Play it again, Selena Gomez
For 25 years, now, more or less, I’ve been haunted by a pair of sentences about love by the French thinker Roland Barthes. “Anguish, wound, distress or jubilation,” he muses: “the body, from head to toe, overwhelmed, submerged by Nature, and all this nonetheless: as if I were borrowing a quotation. In the sentiment of love, in the erotic madness, if I would speak, I rediscover: Book, Doxa, Stupidity” (91).
In plain American, I take it, Barthes is simply observing that in moments of emotional intensity, we mostly say and think things that we’ve read or heard elsewhere. We’d like to think that love makes us deeply individual, but really, like Romeo, we mostly kiss “by the book,” loving in the terms we’ve learned from movies and pop songs and Bible verses and the scripts we’ve learned at home. (“Doxa” is Greek for common beliefs or opinions—and to a sophisticated guy like Barthes, these are embarrassing things to find coming out of our mouths, which is why he says “stupidity.”)
Barthes isn’t the first to notice something weirdly repetitive about love. In Sappho’s 7th-century BC love poems, the poet Anne Carson explains, love plays out in a paradoxical tense signaled by the Greek adverb deute, which means something like “right now, again.” In Carson’s translation, Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” pleads for the goddess to appear, now-again, and ask, now-again, what new woman “should I persuade (now again) / to lead you back into her love?” as though we were standing in a hall of mirrors, with today’s love plot reflected over and over into the past and the future. There’s no first love in Sappho, and no last.
If that’s Greek to you, try these fascinating lines from the jazz standard “Where or When”: “Some things that happen for the first time / Seem to be happening again.” From “Seems Like Old Times” to “It Had to Be You,” the Great American Songbook is filled with songs where that déjà-vu, “now-again” feeling is the sign that true love has arrived.
You’d think that people would have had enough of metatextual love songs, but just like the silly ones, these smart ones keep coming back—and you never know where you’ll find one. The other day on the radio, for example, I finally really listened to “Love You Like a Love Song,” last year’s hit by Selena Gomez and the Scene. “It’s been said and done,” the song begins: “Every beautiful thought’s already been sung / And I guess right now here’s another one.” My ears pricked up: was she playing the “now-again” game? And sure enough, in the video, Gomez plays the patron of a karaoke bar, reading these lyrics off the screen as though the song had already been a hit for someone else.
It’s a wonderfully clever move: one that reminds me that this song has been a hit before, in a way, from Sappho to “Where or When” to “As Time Goes By.” We love love songs because we love like the people in them, stepping up to the karaoke mike. Popular romance reminds us of this rather embarrassing fact—and whether we blush, like Barthes, or shrug, or smile, we’ll probably sing along.