The Third Party
Typically a love song is sung by one lover to another, just as you’d expect. The lyrics are some combination of first and second person: “I love you.” (Oddly enough, there’s only one song on my playlists entitled “I Love You”; you’d think it would be a more common title.) Or the lovers may sing to each other in a duet—from “People Will Say We’re In Love” to “(Kissed You) Good Night.”
But every now and then we get a case where the singer is a third person. The song is still about love, but the singer isn’t one of the lovers. Rather, they’re talking to someone else’s lover, or potential lover. What kind of story is implied by moving the focus to a third party?
The most appealing case is where the singer is giving good advice to the lover. The attitude may be paternal or maternal, fraternal or sisterly (sororal?). Or the informal counselor may just be a friend putting in a good word at the right moment.
Chronologically, Melissa Manchester’s “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” stands at the very beginning of a love affair. Melissa’s telling a guy that the nameless “she” is sweet on him: “she’s half out of her head.” Hence her encouragement is right there in the opening line: “you should break the ice.” Take the first step, fella, she’s waiting for you.
A similar encouragement, a little later in the relationship, is offered by Billy Joel in “Tell Her About It.” The guy he’s addressing has already found his mate (“let a good thing slip away”). But a punk kid from New York is likely to be inarticulate, or too macho to let emotions show, or both—like Danny in Grease. If he doesn’t want to lose her, he’s going to have to learn to talk to her about how he feels. The contrast between the singer (“a man who’s made mistakes”) and the addressee yields a nice contrast of worldly-weariness and blundering innocence.
Mending the Rift
Another good time for a wise advisor to drop in is during a lover’s quarrel—a “rift in the lute,” as Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster likes to say. In the Beatles’ early classic “She Loves You,” the singer is actually carrying messages for a couple who aren’t speaking to each other: “She says you hurt her so . . . But now she says . . .” He’s also forthright enough to express his own opinion: “I think it’s only fair . . . Apologize to her.”
The complementary female-to-female version is exemplified by Roxette’s Listen To Your Heart: “Sometimes you wonder if this fight is worthwhile” . . . but the person sung to should consider carefully “before you tell him goodbye.” While Billy Joel or the Beatles advise actual conversation, Roxette suggests the first step is simply to consult your own deeper feelings or gut reaction.
Amy Grant’s slightly offbeat but arresting “Love Can Do” is a bit more pointed about sticking around rather than giving up. “Sometimes love means we have to stand and fight . . . Everybody runs, everybody hides.” In particular, she puts her finger on a ubiquitous misunderstanding: the idea that love simply evaporates of itself. “It’s not like that.” What we do has a crucial role to play. If you want those feelings back, “no running.”
The perceptive Carly Simon targets a still later point—that midterm period when a couple has been together long enough to get bored with each other. In “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of,” Simon advises a Chestertonian re-imagining or re-envisioning of the relationship: “What if the prince on the horse in your fairytale / Is right here in disguise, / And what if the stars you’ve been reaching so high for / Are shining in his eyes?”
Rather than providing advice for a particular relationship, another family of third-party songs makes a more general recommendation of an individual. Alabama’s “She Ain’t Your Ordinary Girl” tells us at length how extraordinary “she” is—“No empty promises; proof is what it takes to win her heart.” Yet “when you see her smile, nothing seems to matter any more.” It isn’t quite clear whether the singer is speaking to a particular friend, or to the world at large.
We see this generality more often when we come to the negative examples.
The Prudent Warning
The third-party intervention isn’t always to encourage. Sometimes it’s negative: a sort of warning to the general public against an unreliable lover—generally based on the singer’s unhappy experience.
There are quite a few of these too. From the early rock-and-roll era we have Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” which cautions us that “Sue goes . . . out with other guys.” Hall & Oates want us to watch out for the “Man-Eater.” Over on the country side, Eric Church tells an aspiring suitor that the object of his affections is “heaven on the eyes,” but “Hell on the Heart.” Matchbox Twenty explains in vivid detail how “She’s So Mean.”
There ought to be a comparable category of songs by a woman warning about a hard-hearted man, but for some reason the only example that comes to mind is the old Three Dog Night tune “Eli’s Coming,” which issues a general alert about an irresistible guy who appears to be a sort of force of nature. You can probably think of better examples.
Sometimes the kindly advisor is a parent or relative. In that case, the advice is often freighted with nostalgia, looking back on the days when the person spoken about was in the singer’s care. The country band Heartland has a ballad called “I Loved Her First” that sounds at first like a rejected lover commending “my girl” to a new romantic interest, but turns out to be her father giving her away at her wedding.
Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” (not to be confused with the earlier Bob Dylan song of the same name) speaks to the young person’s romantic future (“And may you never love in vain . . .”), but in general terms, a kind of open-ended hope. (Incidentally, that was the song we picked for the father-daughter dance at my daughter’s wedding.)
In these examples, the third-party love song shades into a more open-ended field of advice songs. Somewhere in that vicinity is a category of reflective “sadder but wiser” songs about love generally, addressed to a particular listener or listeners. “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific falls roughly into this category. Even though Émile is singing it directly to his beloved, Nellie, he words it as if he’s talking to someone else: “Once you have found her, never let her go.”
This kind of reflection seems to have been a favorite of Rodgers & Hammerstein. In The King and I, Anna sings “Hello, Young Lovers” (which has perhaps the most beautiful introduction of any song from a musical) to an array of Siamese princesses. “Cling very close to each other tonight / I’ve been in love like you.”
I find the third-party advice and encouragement songs especially enjoyable. They gain points for a kind of genial altruism. An I-love-you song generally expresses care for the other person—we want our beloved to be happy. But there’s inevitably a certain self-interest involved, too: a healthy exchange of love will also make me happy. (“And I wish you all the love in the world / But most of all, I wish it from myself”—Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird.”)
The third-party advisor is in that sense disinterested. Like the Master Contriver in a romance, he or she has the generosity of the matchmaker. The smiling friend’s endorsement reflects and redoubles, as it were, the appeal of the underlying romance.