Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Search for a Non-Country Song That Covers the Whole Life Cycle

I posted this query on Facebook recently:
Beau Weston is showing music videos about married life in class. There are many good country videos on the married life course. I am having trouble finding non-country songs about the married life course. Suggestions?

This has proven a rich and interesting discussion.

The main thing I have found is that country, and its cousins folk and bluegrass, are the popular music genres richest in songs in which people court, marry, raise their kids, help with their grandchildren, grow old, and die.

In the other popular genres - pop, rock, rap, hip-hop, rhythm and blues - it is hard find examples of songs that cover the full life cycle.

I think the main reason for the paucity of songs about marriage and the rest of your life in popular music is that popular music is mostly for young people. The audience for country music is a little older, and is more likely to be married with children, than is the population as a whole. Nonetheless, this small difference in the demographics of the audience is not enough, I think, to explain the wide disparity in content among the genres.

I note that when men write songs in which they imagine a future life together, they say something about how the family life they imagine will be paid for. This is less often the case in women's "imagining a family" songs.

The main point of this post: Country music is the place to look for songs about the full cycle of happy family life.

Below I reproduce the whole long dialogue with dialogue with friends, neighbors, students, and some professional colleagues, FYI. I would welcome additions and suggestions. I have interspersed comments and suggestions from others with my replies.

“Always” by Atlantic Starr

"Always" only gets as far as "let's make a family" - I don't think they are even married yet by the end of the song.

I can think of a bunch, but they're not universally positive about marriage. Of course, there are lots of country songs about d-i-v-o-r-c-e.

Oh, yeah - lots of good divorce songs. I have more songs for that week than I have days.

“Just the Two of Us” -Will Smith but that’s more about parenthood.

"Just the Two of Us" is a fine daddy song (a genre I particularly like). However, the kid doesn't get past early elementary school, and "it didn't work out for me and your mom."

Yea its a tough assignment. Most r&b love songs are about the chase or the wedding not the marriage.... I can think of songs about weddings but not marriages...go figure. I like "100 Years" but it's more about one man's journey through life than a couple's-- I suck at this...

I don't think it is you, I think it is a limitation of the target demographic for pop, rock, rap, and r&b.

Try April Barrows - " burning the toast for you" "my dream is you" & "an old stuffed sofa". Marc Cohn - "True Companion"

Thank you for April Barrows - I did not know her work. And you have me wondering whether there might be more life-cycle songs in jazz. However, she is just too obscure. YouTube only has a cover of "Burning the Toast for You" - a funny song, but it only gets as far as the honeymoon. The other two are not available. I found a version of "True Companion," but they aren't even married yet, and Cohn only refers to when the couple will be old. And none of them have kids.

Crosby Stills Nash, "Our House"

"Our House," while a gorgeous song, is a moment somewhere in the life of a couple. And two cats in the yard are just not enough of a stand-in for children to cover most marriage's life cycle. :-)

There are many Christian songs on that theme...don't know, but wouldn't be surprised if they had a C-VH1.

I think you are right, but I don't know the genre well enough to generate examples.

"Lady in Red"? (I know, it doesn't specify in the song that they're married. But I heard an interview with the songwriter, in which he specified it was about catching a glimpse of his wife at a party and seeing her with fresh eyes.) "Wonderful Tonight," maybe? Presumably they're married or she'd leave his drunk ass at the party. And of course there's "Secret Lovers," "Part Time Lover," and "Saving All My Love." For the 7 yr itch stage of marriage.

While "Wonderful Tonight" is a lovely song about a man appreciating his wife (?), it is a tiny moment - no kids, not long-shared life, no growing old. The others in that first set are really just love songs possibly set within marriage.

Oh, how about "Whatta Man" by Salt n Pepa?

"Whatta Man" is a courtship song. It has the abysmally low standards of good family life common in hip-hop songs. He is a good man because he spends quality time with his kids "when he can." The singer is going to have his baby. No mention of marriage. Sigh.

Paul McCartney's "When I'm 64", is, if you read the lyric, a proposal of marriage. Don't know if its available as a video, but it, and Paul and Linda's marriage, certainly speak well of the institution.

"When I'm 64" is more like it. I'd never noticed before that, while they imagine having grandchildren (Vera, Chuck, and Dave), they make no mention of their hypothetical children.

My student friend Katie made this excellent suggestion: July For Kings--"Normal Life."

"Mushaboom" by Feist is about planning a home and children and sticking it out. Doesn't mention marriage, so may not fit your parameters. But relatively current.

"Mushaboom" is sweet, and does have a real vision of a full life.

Try Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice. It's all right."

Oh, all the popular music genres are full of songs about marriages and romances that did not work out. That seems to be something that songwriters have lots of experience with.

Ok trying again-- "Superwoman" by Karyn White

"Superwoman" does have a married couple a few years past the wedding, but they may not make it through the whole life course. And no kids.

"Something in Red"-Lorrie Morgan (I know its country but it seems to fit your parameters)

"Something in Red" is a wonderful song, and I admire its concision in taking us through at least the first three years of a courtship and marriage. It is, though, as you note, a country song.

Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne's version of Pete Seeger's "Kisses Sweeter than Wine." I don't consider this country.

