No too long ago my girlfriend – let’s call her Tristen - and I had, after many moons and much debate, decided to terminate our relationship. I use terminate rather than end because the former seems so much more final. I was en route to the apartment we had shared for more than a year to collect my things, when I became aware of the fact that I was humming a song. It was a tune over two decades old, and I hadn’t heard it in almost as long. Soon I was murmuring a few bars of the chorus, and before long I was belting out entire stanzas. The song was Surrender to Me, a power ballad by Ann Wilson of the rock group Heart and Robin Zander, the lead singer of Cheap Trick.
A few rather interesting things deserve mentioning here. First is that the song is written by Richard Marx, who penned a series of very sentimental love songs in the late 80’s - Hold Onto the Nights, Endless Summer Nights, Right Here Waiting – all of which I had enjoyed immensely when they were released during my early teens. Marx had helped to set the tone of sweet, heartfelt romance, which married rather nicely with the work of other artists and with hugely popular movies of the time, including Dirty Dancing and Ghost, and a few years later, Pretty Woman (and who doesn't remember its theme song, Roxette's ballad It Must Have Been Love?).
Another thing I should mention is that by the time I arrived at her door I had sung Surrender to Me in its entirety. Verbatim. After not hearing it in more years than the age I had been when it first hit the airwaves. That's a convoluted way of saying a really long time.
How to explain this? I know that the brain stores memories as bits of information associated with specific neurons or brain cells. But what caused me to recall a song I hadn’t heard since I was a teenager at that particular moment in time?
A third noteworthy tidbit is how fitting the words were for our particular situation. After I left her place, I sang the song once more, this time paying close attention to what I was actually reciting, and I was dumbfounded at how exactly the lines mirrored our relationship.
Is it that we've been together much too long? Tristen and I had been together for nearly four years (3 ¾ years almost to the day), which was 150 percent longer than my longest previous romantic relationship of 2.5 years. Had she and I been together for too long? Is that why we were fighting so vehemently, especially in that final year before the breakup?
The answer may not be in black and white. This had frequently come up. The issue catalyzing many of our arguments had been whether we’d take it to the next step, “build a life together,” (her words). I was happy as her Part-time Lover, and as I liked to say, she was my Saturday Love (both of which are, incidentally, themselves names of songs). And I wondered why it had to be all (white, all the colors of the spectrum; living together, constant companionship, an attempt at forever, despite that she had already been married, recited vows, and broke them, call me critical but I’m simply naming the truth) or nothing (black, absence of light, of each other, the break-up she threatened would follow should I refuse to get hitched).
We’re always trying to prove who’s right or wrong. Also true. Over the last year, our relationship had been characterized by a strong undercurrent of tension (due in large part to her frustrated desire) and had devolved into bickering and petty fault-finding which drove like pouring rain over our sunny days at the beach, giving me heartburn at our once so romantic dinners, wearing away at the foundation we had erected with all those picnics at the park and walks along the shore, chipping away at the fairy tale romance that began when we met on Valentine’s Day, at a party at my childhood home, where we kissed for the first time and spent many subsequent nights in bed and days by the pool. And the beach, lest we forget!
And now we’re giving up without a fight. Yes we had fights, but after many threats to end it we had a particularly stormy fight over something incidental. We had gotten together to take a bike ride and when I arrived at her apartment ready to go she had just gotten out of bed and was still in her pjs. I was anxious to leave, and resented her for not keeping our exercise date. She never was very punctual, and this had for a long time worn on me. I said so and stormed out dramatically. We talked a few hours later, argued about something I can’t recall, and in the argument a fuse seemed to blow, and we agreed we could no longer go on this way. We decided to schedule a time over the ensuing few days during which I’d pick up my things.
And there I was, singing Surrender to Me. Isn’t that what I really wanted? For her to just give in and allow me to lead us in the right (read: my) direction? I was eight years older and with age comes wisdom, doesn't it? And yet didn't she want the same thing, for me to surrender to being together full-time and for the long haul?
The Hindu mystic Osho, whose book I had been reading, says that romantic love can only hope to succeed when the lover surrenders entirely to the beloved, and when you surrender, it succeeds fantastically. Of course in an ideal situation, the beloved does the same, surrendering her particular desires to those of her lover. If both parties don't agree to give in completely it makes for a situation in which at least one member of the pair can get seriously manipulated. But according to Osho, the purpose of romantic love, like that of meditation, is the obliteration of the ego. Romantic love achieves this ego-destruction through total surrender to love, and only if in any disagreement (lovers’ spats, to use Elvis Presley's term) you willingly assume total blame can you hope to destroy the ego and attain self-realization, which the sages agree is the purpose of life. Was my relationship with Tristen my chance at self-realization through love? Should I surrender totally and agree to move back in with her even though I couldn’t afford it and had found in a brief period of cohabitation that she was impossible for me to live with (she is slovenly by my standards and an incorrigible night owl, while I’m just the opposite)? In short, it was either surrender to her desire or say goodbye. And if you give me an ultimatum between all or nothing I will invariably choose nothing because nothing is something since I'm comfortable alone. And yet, were we abandoning something valuable and which hadn’t been allowed to fully run its course?
