Tuesday, February 15, 2011
As I kid I heard and learned songs such as:
Love & Marriage (1955)
Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like the horse and carriage
Dad was told by mother
You can't have one, you can't have none, you can't have one without the other!
I Have Dreamed (The King & I)
I have dreamed that your arms are lovely,
I have dreamed what a joy you'll be.
I have dreamed every word you whisper.
When you're close,
Close to me.
(That's just how I feel about my wife)
When it's raining I don't miss the sun
'Cause it's in my sweetie's smile
Just think that I'm the lucky one
Who will lead her down the aisle
(I felt just like that on my wedding day)
and Some Enchanted Evening (South Pacific):
Some enchanted evening
When you find your true love
When you feel her call you across a crowded room
Then fly to her side
And make her your own
Or all through your life you may dream all alone
(Our courtship was just like that; we joke that I launched myself at her like a cruise missile)
I especially took the last line to heart: not only is marriage good, but not getting married has a price. But you say: there's not a word about marriage in this song. And I reply: yes, it goes without saying. And the adult world around me confirmed it. I remember only one marriage-age woman from my early childhood who wasn't married or a nun. And every adult man I knew was married, or a priest. Adulthood in my childhood meant taking an other-directed vow of one kind or another.
I could go on, but here's the point: how I imagined adult life and romance always pointed to marriage, partly because the popular culture which I absorbed did the same. But music started to change when I was a kid. The songs I list here are hardly comprehensive, but simply a few of the ones that made lasting impressions on me, for better or worse.
Griswold was in 1965; in 1967 Angel of the Morning was a huge hit. It seemed odd to a kid...why doesn't she sleep at her own house? What sin is she talking about?
I see no need to take me home, I'm old enough to face the dawn.
Maybe the sun's light will be dim and it won't matter anyhow.
If morning's echo says we've sinned, well, it was what I wanted now.
And if we're the victims of the night, I won't be blinded by light.
Now let's jump ahead two years to a song which from the age of 13 has contributed mightily to my image of marriage, Our House (1969), by Graham Nash:
Our house is a very, very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard
Life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy
'Cause of you
My life is just like the song; but only after I was married in 1988 did I learn that Our House is not about a married couple. By 1969 living together was becoming mainstreamed as an alternate/ prelude to marriage. But Graham Nash, who was born in 1942, made this song about living with Joni Mitchell into such a beguiling little hymn about the joys of monogamy that it looked just like marriage to me...and probably to Nash as well.
Of course 1969 was also the year of Whole Lotta Love. I don't count it because like much of the blues it springs from, its sexual bluntness wasn't in the cultural mainstream, and it didn't affect my ideas about love and sex one way or another.
In 1971, Carly Simon recorded That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be which was surprisingly blunt about getting married:
But you say it's time we moved in together
And raised a family of our own, you and me -
Well, that's the way I've always heard it should be:
You want to marry me, we'll marry.
If you check the whole song you'll see that in spite of assorted substantial misgivings, she still accepts marriage as the adult model of love. Pretty remarkable for 1971; but Simon, 12 years my senior, was raised in a more normative culture than I was.
Also in 1971 the Temptations released Just My Imagination, which shows Motown could still think traditionally about men and women:
Soon we'll be married and raise a family.
In a cozy, little home out in the country with two children, maybe three.
I tell you, I can visualize it all.
This couldn't be a dream for too real it all seems.
Then in 1972 there was Summer Breeze, (recent version) which like Our House even today informs me about the quotidian joys of marriage:
And I come home
from a hard day's work
and you're waiting there
not a care in the world
See the smile a-waitin' in the kitchen
food cookin' and the plates for two
Feel the arms that reach out to hold me
in the evening when the day is through
Is the couple in Summer Breeze married? I don't know. I like to think so: my life is just like this song too.
It wasn't until 1974 that I started to understand mainstream lyrics that not only didn't point toward marriage, but seemed to point away from it, like Joni Mitchell's Help Me (recent cover):
Help me, I think I'm falling in love with you
Are you going to make me go there by myself
That's such a lonely thing to do
Both of us flirting around, flirting and flirting, hurting, too
We love our loving
Not like we love our freedom
Didn't it feel good, we were sitting there talking
Or lying there not talking, didn't it feel good?
Then in 1976, Mitchell was more explicit about her inconstancy:
I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away....
In our possessive coupling
So much could not be expressed
So now I'm returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed...
