Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dysfunctional Top Ten, Part 1

Do you ever listen to a popular love song, perhaps something that's in heavy rotation on the radio, and think, wow, that is messed up?

OK, maybe you don't, but I do. Popular songs often portray, if not celebrate, remarkably immature, neurotic and generally dysfunctional attitudes toward romantic love and relationships. I have long thought it would be fun to compile a Dysfunctional Top Ten list. Well, I finally got around to it.

In order for a song to make the list, I decided, it must be both dysfunctional and a big hit, something that was, and preferably still is, played over and over again on the radio. That helped narrow the field; there may be lots of incredibly screwed-up, obscure songs out there--in fact, I know there are, having listened to Black Flag--but I didn't have to worry about them. If it wasn't something that most people have heard on the radio, it didn't count.

Even with these criteria, I ran into problems. At one point, it appeared that songs about beating or killing women would dominate the list. There are a lot of such songs, and some of them are extremely popular. Granted that beating your wife or girlfriend is dysfunctional, and killing her even more so, I didn't want such extreme stuff to take attention away from the subtler, more everyday ways that people make their relationships miserable.

What to do? I toyed with the idea of selecting just one song to represent all the musical wife-beating. But that didn't work out. For one thing, how do you choose between Run For Your Life by The Beatles and Only Women Bleed by Alice Cooper? Any such selection could only be arbitrary. For another, where would it go in the list? If I put such a song anywhere other than first place, I would be guilty of minimizing such abuse. But if I made it number one, I would have the same problem as before, with showy wife-beating taking attention away from everyday neurosis.

I decided that wife-beating deserves its very own category. Perhaps later I'll do a separate post devoted to the Battering Top Ten, if I feel like it. I make no promises. Anyway, this is why there are no wife-beating songs in the list. And now, on to the songs.

Number 10: Love Hurts

I'll 'fess up--this song may be dysfunctional, but I love it. What a great ballad. Still, it clearly was not inspired by a happy, healthy relationship.

I've always thought of this as a Nazareth song, so I got a surprise when I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that it was first recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1960. That's 15 years before Nazareth did their version. Apparently I'm not the only one who loves it--Wikipedia's list of covers of Love Hurts is so extensive they had to use a table to hold it, a table that extends over four screens. (See Love Hurts - Wikipedia.)

Most people have been through bad relationships at some point in their lives, and can identify with the lyrics: "Love is like a cloud/It holds a lot of rain" and "Love is like a flame/It burns you when it's hot." Sure, sometimes it's like that. However, in the bridge, the protagonist denies that it can ever be otherwise. "Some fools rave on happiness/Blissfulness, togetherness/Some folks fool themselves I guess/But they're not fooling me," he says, and then concludes, "Love is just a lie/Made to make you blue." (Source: Love Hurts lyrics @

To claim that love hurts in certain situations, with certain partners, is fair and accurate. To claim that love can never make you happy, that it is in fact a lie, earns you a place in the Pantheon of Dysfunction.

Number 9: Why Do Fools Fall In Love?

This song was first recorded way back in 1956 by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, but has been covered by multiple artists since then, including Diana Ross, who covered it in 1981. (Source: Why Do Fools Fall in Love (song) - Wikipedia)

The song asks, essentially, since we can take it as understood that love can only be a bad thing, why are people stupid enough to get into it? This question, why do fools fall in love, is juxtaposed with questions about things that can be taken for granted: Why do birds sing so gay? Why does the rain fall from up above? The implication is that the foolishness of falling in love is as much an incontrovertible fact of life as the birds singing and the rain falling. (See Why Do Fools Fall in Love lyrics @

It's this attitude that earns this song the Number 9 spot. Why Do Fools Fall In Love? and Love Hurts have a similar message, but at least in Love Hurts, the protagonist makes a case for his conclusions. The second verse of Love Hurts begins, "I'm young, I know/But even so/I know a thing or two/I learned from you." His condemnation of love is based on his own experience. That makes Love Hurts a notch less dysfunctional than Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, a song that not only doesn't make a case but never considers the possibility that anyone might see things otherwise.

