Third-Party Love Songs

The Third Party

Girl at door, from "(Kissed You) Good Night"

“(Kissed You) Good Night”

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?

Wonderful Counselor

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.”

Roxette performing Listen to Your Heart

“Listen to Your Heart”

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.”

Carly Simon sings "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" at Martha's Vineyard

Carly Simon sings “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” at Martha’s Vineyard

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.

She's So Mean, girl smashes guitar

“She’s So Mean”

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.

Nostalgic Advice

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.”

Anna sings Hello, Young Lovers in The King and I

“Hello, Young Lovers”

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.”

Conclusion

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.

The Master Contriver

Some stories—especially comedies—include a character who seems to have the job of making sure everything comes out right in the end.  Let’s call them the Master Contrivers.

“I manage things a little”

The Contriver doesn’t force things into place.  Rather, she pulls strings.  A good deal of finagling, a certain amount of chicanery, and a talent for talking people into things are generally involved.

Dolly Levi dances with waitersDolly Levi of Hello, Dolly! is a familiar example.  The show starts with an array of dissatisfied characters.  Horace Vandergelder wants a wife.  His niece Ermengarde wants to marry impecunious artist Ambrose Kemper.  Horace’s clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, want to escape their humble jobs for a day—and maybe fall in love.  Their opposite numbers, Irene Molloy and her assistant Minnie Fay, are also eager for a spree and a romance.  Dolly herself, a self-proclaimed meddlesome widow, is ready to settle down with a new husband.

With magnificent confidence, the ebullient Dolly takes on the task of resolving all these plotlines.  She suggests, cajoles, misdirects, confuses, and manipulates until everything works out.  We enjoy how all this frivolity and chaos converges magically to a neatly satisfying outcome, like a sleight-of-hand trick.

Hardly anyone else knows quite what they’re doing at any given time, but Dolly has everything under control.  Even where she lacks a specific plan, she is an expert improviser.  The other characters can safely rely on her to solve all problems.

Wodehouse’s Maestros

Stephen Fry as JeevesThe Master Contriver frequently pops up in P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies.  The best-known example is the imperturbable gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves.  No matter what sort of absurd scrape Bertie Wooster gets into, Jeeves can always find a way to get him out again.  Half the fun is watching to see exactly how Jeeves will pull it off this time.  (The other half is simply listening to Bertie narrate, which is a joy in itself.)

But Jeeves is far from the only Wodehouse example.  At Blandings Castle, the fiftyish but dapper Galahad Threepwood lives up to his name by spreading sweetness and light in the form of good fun, lovers united, and overbearing aunts thwarted.  The lively and irreverent Uncle Fred (Earl of Ickenham) plays a similar role in other tales, to the alarm and embarrassment of his nephew Pongo Twistleton; sometimes these adventures also take place at Blandings.  (It’s too bad Wodehouse never brought Gally and Uncle Fred onstage at the same time—ideally with Bertie and Jeeves as well.  The mind boggles at what wackiness might develop with three Master Contrivers simultaneously at work.)

All the above examples are middle-aged men or women.  The sublime Rupert Psmith (“The p . . . is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”) represents a rare younger version of the merry manipulator.  He actually becomes a protagonist, with his own romantic plotline, in Leave It To Psmith (1923)—at Blandings, naturally.

SF Contrivers

Science fiction abounds in exceedingly clever manipulators, but most of them fit the mold of the trickster-hero rather than the master contriver:  they are frequently the protagonists, and their stories tend to be more serious.  Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, Salvor Hardin, Gandalf the Grey (in The Hobbit), and Seth Dickinson’s Baru Cormorant are good examples.

But the comic contriver is not unknown.  In Heinlein’s rollicking family yarn The Rolling Stones (1952), Hazel Stone, the superficially crusty grandmother figure, is often the one who “arranges things”—including appearing in court to get her grandsons off the hook in a tax case on Mars.

Masters and Matchmakers

The Grand Sophy, coverThe Master Contriver is perhaps most at home in romantic comedies.  Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances feature a few such characters.  Sometimes they’re the romantic interests of female protagonists, since genre romances are fond of dominant “alpha male” heroes.  But one of the most enjoyable is the titular female lead in The Grand Sophy (1950).  Like Psmith and Dolly, young Sophy cheerfully arranges a romance for herself at the same time as she resolves other characters’ star-crossed affairs.

In the musical Oklahoma! we have Aunt Eller, the spiritual counterpart of Uncle Fred.  She’s perfectly capable of pulling a gun to halt a burgeoning brawl (see this clip at about 3:05), but her main job is to guide her niece Laurey to a happy resolution of her uneven romance with the expansive cowboy Curly.

The Warrior's Apprentice, coverAs the third-party plot manager for a romantic comedy, the Master Contriver often functions as a matchmaker.  Hello Dolly! was based on a Thornton Wilder play literally titled The Matchmaker.  Even Miles Vorkosigan, in a gently comic scene in The Warrior’s Apprentice, briefly burlesques the role of a traditional Barrayaran matchmaker for his own lifelong crush Elena and the man she’s fallen in love with.  (Miles’ own romance does not develop until several novels later.)

The Character of the Contriver

A third-party Master Contriver naturally falls into the niche of the benevolent uncle or aunt—a kindly older person who isn’t typically a player himself, but an enabler of other characters’ fulfillment (though we’ve seen some counter-examples above).  In fact, this position is not unlike the role of the fairy godmother in Cinderella.

The role resembles that of a mentor, although, unlike the Missing Mentor of whom we’ve spoken before, this mentor-manager is generally very much present, in the thick of the action.  Yet the Contriver is a little detached, not as directly involved as the principals; she can take things a little lightly.  She can thus be more jolly, less earnest.

Since the Contriver is generally working toward other characters’ happy endings, not her own, she lends the story a sense of generosity.  This is why we don’t mind a character who might otherwise seem manipulative.  We typically think of “maniuplative” as a troublesome trait, not an appealing one.  But an avuncular figure who can be trusted to manipulate people only for their own good becomes an asset rather than a problem.

The Atmosphere of the Story

It helps make a comedy pleasant when there are people disinterestedly spreading sweetness and light.  This is why the Contrivers play so well in comedies of manners and romantic comedies, where the plots have to be intricate, but light-hearted.

Since we’re typically dealing with interpersonal relations, not slam-bang action plots, Master Contrivers achieve much of their effectiveness by influencing other people.  For this reason, they generally possess considerable personal magnetism or “charisma.”  This, again, adds to the general air of genial good-fellowship in a comedy.

But the greatest effect on the atmosphere of the story, I think, is that it’s reassuring to have someone around who can be trusted to untangle all plotlines to a happy ending:  “till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”  We come into a comedy expecting things to turn out well.  The more the happy ending is in question, the more the story begins to look like a thriller rather than a comedy.  If Dolly or Gally is on the scene, we can rest easy on that score, and enjoy the ride.