I picked up the phone, poised to call her and give in to any and all demands, anything to keep us together and keep alive the hope of self-realization through ego-destruction through love. Because:
I know when you’re gone, I’d wish we held on.
I knew this moment would come, despite how strongly I felt that breaking up was the right thing to do, especially since we had promised to do so amicably and at least try to remain friends. I knew I’d inevitably hit the stage over the ensuing weeks in which I’d long to make it like it was (another song). This is how it has been for me in prior relationships, and if I wanted her back, I’d only be true to form. Despite knowing full well that Tristen and I had come to loggerheads, and that neither her way (living together, assuming her huge student debts as my own, tolerating the clutter, one day having kids despite feeling that she was no more than an overgrown child herself) nor my way (doing our own thing during the week, getting together on weekends for days by the beach and nights in each other’s arms) satisfied us both, despite knowing full well that neither was willing to surrender to the other so the only sane option was to go our separate ways - despite all these incontrovertible facts, all I wanted to do in that moment, humming that song, was forget about the past and who’s to blame.
And this got my thinking, in a what comes first, chicken or egg? sort of way.
Were these conflicting feelings of mine so universal that the songwriter and singers of so many popular ballads of yore (and the millions of fans who enjoyed them) had felt them and felt strongly enough about putting them into words? Were the words themselves so generic that they might apply to any relationship, the way you can wear white with any other color? Or did I feel the way I did about Tristen and the relationship, which was somewhat of a pattern with me – convince a girl she is not the one for me until she gets it and lets me go only to beg her to take me back, as I was on the verge of doing in the very next moment – did I feel as I did because I had heard this song and others like them, by Richard Marx and his ilk, during my impressionable youth? Surrender to Me had debuted in December of 1988, peaked at number 6 on Billboard top 100 in March of 1989. I was 16.
I reflected on my romantic history, considered the serious girlfriends, whom I’d been with every four or eight years like clockwork starting with Christina at the age of thirteen, Neysa at seventeen, Isabella at twenty-one, Shannon at twenty-nine, up to Tristen at thirty-seven. And I began to realize: Most of the break-ups had played out to a song. Shannon and I broke up to the words of Chicago’s Hard Habit to Break. The song was released in July of ’84 and reached number 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Shannon and I ended our 2 ½ year relationship in 2004. In the 20 years that intervened, I had maybe heard Chicago’s hit a handful of times, and not at all for at least a few years prior to the breakup. So why did it come to my mind on those nightly walks by the beach shortly after we ended things, nights I spent casting lovelorn glances at the tumultuous ocean, reminiscing about times gone by? And why did I remember the Chicago song word for word, and why did the words once again fit my situation to a T?
I guess I thought you'd be here forever (I did: two months into our love affair Shannon suggested we get joint bank accounts; she must have really thought me a keeper!)
Another illusion I chose to create (it was, for the obvious fact that we broke up)
You don't know what ya got until it's gone (a cliché, but probably because it’s true!)
And I found out a little too late (indeed)
And here is where it got eerily accurate:
I was acting as if you were lucky to have me
Shannon was my best friend, but I wasn’t attracted to her sexually. They say a guy and a girl can never be just friends, that couples often use friendship as a pretense to get to know one another because either one, or the other, or both, is in love. Well, Shannon was very much into me, and she pursued me openly and persistently. And after we had been bosom buddies without the bosom for about three months, she gave me an ultimatum: Lose me as a friend, or take me as significant other. I gave in, and though I didn’t say it, my actions always let her know that I was:
Doin' you a favor I hardly knew you were there
But then you were gone and it all was wrong (because I was crushed!)
Had no idea how much I cared (I didn’t)
The next verse:
You found someone else you had every reason (After we broke up, Shannon and her high school sweetheart immediately got back together)
You know I can't blame you for runnin' to him (Eventually they’d marry, have three kids, and divorce)
Two people together but living alone (Oddly, we had moved in together 4 months before breaking up, and although we shared a bed, during this time we hardly saw one another, our schedules were so different: I worked during the day while she went to graduate school, and at night she’d cocktail waitress while I wrote screenplays. But I felt it wasn’t that our schedules didn’t coincide. We were growing apart because:)
I was spreading my love too thin…
The more I thought about my feelings and the way I was expressing them in song, the more I felt the pervasive influence of pop culture. And I wondered about the precise relationship of pop culture to romantic relationships. Do love songs tell us what to feel, or do they reflect what we’ve been feeling, those universal and timeless vicissitudes of romantic infatuation? Either I have some Rainman quality to pull from the archives of my memory the perfect song to describe precisely what I’m feeling, or hearing Surrender to Me and other power ballads programmed me to feel a certain way in the future. A sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. And as a dot at the end of the sentence, the song appeared at that moment it had proved itself true to reveal its identity, like the producer emerging at the end of his play to take a bow and receive an applause (or in this case, my tears).
