Essay

Where We Can Never Reach Them: The Effects of Love Songs on Their Intended Subjects

Nick Jaina

Maybe it's important that we remember that J.D. Salinger had the first few chapters of his incomplete Catcher in the Rye manuscript on him as he stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-day. Let's consider that even the most inevitable-seeming things could have been upended by a wayward bullet. It's terrifying to think of in retrospect, this young man carrying a seminal work of literature through a battlefield to one day place it on our library shelf.

Perhaps caring so much about something is just a liability. After all, if he hadn't made it through, we wouldn't have even known about him or his book.

A few years ago, I wrote a song for my then-girlfriend, S, about the magic of her eyes and how they inspire so many feelings in me that seemed crazy and untenable, but I so desperately wanted those feelings to be real. The chorus of that song—called "Sebastopol"—is:

Your eyes tell so many tales
your eyes tell so many wild, wild tales
your eyes tell so many tales
oh and I only want to believe

I know the song meant a lot to her because she told me often. Even after we broke up, it was still a tether between us as we slowly shifted our orbits. She certainly received it as the love song it was. I thought of it slightly differently, knowing that the feeling I was expressing was more similar to the way you would regard a beast whose back you were on, which you were desperately clinging to for fear that you'd get tossed aside.

I said that I wanted to believe. I didn't say that I could.

Proust said,

We try to discover in things, which become precious to us on that account, the reflection of what our soul has projected on to them; we are disillusioned when we find that they are in reality devoid of the charm which they owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas; sometimes we mobilize all our spiritual forces in a glittering array in order to bring our influence to bear on other human beings who, we very well know, are situated outside ourselves where we can never reach them.

Part of the allure of becoming a songwriter, I think, is this idea that you can have an effect on people's emotions, not just globally, but personally. That a love song could be a sort of love potion, claiming a person's heart by showing her how much you love her and how beautifully you can state that love. And certainly I've tried that approach with women and it hasn't worked. I've talked with other songwriters about this because I'm curious if it has ever worked for anyone. Some of them aren't as interested in the love potion aspect of songwriting. It's possible I am just operating with an outdated vision in my head of a linocut old-timey man in stockings and a puffy shirt holding a lute just so and sitting under a balcony playing a song for a woman with long curly hair.

I asked my friend D, who writes songs, if he shares this same vision of the power of song as something that someone could yield to woo a particular person. He said no.

D:

The guy who used to go under the balcony and play his lute just did it because he didn't have any shows to invite a girl to. Whereas you have a valid platform to impress people already. You can play a show on a stage in a bar.

Me:

But it's not just about impressing someone. It's writing a song for a particular person and hoping that the song can woo them and win their heart, and in my experience it has failed pretty miserably.

D:

Well that's because that will never work. It's like saying, 'I'm a magician and I'm in love with this girl and I pulled a rabbit out of my hat and she still wouldn't marry me. I don't understand it.' You write good songs; she already knows that. It's all the other shit that you fucked up.

Indeed, the problem probably doesn't come from not writing a good enough song. It comes from not being able to live up to the emotions of that song. Again, my interest historically has been more in extreme cinematic emotions and less on passing that sugar that always seems to be closer to me than to her. I wrote a song called "I Know I'm Your Man" for a girl, M, with whom I had a confusing, never-realized relationship, complicated by Christianity (at least her involvement with it and my heart's imperviousness to it). Instead of writing a pining song about not getting what I wanted (which I had already done plenty of), I decided to write a song from a hopeful position. Even though we weren't together in any way, I wrote a song imagining what I would sing to her at our wedding, if we ever had one. It was a lie, but a lie with some delicious ironies I could marinate in every night.

I always imagine the best love songs to acknowledge darkness and to show a way through it, so this song begins with these lines:

I tell lies you see through
you tie ties I undo
I know birds don't fly
in a figure eight
you know I can't walk
on a line so straight
everybody knows the girl with wine-stained hands
but I know I'm your man

When I originally sent the song to M, her only response was, "I don't drink wine," which I thought was a tragic misinterpretation. But regardless, the song didn't work for its intended purpose, not even remotely. But in the years since, several people have requested me to sing it at their weddings. It's a bittersweet feeling to have a song that was written for a specific person have no effect on her but end up touching others. I picture it as though Cupid were trying to shoot someone with an arrow and missed, but that arrow split into shards and hit thousands of other people.

Years later, I asked M over bowls of oatmeal at a diner on Hawthorne Street in Portland what she thought of that song.

M:

I remember when you first sent me that song. I was in Nicaragua at an Internet cafe. It's obviously really magical and really beautiful. It did make me cry. But there's this essence, too, where there are moments where it starts to feel disingenuous. The actions weren't matching up with the words. It feels self-serving, that you're just doing this for yourself. And it seems so pretty in this moment, and it is, it's gorgeous, but it feels cheapened by actions not being genuine.

Me:

Does it have any value to you, having a song written about you?

