“Chad” has just returned to his native Hawaii from a stint in the Army. Having been stationed in Europe, he’s brought back a gift for his girlfriend and her grandmother. It’s a music box that plays the 18th-century French ballad “Plaisir d’amour.”
It’s a love song, explains Chad, played by a young actor named Elvis Presley. (The film, from 1961, is “Blue Hawaii.”) Love songs, Chad says, “are the same in any language.”
Wearing an Aloha shirt, a lei wrapped around his neck, he begins to croon the lyric to what would become one of Elvis’s most popular songs, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
That’s the song my in-laws chose when I asked them what was “their” song. They know it from Elvis, but it goes back more than 200 years.
Love songs are eternal. Love has been a dominant theme of popular song “for at least a thousand years,” as Ted Gioia writes in his book “Love Songs: The Hidden History” (2015). In fact, love may well be the reason we as a species began singing in the first place.
Yet to the cynical among us, modern-day love songs are hopelessly schlocky. They’re “soft.” To sing a love song is to expose your emotions — your vulnerability — often with excessive melodrama.
Take, for instance, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love” (1981). It captured the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s list of the Top 50 Love Songs of All Time a few years ago, beating out “How Deep Is Your Love,” “My Love,” and other audio Valentines of the FM radio heyday.
Songs like “Endless Love,” we sometimes think, are more enjoyable with tongue firmly planted in cheek than in a significant other’s mouth. But as Gioia argues, the love song is our “toughest and most battle-hardened mode of artistic expression.”
Think about it: How many times in the course of human culture has a new kind of love song encountered disapproval, suppression, sometimes even violence? (To be clear, when a song is about love, the subtweet is usually sex.)
The tango and the waltz were both condemned in their day for inciting dangerous liaisons, just as pop hits from swing to Rihanna have been in more recent times. So the history of the love song is actually a history of outcasts and interlopers, Gioia claims.
In that spirit, we asked some of our favorite outcasts and interlopers — modern lovers all — which love song they wish they’d written, and why.
Lori McKenna, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter
Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” is the absolute perfect expression of selfless and unconditional love. Stops me in my tracks whenever I hear this song. The simplicity of the lyrics over that gorgeous melody, and how one isn’t lost to the other, is brilliant.
Fred Hersch, renowned jazz pianist and former New England Conservatory faculty
I would wager that 50 percent of all songs are about love in some form, so hard to choose! But my pick is Nat King Cole’s version of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean.” The gist of the lyric is that “there is nothing in the whole of nature that adequately expresses how I feel for you.” Most jazz interpretations are done as in a medium swing groove in C minor, but I play it as a very slow ballad in Eb minor and sing the words in my head as I render the melody.
Anais Mitchell, singer-songwriter and Tony Award-winning creator of “Hadestown”
“Something in the Way She Moves,” by James Taylor. I sing this song to my kids pretty much every night. It’s just a magical song, an ode to someone who makes you a better version of yourself. I love the line when he’s speaking about her sort of talking him down, and he goes, “To me the words are nice, the way they sound.” Also, it has the most perfect mysterious bridge ever.
Anjimile, Boston singer-songwriter whose “Giver Taker” was named one of NPR’s 50 Best Albums of 2020
I’m gonna say “What’s Love Got to Do With It” by Tina Turner. The lyrics are simple, straightforward, and devastating. And the music is both tense and oddly comforting. It’s sad and sexy. Great song.
Ralph Tavares, eldest brother of the family band Tavares
“Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton. When Tavares was recording in L.A. in the mid-’70s, we became friendly with her. She was carrying this tune around, humming it a lot. Eventually it became what it became. It was co-produced by Stevie Wonder. I always loved that song.
Ryan Montbleau, singer-songwriter and guitarist
The one that comes to mind is “Crazy He Calls Me.” It was most famously sung by Billie Holiday but has also been recorded as “Crazy She Calls Me,” which is how I would have sung it. It’s got it all — incredible melody, self-reflection and humor in the lyrics, and yet it never loses the sentiment of strong love. “Like the wind that shakes the bough, (s)he moves me with a smile. The difficult I’ll do right now, the impossible will take a little while.”
Prateek Poddar, Boston Music Awards singer-songwriter nominee
There’s about a million love songs I wish I’d written, but at this moment, my current obsession is “Speak Plainly Diana” by Joe Pug. It’s a brilliant ode to fleeting relationships with a catchy chorus that I can’t wait to scream when in-person concerts finally come back.
Rachael Price, lead singer of Lake Street Dive
I wish I had written “I Do It for Your Love” by Paul Simon. This is one of my favorite songs of all time. It perfectly and painfully illuminates the highs and lows of a relationship. It is as much a stunning painting of a beautiful scene as it is a perfect song.
Barrence Whitfield, frontman of Barrence Whitfield and the Savages
One I wish I wrote is sung by soul singer Otis Clay. It’s called “That’s How It Is (When You’re in Love).” It’s about a guy so deeply in love with this woman who is abusing him that he can’t help himself. The opening of the song starts out, “Please somebody, take your hand, and slap some sense in me.” Now, if that isn’t deep love, I don’t know what is.
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.