A love song can elicit a variety of reactions in us - an innocent sway, a smile of reminiscing, a concealed sob. And as Valentine’s Day, the quintessential holiday of love, has just passed, I felt the urge to look back on the history of “the love song.” When did people start belting their emotions out through song, and how did we develop from poems to autotune?
The first recorded “love song” is “The Love Song of Shu-Sin” - a poem written in 2000 BC, making it truly a relic of the past! However, this poem communicates much of the same facets of love that poets still discuss today - longing, love over all, and the celebration of commitment. Historians believe that the poem might have been written as part of a marital ritual, where the king Shu-Sin would symbolically marry the goddess Inanna every year, strengthening his connection to the gods. Nonetheless, we can consider this poem the first documented “love song,” and admire how even 4000 years ago, humankind felt the same emotions, and knew love in a unique way as well.
Speed through about 1400 years, and we get to the Ancient Greeks - where love was celebrated and respected, especially by poet Sappho, nicknamed “The Tenth Muse” by Plato. In a time where homosexuality was accepted in Greek history, Saapho revolutionized the world of poetry, speaking of her deep love for other women and the ramifications it produced. She was part of the turn from stories only about the gods and heroic feats to in-depth narratives about one’s feelings and emotional tribulations. Sappho’s infamous piece, called “Ode to Aphrodite”, is a love poem calling for the support of Aphrodite, the all-powerful goddess of love, in Sappho’s newest romantic pursuit. She gives praise to Aphrodite first, then goes on to describe her love - the torment it causes her, the futures she imagines. The beauty of this poem comes from its staggering and its voice - you feel like Sappho, feel for a second the power of her love. And isn’t that what a love song is all about?
And finally, we return from our time-traveling to the modern age. There is many a prolific love song; think “Be My Baby” by the Ronnettes or “I Say A Little Prayer” by Aretha Franklin. But the one I’ve chosen to discuss is “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. Originally sung by Dolly Parton in 1974, Houston rerecorded it in 1992, and it reached No.1 on billboards for months to come. Even now, the song is a cult classic, played on radios around the United States day and night. But what was the origin of such a masterpiece? Dolly Parton originally wrote it to separate from The Porter Wagoner Show, and Wagoner agreed to let her go if he could help produce the song. And speak of separation - this song is all about the singer leaving their partner, telling the partner that they are better off without the singer. It speaks to those classic tales of love - for centuries, people feel that their partner is better off, that they could find more somewhere else.
These love songs tell us just how timeless love really is. However, all the negative downsides: the pain that it causes, the jealousy it can induce, the anger a scorned lover feels - those are just as timeless. So the next time you hear the familiar strums of a love song, know just how deep the history runs - and then immerse yourself in that emotion. Because Cupid’s bow hits everyone eventually - people 4000 years ago would agree.