Turn on your local hits station (you know, the one where Justin Bieber plays on the hour) and you’ll notice what I’ve noticed: Almost every song that has anything to do with men and women is about sex. I’m not just talking about the throbbing beats or breathy vocals. I’m talking about the lyrics.
Gone are the syrupy vows of eternal devotion I heard on the radio as a kid. No one belts out “I will always love you!” anymore. Instead, they’re “In the bed all day, bed all day, bed all day,” and no, Zayn Malik is not sleeping. Something has happened to pop music, and though an occasional song still comes along that’s genuinely romantic, the vast majority of them are celebrations of raw sexuality, with references to body parts, specific acts, and (if you’re listening on an uncensored medium) loads of explicit terms.
You’re not going crazy. The transition from sap to smut is real, and research proves it. On Billboard’s list of the top 50 love songs of all time, only six are from the year 2000 or later. The remaining 44 are from the 1950s through 1990s (there’s nothing from earlier, presumably because Billboard hadn’t yet started tracking sales).
Songs We Used to Love about Love
Among the picks are sentimental serenades like The Emotions’ “Best of My Love” (1977), Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1962), The Beatles’ “She Loves You” (1964), Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” (1984), Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (also ’84), Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” (1994) and Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” (covered by UB40 in 1993). What all of these songs have in common, besides including the word “love” in their titles, is that they celebrate a kind of emotional infatuation that precedes or transcends mere physical attraction.
This is the kind of “love” or, more accurately, “romance” that the Hallmark Channel deals in. I don’t think it’s the kind of love that makes a relationship last for a lifetime, or even a sufficient reason for getting into a relationship. The point is, these singers all feel something more for the subjects of their songs than simple biological desire or the need for sexual release. They’re emotionally attached. They want to pledge faithfulness. They’re not in it for a hookup. It’s a striking contrast to most of today’s hits.
Consider the songs Billboard has ranked in the top 25 during the last five years. In 2012, Maroon 5 sang, “Try to tell you no but my body keeps on telling you yes” (“One More Night). Psy sang, “Hey sexy lady!” (“Gangnam Style”). LMFAO sang “I’m sexy and I know it!”
In 2013, Robin Thicke released a sexually explicit music video, singing, “Tried to domesticate you/But you’re an animal/Baby, it’s in your nature/Just let me liberate you,” and “The way you grab me/Must wanna get nasty,” interspersed with the refrain, “I know you want it!” (“Blurred Lines”).
We also got “The Harlem Shake,” Daft Punk singing, “She’s up all night ‘til the sun/I’m up all night to get some/She’s up all night for good fun/I’m up all night to get lucky.” Macklemore took the time to brag about his anatomy in “Thrift Shop,” while Bruno Mars sang, “Cause your sex takes me to paradise” (“Locked Out of Heaven”). Miley Cyrus punctuated it with “We Can’t Stop,” celebrating “Red cups and sweaty bodies everywhere/Hands in the air like we don’t care.”
Now All We Want Is a Warm Body
In 2014, Taylor Swift informed us that “Boys only want love if it’s torture” (“Blank Space”). Katy Perry turned her bedroom “into a fair” (“Dark Horse”), Jason Derulo asked us to “Talk dirty” to him, Nicki Minaj sang about a “booty like a Cadillac” (“Bang Bang”), Meghan Trainor explained that “boys like a little more booty to hold at night” (“All About That Bass”), and Sam Smith crooned to his one-night-stand (or possibly prostitute), “Oh, won’t you stay with me?/’Cause you’re all I need/This ain’t love it’s clear to see/But darling, stay with me.”
2015 brought us Justin Bieber, gallantly informing his ex-girlfriend that he’s “missing more than just [her] body” (“Sorry”). Maroon 5 was back at the top of the charts with “Sugar,” an admittedly artful collection of sexual metaphors (“I want that red velvet/I want that sugar sweet/Don’t let nobody touch it/Unless that somebody’s me”).
Self-proclaimed “wizard of love” Omi chivalrously refused to use his “magic wand,” even though “all these other girls are tempting” (“Cheerleader”). Ellie Goulding sang, “On the edge of paradise/Every inch of your skin is a holy grail I’ve got to find/Only you can set my heart on fire, on fire/I’ll let you set the pace/Cause I’m not thinking straight” (“Love Me Like You Do”). Jason Derulo offered up “Want to Want Me,” a song about a midnight tryst that is easily one of the steamiest songs of the decade (“I got your body on my mind, I want it bad/Oh just the thought of you gets me so high”).
Hozier delivered what may be pop music’s first true paean to shrine prostitution, singing, “’We were born sick/You heard them say it/My church offers no absolutes/She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’/The only heaven I’ll be sent to” and “No masters or kings when the ritual begins/There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin” (“Take Me to Church”).
2016’s top hits had artists pulling sheets “right off the corner/Of the mattress that you stole” (“Closer,” The Chainsmokers), “Doin’ **** you don’t even see in movies” (“Unforgettable,” French Montana), and eating “Cake By the Ocean” (DNCE: “You should be rolling with me, you should be rolling with me, ah/You’re a real-life fantasy”). Fifth Harmony sang, “Let my body do the work work work work” (“Work From Home”), and our friend Zayn Malik celebrated “A place that is so pure, so dirty and raw,” in a music video that’s inspired competitive attempts to find all the flowers standing in for vaginas (“PILLOWTALK”).
Lots More Sex, Lots Less Love
Back in 2011, Albany psychology professor Gordon Gallup and student Dawn R. Hobbs published a study in Evolutionary Psychology showing that 92 percent of the 174 songs that made it into the Billboard Top 10 sometime during 2009 contained what they hilariously dubbed “reproductive messages,” including references to “sex appeal,” “arousal,” and “genitalia.”
