How song lyrics formed our ideas of sex and love

Alice Matty breaks down the lyrics of our youths that encapsulate the familiar feelings of love, lust, and heartache

We are submerged in a world of music the art of arranging sound to create some combination of harmony, melody, rhythm, or otherwise expressive content. We are raised alongside it, in joviality and hardships alike. The focal point of lyrical content covers a large spectrum: loss, inspiration, and nostalgia. Yet it must be acknowledged that the vast majority of songs are about romantic love.

“Lacking experience in my youth, music was the closest I could come to a basic grasp on the concept of love…”

It would be right to say that Taylor Swift raised a fleeting new generation of hopeless romantics, her strong songwriting capabilities capturing the feelings of being in love and the accompanying bliss placed upon one’s soul. Although her music seems to target downcast idealists, nobody could forget the moment in 2008 when Love Story made that pop culture-shifting debut, erupting through every open window. This song sincerely led five-year-old me to believe that maybe love was that easy. Lacking experience in my youth, music was the closest I could come to a basic grasp on the concept of love and was the most tangible means I had of deciphering its connotations. Song lyrics often leave their imprint on the delicate and innocent young mind, introducing it to an unfamiliar jurisdiction that is largely out of reach at this particular life stage. In an attempt to cope with the foreign intensity, we return to what we know about love. When we are newcomers to the world of romantic love, our foundations are typically rooted in the knowledge of others’ experience, television and films, and naturally perhaps most importantly song lyrics.

Capturing a Moment in Time

There exists a quality to song lyrics that can detain a moment in time, an exquisite yet excruciating time capsule of the potent feelings attached to a memory. The event can be relived through songs, depending on one’s connection to its lyrics and essence, perpetuating the emotions and perhaps enhancing its lesson throughout the years. The ability to hold on to a certain feeling or a certain time in one’s life can be either a curse or a blessing in disguise, depending on your perspective. It can be a reminder of the harrowing pain felt at the time of encountering the lyrics, yet can also act as a mark of growth, when you note how differently you may feel in relation to the lyrics now. Or perhaps listening to a song that prompts a former pain, now returned, is a reminder that you have survived this experience before, and are strong enough to conquer it once more. 

“…I constantly reapply these lyrics to my present and feel comfort in the familiarity, almost as though my younger self is protecting me today.”

As I grow older I reflect pensively upon the lyrics of The 1975 that had a certain power over me in my youth, with songs telling a story: “Our love has gone cold, you’re intertwining your soul with somebody else.” I used to deliquesce into despair upon hearing the melancholic words of Somebody Else, as though they were being obliged down my throat, my gut twisting in grief at the time. Many years have passed and I’ve progressed through a myriad of cycles of heartbreak since. My life has changed so much I have relived the revolution of hurt intermittently, and my anguish at heartbreak is no longer felt to the same extent. The song is now a reminder that there is still so much more life to live, people to meet, emotions to submerge oneself in, and losses to grieve. Despite the hurt in my past, I constantly reapply these lyrics to my present and feel comfort in the familiarity, almost as though my younger self is protecting me today. Some songs will always be tied to our first experience of something, whilst other lyrics forever exist to be recycled in similar situations at different times. They can mark growth through experience, and can always teach us something again and again and again. 

Comfort in Recognition

Many people, myself included, can find solace in despair. Lana Del Rey’s Cherry describes love as feeling “like smiling when the firing squad’s against you, and you just stay lined up.” Hearing others express deep desire and love through lyrics can make one feel validated in their limerence or devotion to another soul, allowing the listener to immerse themselves in the sensation of tenderness. Negative feelings can even feel comforting when sung back to you, for they suggest that you are not alone in your dejection. Music that deals with heartbreak at its core tends to deal with sensations of inadequacy, guilt, and ultimately acceptance. In Decode, Sabrina Carpenter touches on her inability to accept situations that are out of her control, blaming herself for the entirety of a relationship’s downfall, despite expressing a desire to keep the flame lit: “But now I wonder why I let your confusion keep me up at night”. Love is overwhelming, and it can be difficult to show up every day when effort is not reciprocated. This is an aspect generally overlooked in many songs in which love is the main focus. These lyrics have the ability to alter one’s perspective, and serve as a reminder to accept whatever happens in a relationship you cannot let another person’s inner conflict sway your entire life eternally.

Queer Identification

In recent years, many more openly queer artists are entering the mainstream, with their music being accessible to a wider audience than it would have been in the past. Rather than designed for a certain audience, it is instead an anthem for those that simply want to feel seen. Individuals that generally feel excluded from the concept of love in the music industry can therefore feel validated by this music. 

“Finding romantic love with another woman is a central theme in much of her music, yet it is not its sole purpose…”

The open and honest vulnerability of modern-day lyrics is captured in I Wanna be Your Girlfriend by Girl in Red when she says,I don’t want to be your friend, I want to kiss your lips.” Finding romantic love with another woman is a central theme in much of her music, yet it is not its sole purpose, nor is it the most discussed aspect of her artistry.

Clairo sings “Pardon my emotions, I should probably keep it all to myself — I know you’d make fun of me,” when it comes to expressing queer love in Bags, yet eventually shifts to  “Sofia, know that you and I, shouldn’t feel like a crime” in Sofia, thereby preaching self-acceptance and offering refuge to those in similar positions. She describes her discography as “learning to be comfortable in a place of the unknown and kind of just letting something be, and being okay with not knowing the outcome of something” when it comes to relationships. 

It is with this progression in the music world that we can allow it to shape our understanding of the unlimited types of love the world has to offer and form the next generation’s concept of love — a world filled with self-acceptance, inclusivity and pride.

Alice Matty

Alice Matty is a Sex and Relationships Deputy Editor and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying Economics and Business.