Last week I was driving to work and listened to the radio for half an hour. The first song was sad and told a story about a broken relationship. So was the second. And the third. As the commute continued, song after song played that told the story of a broken relationship. The stories told of cheating, of changed phone numbers, of emotional scars, of futile attempts to reconnect. For half an hour, a river of lament flowed through my soul as the music played. That morning, there was not a single exception; every story was about romantic pain.
Maybe it was a fluke. So what songs are radio executives playing, whose profit depends on their selecting songs which speak to our hearts? What are the chart toppers? #1 this week is Somebody that I used to know, all about a broken relationship where the man has been completely cut out by his former lover who sings, “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over.” #3 is Payphone, about a man trying to call his former lover back to remember the relationship, but concludes:
If "Happy Ever Afters" did exist
I would still be holding you like this
All those fairy tales are full of s***
One more f***ing love song, I'll be sick.
Presently the song that’s been on the charts the longest is Lmafo’s “Party Rock Anthem,” (61 weeks) in which the singer brags of his conquest of your girl, “In the club party rock, lookin' for your girl? She on my jock.” Maroon 5 in Moves like Jagger (48 weeks) has to account for the scarred heart he is singing to, “Maybe it's hard/When you feel like you're broken and scarred.” Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger (22 weeks) argues that the pain of breakup is a good thing in the end; after all, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
In music, we feel the mood of a culture. And this cultural mood matches very closely to the experience of many of my close friends. The only thing like the pain of a breakup is death. I’ve counseled friends and family through a lot of difficult times, but breaking a long-term relationship seems to me to be the only thing that can approach the ultimate tragedy of death. It’s terrible. It’s a pain that interferes with daily life and that persists for months and even years. And it’s not rare. It’s like some savage rite of passage, something we all go through before reaching maturity.
And the data bears this out. OKCupid, a very popular (>3 million users) dating site with my generation who boast that “We use math to get you dates.” According to them, we (mostly 20-somethings using the site) have relationships that last 12-18 months, and on average we've had about 5 lifetime sexual partners. Maybe a girlfriend or two and a few flings.
Just consider that for a moment. The data says that our relationships do not last. Most of us want Happily Ever After with one person. And we go into relationships hoping that it’ll end that way, at least eventually. But it doesn’t. Most of the time, with a periodicity of about a year, one member is torn from the union like an arm off a body. And it hurts. We lower our expectations, we try to convince ourselves that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, we make ourselves more reserved and less idealistic. But it still hurts. We make a lament, our voices rise up, and our cries of agony fill the airwaves. We are in torment. Has any other culture suffered as we have? Or have men and women always been tearing each others’ hearts to shreds as a matter of course? Is this just the final station of the train that is the Sexual Revolution? Are we satisfied with the new rules of the game? Can we be saved from this terrible fate?
This is a eulogy of the American Heart, a message to recognize and mourn the tragedy. Unlike most of my essays, I’m not going to pretend like I have all the answers. But I can do is this: I exhort you to pray for the end of this holocaust of hearts.
*For those of you who know me, this is pretty amazing. Plato (in the Republic) joined forces with Oliver Sachs (in Musicophilia) and my roommate Michael Hole (who whistles every single second of the day) to deliver a team flying face kick to my nonmusicality. I discovered that my car was equipped with a radio frequency receiver. There are transmitters, which modulate the frequency, which send out music that my receiver can pick up. Anyways, these devices are wicked cool!