That is doubly helpful. The song is a good example of what I am after. And folk is a genre I had not looked at enough. But I think folk is at least a close cousin to country.

What about "Faithfully" by Journey?

"Faithfully" does seem to be a faithful marriage, but, as he says, the road is no place to raise a family - so (I infer) they don't.

"Grandpa Was a Carpenter" by John Prine.

"Grandpa Was a Carpenter" is a good one; it implies a full life of marriage and children, though we see nothing of the in-between generation. I would call Prine at least half-country (Wikipedia does, too).

Students suggested "Cat's in the Cradle" today, which I think qualifies.

Isn't "Cat's in the Cradle" a depressing view of the life cycle, though? By the way, I know it's country, but I like the song "Remember When?" more than a lot of others.

"Cat's in the Cradle" is wry, at best, and not nearly as celebratory of the life cycle as "Remember When."


ceemac said...

I can't suggest one song but I think if you take an artist like Springsteen who has been around a while you can come up with a handful of songs that together that cover the lifecycle in both a postive and negative way.

I am operating from memeory but most of his songs seem to be a snapshot of a point in time.

ceemac said...

And while you're on music have you seen Rodney Clapps recent book on Johnny Cash and American democracy. I have not finsihed it but even though he does not use the term he seems to be presenting Cash as the great American centrist.

Synchronia said...

Jimmy Buffett, "He Went to Paris," or Harry Chapin, "Story of a Life"? Both of these are a bit bittersweet but ultimately supportive of a full family life.

Shay Riley said...

Jimi Hendrix's "51st Anniversary" is definitely about married life, but I'm not sure if there's a video per se since it predates the MTV era.

Oasis did a song called "Married With Kids".

I can't think of any married-life-specific R&B cuts at the moment, but I've highlighted your post on my blog to see if any of my readers knows any. The ones that I come up with (Atlantic Starr's "Always", which you mentioned isn't specific; Tony Toni Tone's "It's Our Anniversary", which I also think wasn't marriage specific; and Robin Thicke's "Mrs. Sexy", where he wants the target to become his wife) don't really count....

randy said...

well...'all4love' by boysIImen(i think?)certainly sounds like a guy who WANTS TO, intends to, be in in for the long haul;

'i would never leave u, this i guarantee, i look intto the future i see u and me.'

Dave L. said...

Ain't Goin' Down On Brokeback Mountain,(cut 17) On Lost Highway album by Willy Nelson? A slice of life anyway.

Dave L. said...

My bad. You said non-Country.

Shay Riley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shay Riley said...

I asked my blog readers. Here are some R&B songs that qualify:

I was able to come up with Maxwell's "Bad Habits". The video clearly portrays Maxwell as a married man cheating on his wife with actress Kerry Washington. Hey, it ain't about marital bliss, but it is an R&B song about one aspect of married life. It was a hit song (#4 on the U.S. R&B chart) that came out last October.

Avery, one of my readers, mentioned Marvin Gaye's "Here, My Dear" album (early 1970s), whose songs focused on his first marriage to Anna Gordy. It sounds like it discusses chronology of that relationship, from love to marriage to separation. However, it sounds like it's mainly a separation/divorce album, although he apparently also included a cut ("Falling In Love") about his new, second wife:,_My_Dear

Since it precedes the MTV era, I'm not sure about videos for the album's songs. That reader also mentioned Marvin Gaye's "Just To Keep You Satisfied", a song about married life which is on another album.

Avery also mentions that Kool & the Gang's "Too Hot" (early 1990s) is about married life. However, it is a breakup song:

My reader Oldschoolfool mentions "Our Anniversary" by the Five Satins, but says it's from the 1950s.

Unknown said...

Okay, you really have to read into this one, as you do all of their songs, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say it... Miracle Drug by U2.

Listen to it (again). It's a little cynical, but I think it's about trying to understand what she's thinking, still, after all these years. And there's a mention of the smell of a newborn's head, so clearly there have been children.

I admit, it's a stretch.

Anonymous said...

A glimpse of the beginning, and a glimpse of "many years" later: Sting's "Fields of Gold".

Dana Ames

Gruntled said...

Smart Marriage lists Springsteen's "If I Should Fall Behind" as one of three anthems of the pro-marriage movement. The Gruntleds are big Springsteen fans. Still, he doesn't go through the life-cycle there. I think his "These Are Better Days" is a wonderful mid-family-life song.

Gruntled said...

Synchronia: "The Story of a Life" is a good example of what I am after. "He Went to Paris" is, as you say, family affirming, but he does lose his family along the way.

Gruntled said...

Shay: I thank you for these suggestions, and look forward to what your readers at one of my favorite blogs have to add.

"51st Anniversary"is very anti-marriage. "Married with Children" is almost as negative.

I will check Booker Rising for other suggestions and come back to that.

Gruntled said...

NSangoma at Booker Rising gave a great load of R & B suggestions. The ones that meet what I am after best are The Winstons "Color Him Father," a fine loving-step-father song from 1969, and Luther Vandross' "Dance With My Father". Most of the rest were courtship songs, which all popular genres are rich in. The ones that looked ahead to marriage and long life together tended to be at least a generation old.