Here's Why Writing Love Songs About Dating Is Harder Than You Think
I first fell in love when I was eight years old. There was no cheesy opening line, no phone number etched across my forearm in Sharpie. It was just me and a dark blue composition notebook, curled away in the bottom bunk of the bedroom I shared with my little sister, writing love songs.
My mother claims that I could sing before I could talk: ding-dong, I'd apparently squeal. I don't remember ever choosing music. Rather, music chose me. Singing became as inherently routine as brushing my teeth: It was an action I mindlessly carried out, never stopping to ask myself why. Around the same time, I became a confessed logophile. In preschool, I'd sit quietly in the corner of my mother's office as she worked into the night, crafting my own picture books with characters even more colorful than the illustrations. I quickly became completely immersed in writing, from prose to poetry, which the other kids decided was, well, a little weird. Songwriting came as a response to their dismissal. The combination of music and lyrics, the two things I loved the most, felt explosive to me. Each stanza gave me the ability to express exactly how I was feeling in the specific way that I wanted it said. In a world that often felt too chaotic and meaningless, songwriting gave me both a sense of control and purpose.
At first, I used music to explore every aspect of growing up: the desire to fit in with my family, the loneliness I felt when it came to my peers, figuring out who the hell I was. But as I matured, so did my lyrics. Around the age of 13, I found myself writing about unrequited lust and inexplicable attraction. My songs became narratives, with details embedded between the lines about specific people who played specific roles in my life.
In high school, this was a way less complicated pursuit. Everyone in my tight-knit community already knew that I was a songwriter, and after years of teasing, had finally accepted that this wasn't something that I did — it was who I am. Additionally, my inner circle was just small enough that whenever I was romantically involved with someone, everyone and their mothers knew about it ("Oh, did you hear? That little girl with the mustache was found canoodling in her pantry with the Heller boy from the 86th Street Synagogue"). There was nothing to decipher, little to figure out; everyone just knew.
This changed when I went to college. I crossed state lines to go to school, and my reputation as a quasi-graphic singer/songwriter didn't follow me. Not that I tried to hide it: I truly grew into my voice after leaving home. I brought my guitar everywhere, played every on-campus open mic night, and was constantly living out a cliché by wistfully writing songs on the front quad. I took full ownership of my passion — I never shied away from how much I loved it, or how seriously I took it. Words remained my closest friends, and music continued on as my first — and only — true love.
Then things got complicated. I never anticipated how much this first love would interfere with all of my future romantic interests, but boy, did it: Music became like a jealous ex, snaking it's way between me and potential partners just as things were about to get interesting. At first, a casual hookup would appear unphased — intrigued even! — upon finding out that I was a songwriter. Oh, sweet, like Bob Dylan or something? Sure, Dave. Exactly like Dylan. Except Dylan had the entirety of Greenwich Village to pour his heart out to, and I only had a tiny, insular campus. College is this crazy phase in your life when for a finite period of time, you exist within this experimental microcosm where real world rules don't necessarily apply — because your time is fleeting, transient. This applies to college hookups as well.
I had only one serious partner in high school, and thus, felt sheltered from the scary, sexy world of chest hair and after-shave, AKA men. So when I arrived at college, I was feeling whimsical as hell. I was ready to write riffs about sketchy one-night-stands, and power ballads about broken hearts. And you know what? I did just that: As my number of partners expanded, so did my repertoire of music. I could hear myself, feel myself, becoming better — my lyrics were more intimate, the melodies more experimental. I began recording demos in my dorm room and uploading them to Soundcloud without a second thought. I felt liberated! But surely, soon after, the gravity of gossip brought me firmly back down to the ground.
My peers began leafing through my lyrics, searching for any clues or connections as to who I was writing about. They treated each song like a riddle, grabbing their magnifying glasses and doing their best Nancy Drew impressions. Gossip made way for rumor. Suddenly, everyone — from serious sexual partners to men I had made out with literally once at a bar — began reaching out and asking if I had written about them. Their messages weren't dripping with subtextual anger, but I did detect an air of fear, as well as embarrassment. Did things end well with this girl? Is she going to sing about that one time I got whiskey d*ck? It was only one time! I had the startling revelation that the outlet I had once used as a safe haven for all of my most private thoughts had actually become a completely public forum.
But being a songwriter was the foundation upon which I built my understanding of myself, and I knew couldn't sacrifice the most significant part of me — especially for meaningless sex. I firmly made the decision to remain upfront with all potential suitors. If they had a problem with my greatest passion, then that was just too bad. They probably weren't worth being written about anyway. This resolution, however, had it's consequences: I found myself a little bit lonelier, leaning on music heavier than before. I understood that my love of songwriting, and my ability to fall in love with someone didn't have to mutually exclusive — but on some level, it sure felt like it.
Language carries power. Never underestimate the potency of a perfectly crafted sentence, or the resonance of a familiar feeling. Instead of panicking, I picked up my pen and took action. I realized that now that people were truly listening, I could channel my passion into something productive. Songwriting was no longer all about me, a glorified diary entry; it became the conclusion to every story, my chance to rewrite history. I could imagine what could have been, and say everything I never got the chance to confess. In the alternate reality that is my musical universe, I am brave and direct: I always get the last word, and I can empower others to do the same. Since the themes I write about are inclusive and universal, strangers can see themselves in my songs. That knowledge lights a fire within me, one that continues to burn through any lingering insecurity that my message will be misunderstood. I got to work, and never looked back.
One night, several years ago, I found myself on stage at a dive bar New York's Alphabet City, performing a song I had written about someone who had hurt me, badly. The space packed with people, some of which were close friends with the subject. My lyrics for this particular ditty were anything but subtle, and I knew that between the clinking of beers and muffled sighs of disbelief, that there was no question as to whom the piece was about. But standing above the crowd, sweat pouring down my lower back, and my throat growing tight as I crooned out each confessional line, a weight was lifted. I was at my most vulnerable — and unapologetically took full ownership of who I am. The honesty that lingered, suspended in the polluted city air, was inescapable.
The language become tangible, and I made peace with my first love. I was finally free.
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