Number 8: Wonderful Tonight

Ooh, I'm going to get in trouble now. So many people love this song and think it's sooo romantic. And it's Eric Clapton. How dare I criticize the guitar god? Well, I don't care. This song is a train wreck.

The first verse is largely about the woman's appearance and her attention to it: "She's wondering what clothes to wear/She puts on her makeup/Brushes her long blond hair." After all that, she asks him, "Do I look all right?" like an insecure child seeking validation for her existence. Yes, he assures her, "You look wonderful tonight." And that's what it's all about, as the second verse reveals: "We go to a party/Everyone turns to see/This beautiful lady/Walking around with me." He's already focused laserlike on her looks in the first verse, and now he returns to her looks in the second verse and states it flat out: she's beautiful. Can there be any question of this man's priorities? He's with this woman because she's beautiful. No doubt he loves looking at her--he appears to be watching her intently in verse one as she fixes herself up--but he also loves knowing that other people are looking, seeing him with his delicious little trophy wife draped over his arm. There's no indication that anything else matters.

I think it's interesting that we know only one specific thing about her appearance: she's got long blond hair. That's important. Blond hair is highly valued in our society, especially on women's heads. If she had brown hair, she wouldn't have the same cachet. I wouldn't be surprised if he dumped a brunette to go out with her.

The bridge goes, "I feel wonderful/Because I see the love light in your eyes," (pardon me while I puke,) "And the wonder of it all/Is that you just don't realize/How much I love you." (Source: Wonderful Tonight lyrics @ Well of course she doesn't. For one thing, she's terribly insecure, as her question in verse one made clear. For another, he doesn't love her, he loves her looks, and she probably senses that.

Songs that come right out and knock love are, to my mind, less dysfunctional than songs that describe or celebrate troubled relationships with no apparent awareness of how dysfunctional they are. For its chilling portrayal of a shallow, status-seeking man and his beautiful but desperately insecure wife, this song earns the eighth spot.

Number 7: Sexual Healing

I didn't plan for Wonderful Tonight and Sexual Healing to come out next to each other, but I'm happy they did, because they both make me twitch with revulsion. Sexual Healing is a song about a guy who won't let his lover get a good night's sleep because he "needs" to get laid.

But let him speak for himself: "Get up, Get up, Get up, Get up, let's make love tonight/Wake up, Wake up, Wake up, Wake up, 'cause you do it right." These lyrics make me want to yell, "Leave her alone, dammit! She's sleeping!" Has it ever crossed his mind that maybe his lover doesn't want to be roused in the middle of the night for sex, that maybe she'd rather sleep?

Apparently not. It's all about him. "Baby, I'm hot just like an oven/I need some lovin'." He's got a keen awareness of his own needs, as the lyrics make clear. He goes on to add that when he's not feeling well--say that "blue tears are falling," or his "emotional stability is leaving" him--he knows he can get relief from her and her services. "If you don't know the thing you're dealing/Oh, I can tell you darling that's it's sexual healing."

I'm sure I read somewhere, although I'm not sure where, that the mark of a sexual addict is that instead of learning to deal with his problems, he escapes them by seeking sex. He doesn't care particularly who it's with (although if he's got a steady lover, that's obviously convenient), he doesn't care about connecting emotionally with his sexual object, he cares about getting his fix and making his feelings go away. Gaye describes this grasping, selfish stance so well: "You're my medicine/Open up and let me in" (Ugh!)

I knew most of this song's lyrics, certainly enough to disgust me, but reading them in their entirety has been illuminating. Apparently I missed a bit of ad lib about masturbation. The sites are divided on whether he says, "Please don't procrastinate/'Cause I may have to masturbate" (Sexual Healing lyrics @ or "Please don't procrastinate/It's not good to masturbate" (Sexual Healing lyrics @ If it's the latter, Sexual Healing should be higher up in the Top Ten list. (What's wrong with masturbation? Any man who wakes his woman up from a sound sleep demanding sex needs to become better acquainted with it.) If it's the former, it fits in well with the overall selfishness displayed throughout the song.

But enough. If I read any more of Gaye's lyrics, I'll have to go take a shower. Let's move on.

