On our fridge sits a daily desk calendar with quotes from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Retired
prayerfully and peacefully to a former convent in a corner of the Vatican with his books, piano and cat, his thought and his words still resonate through the Church.
One extract on the calendar caught my eye a couple of weeks ago: “Today, the word
‘love’ is so spoiled, worn out and abused that one almost fears to pronounce it,” he
said in 2006, picking up on themes from his first encyclical.
“And yet, it is a fundamental word . . . We cannot simply abandon it, but we must take it up again, purify it and bring it to its original splendour, so that it can illumine our life and guide it on the right path.”
I set out to write a piece for this issue about a song from the current New Zealand singles chart. Dipping into the music listed there was to see Benedict’s point written in flashing neon.
The tunes I sampled from the top of the chart were “love songs”: sickly and sleazy by turns, the music thin and processed, the lyrics threadbare and clunky. “Don’t you give up, nah-nah-nah / I won’t give up, nah-nah-nah / Let me love you / Let me love you / Oh baby, baby”, goes DJ Snake’s Let Me Love You.
Surely this is one of the most banal love lyrics — spoiled, worn out and abused — ever written. Some of the others were slightly better, but only in the way a sewerage pond smells slightly better than a public toilet.
Here’s Major Lazer’s Cold Water, featuring, like DJ Snake’s tune, the wispy vocals of Justin Bieber: “I won’t let go / I’ll be your lifeline tonight / . . . I will jump right over / Into cold, cold water for you”. Cold water? Woah. That’s commitment.
But commitment at least: Ariana Grande and Nikki Minaj have no need for that concept on their Side to Side. “Feeling like I wanna rock with your body / And we
don’t gotta think ’bout nothin’,” it sneers, all swagger, strangled vocals and tinny beats.
All that matters to these two is that they “let them hoes know” that “a bad reputation / Doesn’t matter, ’cause you give me temptation” to which they will gleefully submit.
And so on and on they go, these songs whose slivers of honesty and truth are buried by pop-by-numbers trashiness.
Further down the chart, the real music begins to appear, but I still wanted to write about a high-charting song so I went in search of other lists and ended up on the website of radio station RDU.
Their Te Ahi Top 10 is a chart chosen by listeners from a playlist of exclusively Kiwi tunes. Sitting at number one was Stef Animal with a song called Be My Baby, the title of which sounded familiar.
I clicked through to the video and of course it was familiar — Stef Animal’s song was a cover of the Ronettes’ classic from 1963. You know it: the distinctive drumbeat in the opening bars, the upbeat vocals, the danceable melody. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys has called this song “the greatest record ever produced”.
It was one of the tunes on which legendary producer Phil Spector developed his famed “wall of sound”: a range of instrumentation, including a full orchestra, built up track by track and blended into a lush and layered final sound.
It’s also a love song, sure, but one in which the love seems transactional rather than reciprocal: “So won’t you say you love me, / I’ll make you so proud of me / . . . For every kiss you give me I’ll give you three”.
It’s also more than a little obsessive and in its refrain it even seems to seek to infantilise the object of affection: “Be my little baby”.
Stef Animal’s version is lush and elaborate too, but has none of the joy and energy of the original. The tone of the song and its accompanying video is one of weariness, even despair. It is slowed right down, and instead of that wide range of instruments, Stef Animal has used just voice and synthesiser, looped and layered.
In the video a screen glows behind the performer with lyrics flicking past in cold green digital capitals. An insert shows people falling, objects breaking, and the whole looks worn and washed out.
In this version Stef Animal subverts the original and captures something of what many people seem to be experiencing today when it comes to love: a weariness and pessimism, but still a longing for intimacy.
In that unquenched longing lie the seeds of hope that modern humanity can recover a truly human view and experience of romantic love — love as a gift, both given and received, and as “the icon of the relationship between God and his people”, as Benedict describes it — and live a life lit up by its splendour.