M:

It's beautiful, it's painful, it's complex, it's annoying, it makes me feel special. Everyone wants to feel special. You were never really very good about telling me that those songs were about me. I think you wrote a song about me to process your emotions in a cathartic way, and I would be a part of that, but you'd never really say they were about me. I think only about last year you started pointing out songs, but I didn't know. But in a way I think you held hostage that information. I think you did it as a love note, but you didn't tell me.

In a way, they are conversations that you could've had with me, and they would've been great conversations, but instead you wrote a song. I think you go deeper with the emotions in your songs than you do in conversation. Or the songs come across that way because I projected into them what the meaning was.

Which is a good point, but if we all were able to converse freely with everyone we were in love with and there were no stifled emotions or kinks in the hose, it's likely that we wouldn't be left with any songs. Or at least we'd have songs that were just pure calm emotion, searching for some interesting trouble to disturb it and give it some shape. That is not to say that you need to create turmoil for the sake of making music, but rather that the inability to communicate emotions in normal conversation dovetails quite nicely with the need for unexpressed emotions when you are sitting down with an instrument and need a subject to sing about.

Most of the love songs I've written are about drowning in a lost love for someone, trying to find the edges of the body of water into which I've been hopelessly cast, such as in my song, "I'll Become Everything." I was staying with a friend once, and he handed me an old classical guitar that had a rope instead of a strap and challenged me to write a song on it. I picked it up and went upstairs to a room in his house that was empty and therefore had nice natural reverb. Sometimes resonating with the speed and tail of an echo can help dictate the tempo and purpose of a song. I wrote a song for a woman, B, while in the middle of that twisting feeling of being miles and miles apart from having what you want. The chorus that came out was this:

I'll become
I'll become
everything that you want
I'll become
I'll become
every signal, every spark
I'll become
I'll become
all the swans in the park

I knew it was a desperate thing to say, but it also felt true. There are plenty of happy, empowering emotions that I would love to write songs about, but they are often stuck behind dragons of longing, and I have to hack my way through those creatures to get to the open meadow. The finished songs are the carcasses of slain beasts that I'm tossing aside as I work my way through.

Two years after writing that song, I talked with B on the phone while she was driving through a carwash.

Me:

What is it like to have a song written about you?

B:

The only songs that I have ever known to have been about me have been the 'I-don't-understand-why-it's–not-working–out-between- us' kind of song. So I always think, 'Oh no, we're miscommunicating, and now it's become a song.'

But when I was sixteen my friend Chris wrote a song about me, and it was a great Emo song, and he actually said in it, 'And if our eyes ever meet again, I'll be everything you thought I was.' Because I just thought very highly of him and he wanted to be what I saw. But then the song that we're speaking of is, 'I'll become everything that you want,' but it's really funny because it seems to be a theme for me, these songs. It's never like, 'You're the girl of my dreams,' it's like, 'What the hell is wrong here? This should be working out, and it's not.'

Songs are born from a little bit of drama. It's taking something that was really personal and intimate between two people and making it public, and it's still only one person's perspective. Maybe it would be different if a couple wrote a song as a duet to each other, 'This is how I feel about you.'

Me:

Would it be different if someone wrote a song and said, 'I'm going to play this for you in person, I'm never going to record it, I'm never going to play it in public, it's just for you'?

B:

Wow. I feel like that would be more intimate than being lovers. Especially if you have a gift for music or poetry, and you wrote something for someone and you gave it to them as a gift in that way.

Me:

So what is the value, to you, of having a song about you?

B:

If I was to die tomorrow and there was some sort of memory of me in the world and someone was like, 'Oh that guy wrote a song about her that one time and it's super famous now,' I mean, no, that would never happen. No one would say that. The songs take on their own life; it really doesn't have anything to do with me. It's a little bit flattering to think of some interaction as being some muse for art. I guess it means that we're not boring people. We're inspired and inspiring. So that's affirming.

Me:

But it's not any more personal than that?

B:

When Joni Mitchell sings,

'Remember that night you told me that love was touching souls
surely you've touched mine
because part of you flows out of me
in these lines from time to time.'

It's like that; it's more that you've recorded this beautiful interaction between two people, and that's what poetry is, the child of that interaction, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it will bond the two of you. It's unto itself. It's its own individual. In the same way, you can't have a child without two beings coming together—I mean test tubes and stuff, maybe, but normally you can't—but maybe it's the same thing with poetry. You can't have the poetry without these two beings having the interaction that they had; it produces that certain work of art. And so in a way you are connected forever through that. But maybe that's difficult to handle if you feel that that wasn't necessarily the reality for both of you at the time. It's like if someone froze sperm and then said, 'Hey this is your kid,' and you say, 'Hey I didn't sign up for that.’ I don't know, is that my kid? Do I have any ownership over it whatsoever? Or is that your kid because you made it? That's your song. It's your interpretation.

Me:

But for this song specifically, "I'll Become Everything." What is your response to that?

B:

Well, I don't want you to change a thing for me. Just be yourself because you're awesome.

