“Until the end of time…”
We can believe for the length of any love song that there are such things as “soul mates,” but in the gap between songs, before a new song emerges in that same singer’s voice, there exists the possibility that this next song is about someone else no less loved than the subject of those previous three plus minutes. In fact, that’s probably the case, and that’s alright.
There are plenty of love songs that perpetuate the fantasy of the eternal power of the romantic relationship—and among them are some of my favorite songs, like Prince’s “Adore” or Stevie Wonder’s “As”—but, I am more interested in songs that explore the more complex reality inherent in the tension between the intensity of romantic feelings and the experience of serialized monogamy, which tends to be the norm in our society.
When I use the term “serial monogamy” I don’t mean it in the judgmental fashion that many people seem to use it in regards to someone who moves quickly from relationship to relationship apparently unable to remain uninvolved for any period of time. Instead, I am using it as a simple description of “the practice of engaging in a succession of monogamous sexual relationships.” In other words, the case for most people who don’t marry their junior high school sweetheart and stay that way ‘til death.
The monogamous commitment of marriage or other similar arrangements seems to require the belief that a given romantic relationships is a unique and never-ending arrangement. This is not to say that some people haven’t figured out other arrangements (polyamory, etc. . .) that work for them, but generally speaking it seems that most long-term (or moving towards long-term) relationships are predicated on the idea that the relationship will never end. We all know however, most romantic relationships and more than half of all marriages will do just that—end.
The opening lines to Suzanne Vega’s “Cracking” (off her 1985 debut album) has long struck me as perfectly capturing the tension between the serialized reality and sense of uniquness: “It’s a one-time thing / It just happens a lot / Walk with me / And we will see what we have got.” The song neither reiterates the “forever” fantasy, nor gives in to cynicism about love, but has a guarded, yet hopeful tone tinged by the shadow of past disappointments. “Cracking” is simple, but hauntingly beautiful with its echoing arpeggiated guitar and ethereal keyboards. Vega sings with a breathy hesitancy that conveys a post-break up anxiety even as the lyrics leave room for a new love that is “cracking” the ice where she treads, and the ice, that—if I may risk ruining her song by making the metaphor too explicit—is around her heart. It is because of this that “Cracking,” despite being a deceptively simple song, captures the simultaneous possibility of fleetingness and permanence that comes along with romantic love. Vega may sing of her heart soon “hit[ting] the deep freeze,” but the fact that that deep freeze—from which ostensibly there is no return—has not yet arrived, suggests there is space and time for new attachments to be made.
Andre 3000’s “Prototype” (off of Outkast’s 2003 split-double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below) is much more explicit in its ability to both cherish the feeling of being in love and suggest the possibility of it existing in a continuum of past and possible future romantic relationships. I have briefly written about the song before, when discussing calls to “(anti-)liveness in recorded music,” but what really strikes me about the song is how it takes the near-saccharine tone of the pop love song and informs it with the reality of human relationships. The very name of the song, “Prototype” suggest the possibility of failure, while also suggesting that the relationship he is singing about is special and is a potential step towards an idealized love.
As Andre 3000 sings, “I hope that you’re the one / If not, you are the prototype,” and “If we happen to part / (lord knows I don’t want that, but hey…) / we can’t be mad at God…I think I’m on the right track, yeah…” His hope suggests his desire for and the commitment to the relationship are real, as is his recognition of the specialness of his beloved, but he remains realistic. I think that “mad at God” line is important, because it suggests that relationships are not divinely sourced, because if they were then wouldn’t break-ups have that same source? Having several long-term “serious” relationships in life can be important to making the latter ones work and last. I am not saying that those who marry young are doomed, but I do think the fact that I waited until I was 40 to get married the first time, for example, means I am more likely to stick with it because of what I learned from the earlier relationships that did not arrive at the same social and legal conditions. This is not to say that marrying late or having a long string of relationships is necessarily a recipe for success (however, that is measured), but that it does provide the opportunity to manage romantic relationships in light of the ones that came before.
The song’s refrain, “I think I’m in love…again…” isn’t meant to undermine the love he is singing about, but to celebrate the ability to love many times in life, which, given the intensity with which love can be felt and the mythology surrounding its power is pretty miraculous in itself. Much like the matinee that Andre 3000 suggests to his lover that they take in, enjoying “love” or at least the love song, may often require a suspension of disbelief, but from my perspective a critical approach is the most fulfilling. I don’t mean “critical” in a negative sense, but rather, a conscious awareness of multiple simultaneous meanings—both the intensity of felt emotion and the social and political dynamics of a successful relationship that are not aided in the least bit by the maintenance of a fantasy.
The video for “Prototype” is weird, but I like to think that its afro-futurist pretensions allude to a forward looking perspective on love, even as it uses a sci-fi fantasy to lure in the viewer. And a side-note: if you really want to go deep on Outkast and their songs, especially in relation to how they construct and represent gender, relationships and American southern Black consciousness, I could not recommend Dr. Regina Bradley’s series of Oukasted Conversations more.. She has recorded over a dozen hours of conversations with academics and producers and authors regarding the group. Fascinating stuff.
Do you know of other songs that accept the reality of serial monogamy without succumbing to cynicism? Share them in the comments!
One thought on “Cracking the Prototype: Serial Monogamy and the Pop Love Song”
My favorite song about two inexperienced people who get into a relationship at much too young an age on an impulse, and who probably have no damn business being together in the first place, who have absolutely come to regret the expression “until the end of time” is the darkly humorous classic “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” written by Jim Steinman and perfromed by Meat Loaf & Ellen Foley. That last part of the song really sums up how sometimes “til death do you part” is a really bad idea…
So now I’m praying for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive
‘Cause if I gotta spend another minute with you
I don’t think that I can really survive
I’ll never break my promise or forget my vow
But God only knows what I can do right now
I’m praying for the end of time
So I can end my time with you