Love songs are dead, and now we must mourn them. But don’t blame me! (Especially since I’m not a pop star.) Instead, blame this year’s overwhelming lust for sad sentiment, whiny boys backed by good beats, and conditional affection thrust upon sketchily defined subjects. In short, we’re living in the aftermath of Drakeification — an emo revival of historic proportions, in which drums and guitars have been replaced by the voices of angels and better production.
All of the tunes that make up The Sad Love Song Boom of 2016 fall into a handful of clear categories — specific, shared formulas they’ve used to effectively kill the traditional love song. Before you despair entirely, they’ve also hinted that the very same men who brought us to this low point might lead us out.
How did we get here? Here we go.
The Cycle Of Doom
Recall, if you will, January 2016. It was a more innocent time. We all loved Zayn’s “PILLOWTALK”; those high notes and his well-furrowed brow combined to make him a bona fide solo star, even when he cast real-life girlfriend Gigi Hadid in one of the worst videos in history (I’m sorry, forgive me).
But the longer we played the jam on repeat, the harder it got to ignore the lyrical cringe factor. By over-romanticizing a relationship that consists of “fucking and fighting” (and equating it with a war zone — yikes), Zayn painted the picture of love as The Worst™. He made being a cool, sexy adult in a relationship seem like an experience so volatile it would disturb and bother the neighbors. It doesn't have to be this way, Zayn! Nothing he described in “PILLOWTALK” sounded remotely like a healthy brand of love (see: communication, understanding, not yelling to the point of upsetting whoever lives next door). And while “PILLOWTALK” might reflect what some of us think love is, it’s ultimately a song about a kind of love that hurts. And that goes hand in hand with ...
Love as a Self-Destructive Habit
Woof. Whether it’s The Weeknd (“I only love it when you touch me, not feel me / When I’m fucked-up, that’s the real me”) or The Chainsmokers and Halsey (“Hey, I was doing fine before I met you / I drink too much and that’s an issue, but that’s OK”), we’re seeing a wave of mad love crashing onto the shores of straight-up self-implosion. And while love in pop culture is often blown up into an all-or-nothing deal, there’s something inherently unromantic about a dude going on at length about how his feelings are ruining him. (Or that he can’t handle them without being totally fucked-up.) Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” is one long exercise in codependency, comparing love to drugs and being drunk. Like, are you OK, guys? Because at least when Beyoncé said she was “Drunk in Love,” we had Jay Z drop “breasteses” to sober us up.
Love, the Nice Guy
Probably the most important realization about love is that no one person belongs to another. You know this. I know this. But so many Top 40 heroes don’t seem to, especially if we look at songs like “Treat You Better” by wee puppy Shawn Mendes, who channels T. Swift’s “You Belong With Me” into something vaguely creepy. True, he’s not threatening his subject, but he’s still sitting offside, having a cry about how he’s the better choice, as if she isn’t in control of her own destiny. Like, bro: Take a sip. Your thirst is almost as audible as Charlie Puth’s.
Because, oh man, Puth is sad. As if performing the song with his head hanging low à la George Michael Bluth, the man spends the track’s entirety dabbling in stalker talk, first moping about how he and his ex don’t talk anymore before claiming he’s got no interest in the dress she’s wearing tonight. (Sure.) So this? This isn’t a love song. It’s is a slow-burning tantrum with woe-is-me masquerading as sentimentality. Unrequited love may still be love, but since he’s blaming her for the downfall (“Should have known your love was a game”), this isn’t exactly a jam to throw on for the first dance.
Kind of like “Never Be Like You,” where Flume’s guest singer straight-up admits to fucking up before apologizing to the tune of “and let me list all the things that are so great about you.” Apologies do not a great love song make. (And neither does saying “space was just a word made up by someone who’s afraid to get close,” Nick Jonas.)
And Then a Hero Comes Along
The Nice Guy differentiates from the Hero in that the latter is self-righteous. Where Puth & Co. spend time lamenting, Drake, Bieber, and Hunt pride themselves on being the better person in their respective relationship. So here, love isn’t an experience — it’s a competition dependent on who’s “better,” who brings more, and why the song’s subject wasn’t worthy of love to begin with. These are love songs in the same way Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian West are best friends: They are not.
But there’s hope. While stereotypical love songs seem to be devolving into the aforementioned weirdness, we’re seeing a concurrent trend where ballads and slow jams are replaced by higher-energy counterparts, particularly to the tune of tracks like “Controlla” by Drake (who still goes a little overboard with his “I’d lie for you, I’d die for you” promises, but fine). Or “Child’s Play,” where he simply depicts the realities of a completely average romantic situation. (They fight at the Cheesecake Factory. He’s pissed about it. They go shopping. It’s every couple you know from high school who are still dating.) Even “Let Me Love You” by DJ Snake and Justin Bieber, or Biebs’s “Cold Water” (his collaboration with Major Lazer), celebrate love in the old-school sense as he promises to love whoever forever, while adding in a very 2016-appropriate shrug. (“’Cause we all get lost sometimes, you know?”)
Which makes sense, especially when you think of the part Drake and Bieber played in bringing the modern love song to where it is now. By demolishing the existing love-song formula with their emo rhetoric, they’ve freed up space to rebuild in a new, slightly more modern spirit. That is, provided they can escape falling into the categories we’re seeing their contemporaries (and even some of their own work) fall into.
Though personally I’m hoping for more songs about mediocre romances set atop a family-restaurant backdrop.