. It’s a recipe for failure, and expectations no one can ever meet.
Maybe Taylor has it right, finally giving a voice to the other side of the coin. Dispelling the myth behind these love songs from a woman’s perspective, offering a dose of reality to all the romanticism, and debunking what male artists would like women to believe.
And as necessary and as helpful as that may be, somewhere one wonders what song would come should someone introduce T Swift to Pattie Boyd.