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Post ‘Modern Love’: Iconic Songs About Contemporary Love

I find myself singing David Bowie’s famous song “Modern Love” to myself a lot without knowing why it’s in my head. Perhaps I’m drawn to the hopeful yearning in the pre-chorus line “But I try / I try” or the danceable confusion about love and sexuality that seems to permeate the song’s lyrical core. But that confusion also hinges upon a foundational question: what is modern love?

So, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to look back at some iconic love songs that have changed and defined romantic values in popular culture during the age of post-modern love. I have narrowed my selection to five songs that I, personally, think have updated the genre in new and exciting ways since 1983.

The criteria for selection hinged primarily upon being released after Bowie’s “Modern Love” (i.e., after 1983) and that they must revolve around feelings of sustained romantic love as opposed to flings and hookups. However, I did allow songs that are about both current and past romantic relationships, so meet-cutes, current relationship, and breakups are all on the table. I also want to bluntly state that this is strictly an opinion piece, and my musical tastes/biases will show through. If your favorite love song didn’t make my list, be sure to comment or and let me know what I missed!

With that in mind, here are my top 8 picks (full playlist provided at the end of the listicle):

8) “Everlong” by Foo Fighters (1997)

Catharsis abounds in this alternative classic. Written about the gradual decay of Dave Grohl’s relationship with Veruca Salt’s Louise Post, “Everlong” tries to recapture a past moment of happiness like an old polaroid photo caught in eternity. But like most nostalgic photos, there is a sense of great distance between what was and what is and Grohl expertly fills that space with electric grief. There’s also something meta about the song’s pre-chorus line “And I wonder, if I sing along with you” that attempts to immortalize a moment of musical connection, specifically. In the end, the song’s sonic and lyrical residue remains as the captured moment, itself, and it’s replay value shines through in the final line which always keeps me coming back for more, “The only thing I’ll ever ask of you / you gotta promise not to stop when I say when.”

7) “The Scientist” by Coldplay (2002)

If you are like me, there are certain songs that will make you cry without fail, and Coldplay’s haunting melodies and subtle piano strokes get me every time with “The Scientist.” Another song that seeks to return to past moments, the entire second verse seals the deal for me as they navigate the conflicting values of rationale and emotion within love’s landscape. What’s revealed is a paradox that language cannot quite capture, and, as Chris Martin’s closing vocals turn into the lonely howl of a lone wolf who has lost his pack, there is a sublime beauty to it that is utterly heartbreaking.

6) “Such Great Heights” covered by Iron & Wine (2004 | originally by The Postal Service in 2003)

Credit where credit is due, Ben Gibbard, Jimmy Tamborello, and Jen Wood made an incredible song out of The Postal Service’s first hit “Such Great Heights,” but the song’s B-side rendition performed by Iron & Wine takes it even higher. In place of fast-paced electronic beats, synthesizers, and tenor vocals, Sam Beam takes a more traditional approach using only guitar and deeper vocals to breath a grounded sense of romance into it. It has the feel of a long heavy sigh that is full of relief, comfort, and love. He savors every moment taking his time to float through the song’s idealistic lyrics about cosmic alignment and changes in perspective with grace and beauty.

5) “Night Shift” by Lucy Dacus (2018)

It’s amazing how Lucy Dacus can be threatening and confrontational while also being vulnerable and sweet. “Night Shift” has already gone down as one of the best songs of her career, and for good reason – its intimate details about trying to move on after a messy breakup are gritty and devastating, and the song’s heel turn at the end is one of the best out-of-left-field dynamic shifts in any song ever, even beyond the love song category, because it demonstrates a musical sense of evolution and change that charges forward with newfound confidence. Dacus’s sense of poetry and storytelling are in full focus here in both the musical composition and lyricism as she takes the titular “Night Shift” in contrast to her ex’s 9-5 singing “and I’ll never see you again if I can help it.” There’s a ringing sense of triumph in the final strum of the guitar and sort of hardened optimism lies in her final line about the song’s future, “In five years, I hope this song feels like covers dedicated to new lovers.”

4) “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” by Jeff Buckley (1994)

Alright y’all…. Who’s ready to feel the pain? The sad boy extraordinaire, Jeff Buckley, takes us for an emotional ride with his reeling meditation (or manic fixation) on a long-lost love that he cannot shake. It’s clear that there has been some temporal distance between the relationship and where he was at the time of recording the song, which adds to the harrowing impact of certain lines like being “Too young to hold on / And too old to break free and run.” The poetry of Buckley’s lyrics buzzes so deeply with emotion that reason falls by the wayside at times, but the thing that comes through clearly amidst the confusion is a deep remorse and sorrow. Loneliness sprouts from the very love that continues to hold him captive in the absence of his titular lover (specifically musician, actress, and activist Rebecca Moore). There is a desperate plea in there somewhere, but his refusal to let go and change silences it with the weight of emotional resignation.