Let's be clear: the songs I have written for people have not done anything to make them fall in love with me. If they were already in that place, then they remained. If they weren't there, the song wasn't going to make a difference. In fact, the only thing that writing love songs has done is to make the subjects of those songs want me to change—or, rather, to want me to stop trying to change to make them happy. Instead of transforming myself into a swan to become something that a person could find beautiful, the suggestion has been, "Who you are already is enough. Well, it's not enough for us to be together, but no amount of you changing is going to alter the situation between us."

Maybe it's a faulty male-centric Manifest Destiny sort of attitude that I'm playing into that makes me think that I can claim someone with my song and make her mine. The types of songs I write are generally vulnerable and tender, not likely to capture someone by force. I talked to my songwriting friend L about if she writes love songs.

L:

I've been thinking about it. You're always writing these love songs and I think…

Me:

You mean me?

L:

Yeah, you Nick Jaina, you write these love songs and I think, I want to write a song like that, where I will lose myself for someone. When I listen to love songs, it's so powerful. Something about that makes the listener take these deep breaths and feel something. But I have the hardest time writing from that perspective, and I don't know if it's because as a woman I've been taught all these feminist messages about being strong and not submitting yourself to another person, so there's a part of me that fights that or feels it's impossible for me to even write a song whose message would be, "I love you so much that I'd lose myself for you," because there's that part of me that's like, "No, hold on, you can't lose yourself." And I almost feel envious of men writing because no one is going to doubt your strength or call you co-dependent or not healthy. And so when a man writes a song like that it's beautiful, but when a woman does it sounds like she's needy. I've been thinking about that a lot because I really do want to write love songs and lose myself, but I don't know how to do it. There are two competing parts of myself. The one that believes in love and wants to be in on that and wants to write with those feelings, and the person that thinks that those feelings are weak. So that's been my dilemma. And I've been thinking about this for a while and there are a lot of examples of women singing heartbreak songs.

Me:

How about "I Will Always Love You" by Dolly Parton?

L:

That's a good one.

Me:

It's strong.

L:

But it's like, 'I will always love you, but I'm leaving you, and I'll love you from my tower of strength.'

Perhaps there is some freedom in being a man and being okay with losing your power in the depths of a love song. There is something charming about a man letting go of his strength and pledging devotion to a woman, something that would have a different effect coming from a woman.

Ultimately, all I want is to believe. I want to believe in that cinematic running-through-the-rain-in-slow-motion feeling. I want to believe in the soaring pop song sentiment, of problems that can be fixed if you can just find the right chord change and really express how you really feel. But belief in that feeling, while thrilling at times, has more often left me haggard and wanting. It's like taking a drug: you can reach greater peaks and feel wonderful, but it ravages your soul and your body when it inevitably drops you on the ground.

The truth is that complications in love rarely come from a person not knowing that someone feels a certain way about her. It's much more intractable than that. Our hearts are set on courses that can maybe be changed very slightly over the long term with a heavy hand on the tiller, but you can't just turn someone completely around and bring her toward you—at least not with just a song.

That song I wrote for S, about her eyes telling so many wild tales, I once sang at a show that S was at, and I had another girl singing along with me. S told me that the song meant so much to her that it hurt her to hear me sing it in another context—this song that was hers. She was so angry that she couldn't even speak to me after the show. She felt like she had been betrayed. And I told her that, yes, the song was about her, but it's also a song that is good, and I'm a musician and I have to play shows and find songs to sing and have someone harmonize with me, and if I start excluding songs that are only for certain people in certain contexts then I'm going to run out of songs to play. Ultimately the need for a song to be a pure expression of personal inspiration comes up against the realities of filling out a set list.

I tried to talk with S for this essay, but after some hesitation, she finally said that the songs I wrote those years ago don't mean anything to her anymore. She is married now on another continent, and she told me that she has a peaceful life with her unborn child and her husband, and she doesn't want to think about those feelings.

So the burden, I might argue, lies much more with the songwriter and not with the subject of the song. Even if someone might value, or might have once valued, certain songs that I wrote, valued them so much that she once couldn't stand seeing me sing them with a different woman by my side, she can now cast them aside and say they don't mean anything. But I still have to live with those songs, like when you get divorced and you have to pick up your child from school whose face is like a mushing of her mother's and father's features and is a constant reminder of love's power and the aching loss of it. As I prepare a set list for a show in a small Irish pub on the coast of Oregon—a gig for which people won't listen with nearly the intention that someone in love with me would, but at least I'll be served a free burger and make my gas money back—I have to consider singing that song that says that I only want to believe. I still do want to. I thought I could believe the story through someone's eyes. I've looked for it in other places, and the subject of that particular song can claim to be done with the song and sever all the ties, while I'm still left singing it into a microphone, wanting to believe.

Love songs are probably just selfish acts. We see something in someone else that resonates with us, "the reflection of what our soul has projected on to them," and we try to capture that in a song. But it's still just a tiny part of the story, and it's twirled and spun into this beautiful cotton candy that is full of air and light, but it's still just a confection that serves the writer more than the intended subject. All attempts to make it seem noble or selfless end in disappointment. Even attempts to have the song be a true and pure codifying of a certain moment are often met with confusion.

But—and please believe me—by no means am I going to stop trying.