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What Makes The Ultimate Love Song?
The Beatles proclaimed that it was all you needed. Whitney Houston sang that she'd found the greatest of all. Kendrick Lamar rapped that it made him feel as powerful as Mike Tyson. And Bruno Mars insists that it's best served with strawberry champagne on ice.
The element in question is, of course, love — an emotion potent enough to have inspired all manner of singers and songwriters for centuries. Words of love were set to music by the poets of ancient Greece and Rome, and passionate desire was a popular topic for medieval troubadours. The earliest example of a recorded voice is an 1860 phonautograph recording of "Au Clair De Lune," a traditional French folk song that is arguably about a late-night romantic encounter.
Whether spoken or sung, "I love you" would seem to be a fairly straightforward statement, but the feelings and circumstances behind those words can be complicated, which would explain why love songs come in an uncanny number of varieties.
There are songs for brand-new love (Ed Sheeran's "Shape Of You"); love that's stood the test of time (George Gershwin's much-covered "Our Love Is Here To Stay"); breakup songs (Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Getting Back Together"); make-up songs (Peaches And Herb's "Reunited"); songs that express love as something selfless and noble (Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You") and songs that express love as something a little more physical (Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing").
Love has clearly served as a well-tapped source of inspiration, but not all loves — and not all loves songs — are equal. While some love songs endure as classics — happily danced to at generations of weddings — plenty of others fade as quickly as a bad first date. Just a few bars of the best love songs can make hearts swell and eyes tear up, while other more-syrupy contenders induce cringes of horror or shrugs of indifference.
So, what is it that makes a great love song great?
"What makes a love song great is what makes any song great — you have to feel it, " says Diane Warren, a GRAMMY-winning songwriter who has added to the love song canon with such hits as "Because You Loved Me," sung by Celine Dion, "Un-Break My Heart, " sung by Toni Braxton, "There You'll Be," sung by Faith Hill, and the Cher No. 1 single "If I Could Turn Back Time."
"I think a great love song obviously has to have great lyrics and great content," says GRAMMY nominee Thomas Rhett, writer of romantic ditties such as "Sweetheart." "But I think sometimes, above that, melody is what attracts people."
"[A] perfect melody is always good because it allows you to dance to something that you've never felt before," says Anthony Hamilton, whose love song catalog includes "So In Love" with fellow GRAMMY winner Jill Scott. "Great lyrics and the perfect vocal tone [are also] very important."
"The best love songs are something that someone hears and it instantly becomes theirs," Warren adds. "Listeners might have their own unique experience of why a certain song means something to them, but if it's meaningful enough it becomes a part of their own personal soundtrack. In a way, a love song is a canvas that you paint yourself onto, and when a truly great love song comes along, everybody feels they can paint themselves onto it. It becomes a part of everybody's inner life."
"It's writing about something that everybody can relate to but looking at it at a slightly different angle," says Shelly Peiken, a GRAMMY-nominated songwriter who has collaborated with Britney Spears, Keith Urban and Celine Dion, among others. "So when your audience hears it, they go, 'I know how that feels and I never thought about it that way.'"
Perhaps no one has had more experience playing personal soundtracks in public than disc jockey Art Laboe, who is currently in his 74th year as an on-air personality. His syndicated program, "The Art Laboe Connection," regularly mixes love songs from every decade since the '50s, and a long-time signature feature of Laboe's program has been the listener dedications he reads as song intros. Laboe agrees that the most powerful and popular love songs have always had a way of connecting with listeners in a uniquely intimate way.
"The one thing that's been true through the decades that I've been on is that the great love songs feel personal to each listener," says Laboe. "I don't think there's any one way to make that happen, because musically and lyrically love songs can come from all sorts of directions. But with the ones that really work there's something in them that moves a person beyond the actual melody or the vocalist's performance or the quality of the production, and the big songs that really last continue to move people in that personal way."
As evidence of just how lasting a love song can be, Laboe cites the fact that he still receives weekly requests for "Earth Angel," a No. 1 hit for the doo-wop group the Penguins back in 1955. He points to a more contemporary artist — Swift — to explain how an artist's personal, musical expression can connect with the public at-large.
"She's a talented writer who can come up with something like 'You Belong With Me,'" says Laboe. "That song goes sailing out there and smacks right into the bulls-eye of what a lot of people are feeling, or have felt, or can relate to. Just about everybody — man or woman — has had the experience of looking at somebody else you're interested in and thinking what the song is saying. So Taylor Swift may have been writing about something very specific and personal to her, but she ended up with a song that millions and millions of people felt personally connected to in their own way."
"A very important ingredient in a love song is pain," adds GRAMMY winner Gillian Welch. "Because even when love is good and true, there's part of it that's painful."
Emotional considerations aside, the writing of a love song requires craft and technical skill. But Warren says her best work can't simply be summoned through craft alone — it comes when she feels as moved at the beginning of the creative process as a listener might be by the finished recording.
"On a technical level, every song is an individual and what works for one song might not work for another," she says. "Sometimes I'll start writing with a title in mind, or have some chords to work with. Sometimes I've got a basic concept for a song. But the main thing is that I have to feel something as I'm writing it. If I don't feel something, that song isn't going to be great. And if it seems like more of an exercise than a real expression of emotion, I'm probably not even going to finish writing it. But if I feel moved just getting to work on something, then there's a good chance it's going to move somebody else too."
Love songs — even the great ones — can become so familiar that it may be easy to underestimate their effect on both individuals and entire cultures. But at least one historian with a keen understanding of the evolution of love songs contends that their power to move, and the specific way they get people to move, should not be dismissed.
"What makes a love song great is what makes any song great — you have to feel it." — Diane Warren
"People are wrong to view these songs as mere entertainment or escapism," says Ted Gioia, author of Love Songs: The Hidden History. "The purpose of a successful love song is to create love. The first love songs were part of fertility rites and they aimed at changing the world, not just describing it. When the Beatles sang 'All You Need Is Love' or John Coltrane performed A Love Supreme, they wanted to transform the world in which they lived. And on a personal level, many of us would not be here today if our parents hadn't heard a love song at the right time and place. Those love songs aren't just life-changing, they are life-creating."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis, Elvis: My Best Man, and Running With The Champ: My Forty-Year Friendship With Muhammad Ali.)