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There's the hope and the hopelessness
I've witnessed thirty years.
Hejira is Arabic for flight (as in flee, not fly); here it implies a flight from commitment, not Mecca.
There's no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone...
Now he's got a woman at home
He's got another woman down the hall
He seems to want me anyway
Why'd you have to get so drunk
And lead me on that way...
Coyote's in the coffee shop
He's staring a hole in his scrambled eggs
He picks up my scent on his fingers
While he's watching the waitresses' legs
Song for Sharon
When we were kids in Maidstone, Sharon
I went to every wedding in that little town
To see the tears and the kisses
And the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gown
And walking home on the railroad tracks
Or swinging on the playground swing
Love stimulated my illusions
More than anything...
Sharon you've got a husband
And a family and a farm
I've got the apple of temptation
And a diamond snake around my arm
I was 16 in 1974, and I regarded 31-year-old Joni Mitchell as a thinking adult. But how could a thinking adult have such a wreck of a love life? Why was love so difficult? Back then I didn't see that what went without saying were Griswold, Eisenstadt, and Roe.
Together these songs became a cautionary tale; I sure didn't want my life to be like that. But my life has turned out wonderfully, as I especially reflected on this Valentine's Day while my glorious wife and I sat in the sun, laughed, and kept tabs on our two grandkids. I imbibed the traditional view of monogamy and marriage through the popular culture that preceded my teen years; and songwriters such as Mitchell warned me that living like "Don Juan's reckless daughter" does not lead to happiness. So I wonder: what about the generations that follow me...my kids for instance?
In 1994 I watched the movie Reality Bites, about GenXers' directionless lives. It was the first time I heard the song Stay, by Lisa Loeb (born in 1968). In the song a couple argues about breaking up, but we learn from the closing lines that the woman who intended to leave will stay:
You said "you caught me cause you want me
And one day you'll let me go"
You try to give away a keeper, or keep me cause you know
You're just too scared to lose.
And you say, "Stay."
What strikes me is that it's clear they're living together (it goes without saying), and it isn't working. The man asks her to stay because he doesn't want to be alone; she knows that is his reason, but stays anyway. And at no point in the song does the woman give any impression that marriage is anywhere on the horizon with this person, or another person, or that there's any choice except to maintain this formless "relationship" or have no relationship at all. And set marriage aside for second: what about love, or romance? She's only choosing among different levels of dissatisfaction. To which I say, well, yeah: if marriage is simply not an option, then love will be problematic. It sounds like the songwriter (or at least the character in the song) lacks any image of marriage as a model for any present or future way to live; which is far, far away from the worldview I grew up with. She clearly wants love and happiness, but at age 26 seems unaware of how to pursue it. And the song shows how the historical/ anthropological model for sex and romance (marriage) has been just about erased from a popular culture that's marinated in a contraceptive/abortive worldview for more than 40 years.
Of course the erosion of cultural/ moral substance isn't limited to love, sex, and marriage. Even fundamental, existential notions of what life is for are also slipping away. In 1996 Smashing Pumpkins released the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which contains the song 1979 (recent version) which is nominally a treatment of teenage ennui. But the songwriter, Billy Corgan (born 1967) was 28 at the time, and makes observations more adult than adolescent. I don't think this degree of anomie was lyrically expressible in say, 1979:
We don't even care to shake these zipper blues
And we don't know
Just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed to the earth below
Double cross the vacant and the bored
They're not sure just what we have in store
We don't even care as restless as we are
We feel the pull in the land of a thousand guilts
And poured cement, lamented and assured
To the lights and the towns below.
Man, that's bleak. And yet when I sing along to 1979, I hear a yearning for meaning, and feel optimistic. If these younger generations can recognize when life is empty or pointless, then maybe they can obtain a life that's substantial and full, if they know how. Yet they struggle against so much that I never had to: it would never occur to me that maybe one or more of my siblings had been aborted, for example.
My imagination has never been my enemy; is theirs?
In closing let's look way past Griswold; could no one have predicted the consequences of easy contraception?
"....the use of contraceptives has made sexual intercourse independent of parenthood, and the marriage of the future will be confined to those who seek parenthood for its own sake rather than as the natural fulfilment of sexual love.
But under these circumstances who will trouble to marry?
Marriage will lose all attractions for the young and the pleasure-loving and the poor and the ambitious.......It is impossible to imagine a system more contrary to the first principles of social well-being."
Christopher Dawson, 1933