Happy Valentine's Day, a day on which we anglophones struggle under one of the worst burdens in a world which has otherwise blessed us: the word "love." The French for "love" is amour, which rhymes with dozens of other useful words - toujours (always), jour (day), carrefour (crossroads), tambour (drum)... So the romantically inclined Québécois lyricist can slough off a love ballad in minutes:
Darling, you're my amour Off with my overcoat
Not just today but toujours
I know from that very first jour
When I saw you at the carrefour
And my heart beat like a tambour...
Off with my glove
I need no overcoat
I'm burning with love...
Darling, you're my amour
Off with my overcoat
- and you find yourself thinking: why's the guy only wearing one glove? The most artful deployment of the "love/glove" rhyme is a magnificently dismissive anti-romantic sentiment in Professor Henry Higgins' mysogynist masterpiece, "Let A Woman In Your Life" from My Fair Lady:
You want to talk of Keats or Milton
She only wants to talk of love
You go to see a play or ballet
And spend it searching for her glove...
You want to talk of Keats or Milton
We should also give an honorable mention to Leonard Cohen, who set himself the challenge of finding something fresh to say for three-and-a-half of the four-and-a-half rhymes and managed to give a rare erotic frisson to the singular finger-warmer:
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove You give me all your lovin' Each night I ask the stars up above - and a hundred thousand other examples.
Dance Me To The End Of Love...
And your turtle-dovin'...
Why must I be A Teenager In Love?
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
You give me all your lovin'
Each night I ask the stars up above
- and a hundred thousand other examples.
In Portuguese, it's different. Coração (heart) rhymes with violão (guitar) and canção (song), which is why there are a zillion Brazilian bossa novas about giving you my heart while I play you a song on my guitar. The constraints of language help define our notion of romance, and in English we're more constrained than most. The prevalence of the "dreaming of/stars above" approach makes love, almost by definition, dreamy, starry-eyed, other-worldly, unreal. The speech-pathologist Wendell Johnson called this the "IFD disease": I for "Idealization (the making of impossible and ideal demands)" leading to F for "Frustration (as the results of the demands not being met)" leading to D for "Demoralization" and a descent "into a symbolic world... The psychiatric profession classifies this retreat as schizophrenia."
Expanding on the theme in the 1950s, the semanticist S I Hayakawa attacked love songs for their promotion of "an enormous amount of unrealistic idealization - the creation in one's mind, as the object of love's search, of a dream girl (or dream boy) the fleshly counterpart of which never existed on Earth." Professor Hayakawa deplored the way these irresponsible songwriters give no indication "that, having found the dream-girl or dream-man, one's problems are just beginning." "Disenchantment" and "self-pity" are bound to set in. In the case study he cites, the boy winds up on Skid Row and the girl in a mental institution, all because they believed the love songs they heard on the radio.
But who cares about S I Hayakawa? That kind of clever stuff's easy to write. It's trying to say something simple that's really difficult. Johnny Mercer, the lyricist of "Moon River" and "One For My Baby," put it this way: "Writing music takes more talent, but writing lyrics takes more courage." He worked with some of the most talented composers of the last hundred years - Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael - but what he meant was that, as wistful and beguiling as any of their tunes might be, there comes a moment when the other half of the writing team has to sit down and put on top of those notes the umpteenth variation on "I love you." By "courage", he was thinking of writers like his friend Dorothy Fields, who could be as flashy a rhymester as Noel Coward but was also capable of:
I'm In The Mood For Love Sometimes When We Touch
Simply because you're near me
Funny, but when you're near me
I'm In The Mood For Love...
The honesty's too much...
I'm In The Mood For Love
Sometimes When We Touch
As for Wendell Johnson, S I Hayakawa and the other nay-sayers, it was Johnny Mercer who said it best:
Fools Rush In
Where wise men never go
But wise men never fall in love
So how are they to know?
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