Billboard reports that lyrical occurrences of the actual word “sex,” have surged relative to “love,” which peaked in 1988 and has plummeted since. “Sex” peaked in 2009 with Ciara’s “Love Sex Magic,” and Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex,” both of which hit the top 10. And while it’s still going strong, artists today seem to prefer other, often more explicit terms.
A new study this year by Drs. Jennifer Shewmaker and Andrew P. Smiler with Brittany Hearon is the most extensive so far. Published in Sexuality and Culture, their research examined “sexual stereotypes in popular music lyrics across five decades.” Their title says it all: “From ‘I Want to hold Your Hand’ to ‘Promiscuous.’”
These lucky scientists had to listen to 1,250 pop songs from 1960-2008 and found a surge in sexual themes by artists of both genders, but especially men. Among female performers, references to sex climbed from 6 percent of songs in the 1960s to 21 percent by 2000. Among male performers, songs with sexual subject matter went from a mere 7 percent in the 1960s to 40 percent in the 2000s.
A quick listen through the chart-toppers today leads one to suspect these researchers were too narrow in their definition of “sexual themes,” but the trend is clear nonetheless. Their analysis is particularly valuable, because it moves past simplistic word-searches (tallying up all the songs with the word “sex” in their lyrics), and instead quantifies the armada of metaphors, euphemisms, and slang modern pop artists use to describe knocking boots.
Who Needs Wooing or Waiting Anymore
Some defend this trend as a move toward earthier, more realistic messages about love and romance. But it’s tough to see where either love or romance come into Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (“I’m in love with your body/And last night you were in my room/And now my bedsheets smell like you”), a celebration of shacking up with good-looking strangers from the bar whom you hope won’t “talk too much.”
The rise of all this sex-centric music has coincided with what some have called the end of courtship, during which quaint rituals like dating, wooing, or waiting until the third outing for a kiss have fallen out of fashion. In their place, young people are opting in droves for no-strings-attached sex facilitated via app or text message. “Dinner at a romantic bistro?” wrote Alex Williams in The New York Times in 2013, “Forget it. Women in their 20s these days are lucky to get a last-minute text to tag along.”
Despite all of this, a few top songs have managed to pluck the dusty cords of romance over the past five years, and they’re worth highlighting. In 2012, Jason Miraz’s “I Won’t Give Up” resurrected themes of emotional attachment and a desire to commit: “I don’t wanna be someone who walks away so easily/I’m here to stay and make the difference that I can make.”
Rihanna and Calvin Harris sang, “Shine a light through an open door/Love and life I will divide/Turn away ‘cause I need you more/Feel the heartbeat in my mind” (“We Found Love”). And nineties boyband holdover One Direction sang, “If only you saw what I can see/You’ll understand why I want you so desperately/Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe/You don’t know you’re beautiful” (“That’s What Makes You Beautiful”).
In 2013, Calvin Harris’ “I Need Your Love,” and Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” performed well with lyrics like “I need your love/I need your time/When everything’s wrong/You make it right,” and “‘Cause I don’t wanna lose you now/I’m looking right at the other half of me/The vacancy that sat in my heart/Is a space that now you hold.”
There’s Some Romance Amid the Raunch
2014 gave us a semi-sentimental 80s throwback in Kiesza’s “Hideaway,” and a tribal ditty in Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong,” in which he asks his lover, “Am I wrong for thinking that we could be something for real?” The standout hit of the year was “Rude” by MAGIC!, which puts a Caribbean twist on a young man’s quest to win a girl’s father’s blessing on their engagement, (“Can I have your daughter for the rest of my life? Say yes, say yes/Cause I need to know”).
2015 produced the most romance of any year in recent memory, with Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This,” which describes a soulmate as rarer than a superhero, One Direction’s “Drag Me Down,” which celebrates partners who stand by each other no matter what, Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” which is sexy but overflowing with traditional sentiments about growing old together, and Walk on the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance,” which feels like a peppy vestige from a time when songs were about love at first sight.
2016 disappointed, with just one chart-topper about relationships that didn’t center on easy sex or a breakup—Lucas Graham’s “7 Years,” which recalls Five for Fighting’s “100 Years” (“I’m still learning about life/My woman brought children for me/So I can sing them all my songs/And I can tell them stories”).
Songs like these are worth celebrating, even if they don’t strike our personal fancy, because they’re all that’s keeping traditional romance at the forefront of pop culture. The love song isn’t extinct yet, but it’s critically endangered, at least among Billboard’s top performers. It is the modern sex song, not the love song, that unquestionably dominates our airwaves, iPods, and Spotify playlists. As The Guardian muses, what defines such music is a sort of lyrical rush to orgasm, a short-circuiting of the natural human emotions that have always attended and inspired the process we call “falling in love.”
People were writing love songs long before Shakespeare, and many were quite sexual. What sets them apart from sex songs is a personal quality. Infatuated couples are inclined to promise themselves to one another, to pledge eternal constancy, and to sacrifice anything for the beloved. In other words, they are thinking about each other as people, not exclusively as bodies.
This may not be the solid and quiet love that any happily married couple of more than a few years can tell you is required to weather life’s storms. But it’s often the precursor of such love. The last thing on the minds of couples singing love songs is that brutal, impersonal, burning, objectification of the sex song—an impulse which sees any hot body as equivalent to any other. The disappearance of love songs should bother us because it coincides with a worrying recession of real-life romance. Although Maroon 5 might not want to hear “one more stupid love song,” maybe we should instead refuse to listen to one more stupid sex song.