Number 6: When a Man Loves a Woman

I guess this is a classic. One comes across it often. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, I was surprised to find out how old it is. It was first recorded in 1966 by Percy Sledge. (See When a Man Loves a Woman (song) - Wikipedia). It has been covered by several artists, including Montreal-based singer Luba. What was she thinking? I wondered at the time.

I hate this song. What a negative portrayal, not only of love but of women. "When a man loves a woman... she can bring him such misery," he tells us. According to this song, nothing could be a bigger disaster for a man than to fall in love with a woman. He won't be able to keep his mind on anything, he'll spend his last dime, sleep out in the rain... sounds like a good argument for turning gay, doesn't it?

After all, Sledge assures us, all that abuse and badness is only going one way. "When a man loves a woman, he can do no wrong... he can never own some other girl." (Source: When a Man Loves a Woman lyrics @ Own? I assume he means sleep with. A man in love, he appears to be claiming, is incapable of cheating. This should come as quite a surprise to the many cheated-on wives who have had to listen to that old chestnut, "It didn't mean anything."

Personally, I find the song misogynist, if subtly so. Unlike Led Zeppelin, Sledge didn't go in for starkly condemnatory statements like, "The soul of a woman was created below" (from Dazed and Confused). But the message is clear that falling in love means that the man--that saintly man who is incapable of doing wrong--is going to be used, abused and cheated on. Not a glowing endorsement of women as a gender. Also interesting is the use of the word "own" in relation to women (or "girls") and its suggestion that sex puts a woman in a one-down position.

Still, it's got a good tune, one that a powerful singer can have some fun with, as Luba did. This probably accounts in large part for its staying power.

Oh my goodness, I'm only halfway through and I've topped 2000 words. That's enough for now. Look for the other half of my dysfunctional countdown in a few days.


Anonymous said...


I never liked that song: "Sexual Healing", it reminds me of a young girl in High School, when I was a young man, lol; who hurried up and became the girlfriend of a guy you would never think would be interesting to her. But he was. I wonder if that song actually helped, well as for me; it did not, but I still don't play that song. Your post made me remember that though.... :)

Come and visit my art site, and be friendly.


The Happy Painter said...

Oh I LOVE this! You ARE good. (One of my all time unfavs is "Having My Baby" ... I mean PUHLEEZE! How sexist can we be? I also cringe when I hear "Weak in the Knees" by Serena Rider. Get some gunption, girl!!)

The Happy Painter said...

That was supposed to be "gumption" and not "gunption." The latter may imply I support violence. LOL.

Raine Lawliet said...

I haven't heard of a lot of these songs, but I'm pretty out-of-touch with what's popular these days. They certainly sound like they've earned their spots on the list, though. I look forward to reading more.

Vivian said...

Wow, I think this is the most reaction I've ever gotten to a post! I must write about music more. :D

Thanks for stopping by, Jesse. I will look at your site.

Thanks much, HP! I agree with you -- Having My Baby is indeed bad. I'm pretty sure Dave Barry mentioned it in his bad song roundup, and other authors have made fun of it as well. I think of it as a camp classic--so bad it's good. Especially the bit where the woman comes in and sings, "I'm a woman in love and I love what's going through me." Gag!

Don't worry; nobody who's seen your blog is going to think you support gun violence. :)

Hi Raine, as a matter of fact, when I was writing this, I thought, "I bet Raine won't have heard of most of these songs." You like to listen to music most people haven't heard of. Have you ever considered writing on your blog about the music you listen to? That would be interesting. Glad you liked the post!

Raine Lawliet said...

I've thought about writing album reviews, but they wouldn't be funny. I don't mind spending my money on bad movies or games because I can laugh at them, but I don't buy music without doing my research first because bad music is just painful to sit through.

I might do some top ten lists if I can think of subjects, though.

Vivian said...

I don't spend money on bad music--I just listen to it on the radio. (Not that this music is all bad; it's just dysfunctional. The lyrics are messed up, but the tunes are mostly pretty good. Except for Sexual Healing, which is all-around bad.)

Go for it!

Raine Lawliet said...

I wasn't implying that any of this was bad. I'm just saying that most of what I review is, mostly because I think that negative reviews are funnier.

Vivian said...

It is true that negative reviews are often funnier. Have you ever read any Dorothy Parker? I know that's going waaay back, but she was a master at scathing reviews.

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