3) “XO” Beyonce (2013)

Thank the stars for a love song with some levity, grace, and unbounded joy. Beyoncé has delivered many an iconic love song, but “XO” is by far one of the most special. In place of the subtlety that comes paired with your typical love songs, she takes a decidedly more-is-more approach here with giant synthesizers and a propulsive beat that makes love feel like a perfect first date that will never end. It fully captures the adventurous side of a new relationship’s honeymoon phase where everything feels grand and romantic, and playful and celebratory energy helps it stand out among the other songs on my list. This song is young love at its most exhilarating, which makes it an intoxicating listen.

2) “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2003)

As a musician, sometimes you hear music from a band/musician that will have you jealously whispering to yourself “I wish I had written this song.” For me, Karen O and company take the cake for best single line in a love song with “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you…”. Even Beyoncé conceded its power sampling the lyrics 23 years later for the chorus of “Hold Up” off her critically acclaimed album Lemonade. It’s a line so distilled, pure, and eviscerating that the original chorus needs little else. If O had simply crooned the one line into a microphone for 3 minutes, it would probably still be as harrowing as it was in 2003.

Musically, “Maps” also stands out for its use of drums as the primary drive. Where many songwriters will use softer sounds like guitars or piano to musically capture the essence of love, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs make a hard left. In the opening moments where the manic tremolo picking of the guitar is interrupted by the song’s propulsive heartbeat, you know that you are in for something different. It’s earthy, grounded, and punchy which contrasts the suspended breath of O’s vocals beautifully. There is a chaos to “Maps” that perfectly captures the desperate plea of a person asking their partner to hold on for dear life when everything around their relationship is slowly eroding and falling apart.

1) “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie (2003)

2003 was, apparently, an incredible year for the evolution of the love song (as well as the early 2000’s in general: i.e., “The Scientist”, “Such Great Heights”). The US was still reeling from the aftermath of 9/11 and hope had hardened into fear. Perhaps it was the same strain of fear that led songwriters to deeper questions about its connection to love, which is at the core of what draws me to “Transatlanticism” and its take on the post-modern love song – fear and love are omnipresent – and the band reminds us of love’s capacity for simultaneous devastation and perseverance without discarding either. It is harrowing and warm. It is bleak and tender. It is fear and love side by side.  

In many ways, I see “Transatlanticism” as an expansion (or even a challenging) of Death Cab’s other mighty love song “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” It has many of the same lyrical ingredients floating around, but it’s us-against-the-world mentality doesn’t have the strain of separation. In “Transatlanticism,” it’s us-against-the-world while also being oceans apart which can be interpreted as physical, mental, or emotional isolation.

Within the song’s speculative realism, a nameless 1st person narrator takes issue with the appearance of the newly born Atlantic Ocean which is “making islands where no islands should go.” The sense of scale feels immediately massive, which is heightened by the echoing sparseness of the musical composition. “I thought it less like a lake, and more like a moat” Gibbard sings with a sinking heart.

Toward the end, the repetitious line of “I need you so much closer” spread over 8 repetitions (followed by another 4 repetitions after an extensive musical break that swells brilliantly) is a mantra that rivals “Maps” for best line in a love song. But the simple follow up line is what ultimately wins me over: “So come on! Come on…”. A call to action that has the most enduring quality found in any good relationship… effort, communication, and somewhere (or something) to work towards together.  

Beyond the lyricism, the music composition, itself, is also incredibly layered and packs a punch from the very first notes. Sustained piano chords ring into a broad horizon and the gentle, rolling percussion somehow feels like gentle waves on the shore of a beach. The nuance is incredible and will melt your heart immediately. What could be a musical view of a shoreside sunrise has the twist of a somber tone. Musically, the band turns subtleness into catharsis.

Now that I’ve shared my picks, be sure to share yours in the comments to keep the love going! Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

Charlie Maybee

Charlie Maybee is a dancer, musician, educator, and writer based in Charleston, South Carolina who currently teaches with the Dance Program at the College of Charleston. His primary work as an artist is with his performing collective, Polymath Performance Project, through which he makes interdisciplinary performance art that centers tap dance as the primary medium of expression and research. He also currently plays rhythm guitar for the Charleston-based punk band, Anergy, and releases music as a solo artist under the name Nox Eterna.

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