I am not a music buff. I learned and quickly forgot how to play both the guitar and the piano, and I can’t carry a tune to save my life. My own mother has called me tone deaf, and she is otherwise my biggest fan. If you examined my CD collection (which is nonexistent) or my iPod (which I never use) you’d hardly call me a collector or connoisseur. But from early on, starting at the age of 9, through my early 30s, I was very, very much affected by whatever happened to be playing on the radio. In the era before CDs, I’d record tunes and play them over and over and over again. When I liked a song so much it became an obsession, I’d buy the CD just for the song, and listen to it until the CD became inaudible and by then the song had branded itself on my brain.
I once believed that music’s magic ended when the song was over, or when I could get a particular song out of my head. I never had any idea that the pervasive power of music extended deep into the fiber of my being, even going so far as to influence my actions and emotions. Not until I found myself humming a 25-year old love song at just the right moment were my eyes opened to the power of song, and to its impact on the game of love.
It goes without saying that we are profoundly influenced by our environment. In the battle between nature and nurture, genes do have their say, but we don’t come into the world shaking hands and saying God bless you. We are taught these things by observing others, and the process of socialization begins from the time of birth - possibly even before we are born, if you believe my mother that I was dancing to the oldies playing on the radio while still in her womb. The question is this: To what degree is the struggling lover influenced by popular music, and if the influence be great, since more relationships than just my own seem to be floundering, how do we get help?
Consider: I decided to move to New York after hearing the lyrics of Baz Luhrman’s “Wear Sunscreen” (Live in New York once but leave before it makes you hard).
With Shannon, I listened to “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads, and seeing my future life flash before my eyes I knew if we stayed together I'd find myself living in suburbia with a picket fence and 2.4 kids and soon find myself screaming with David Byrne, This is not my beautiful wife. this is not my beautiful house. My God, what have I done! So I sold my car and moved abroad.
In fact, a song is what brought Tristen and me together in the first place. Because when I was eight I used to lock myself in the bathroom and sing the words to 50s crooner Frankie Avalon's hit Venus. And because Frankie Avalon wished for a girl with "sunlight in her hair," and eyes like the "brightest stars up in the skies," not to mention all the charms of the love goddess herself, I wished for Venus to make this same dream come true for me as well. And the night Tristen and I met that song came to my mind, and I was sure that she was Venus coming to me in the form of my blonde-haired, blue-eyed, now ex-gal.
Such has been the influence of music in my life, despite my hardly ever paying attention to the lyrics – if I could even understand them, which is getting ever harder as the years progress and instruments overwhelm the artist’s voice. Usually it was the melody that made me so enamored of a tune. But after the Surrender to Me episode I realized that the words, even if they didn't consciously register, were making their impression in my life indelibly felt.
So, which comes first, the song, or the emotion behind it?
Themes such as the battle of the sexes and all’s fair in love and war have been around since time immemorial. Why? Is it because they are true, or because a few isolated experiences infiltrated media and tainted all of romance? Relationships are suffering, marriages are failing, couples are quarreling. Many point to loss of tradition, or to the changing nature of domestic roles, or to the institution of marriage itself, which some call unnatural, man-made, imposed like a prison sentence that only serves to make a couple desperately wish to break free. And they often do. Did my parent’s stormy break-up when I was in my early twenties somehow jade me? But since my emotions so closely mirror the lyrics of pop songs, could it be the hidden and not so hidden messages in music that tell us what to feel, believe, and hows it gonna be (Third Eye Blind)?
Of course, there are many musical genres, each with its characteristic themes. There's the rapper’s self-aggrandizement, the country singer’s jilted lover. Both have their drinking binges. There’s the top 40 stuff, hard metal, techno, and many others. A tune for all tastes. What accounts for one’s musical interests, and does one’s personal preference have any bearing on the type of romantic relationships that ensue? That's me thinking aloud. But until I wrap my head around the nature of lyrical influence, I prefer my tunes be instrument only, thank you very much. So bring on the Mozart. His symphonies are supposed to raise one's IQ. And I'll need it to get to the bottom of this connection between pop culture and modern romance. So overwhelming is my desire to do so that it overwhelmed my urge to piece a broken relationship back together. The moment for calling Tristen had passed. So I set down the phone and instead picked up the pen.
Hope you enjoyed this. More to follow shortly!