Love is Exhaustion
I kinda hate love, at least in its romantic-conjugal form. It’s exhausting and consuming and there’s really no way to get around that. Here, for instance, is the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describing the couple: “The questions for the couple are: do they want to use each other to sustain their desire, or to finish with it? And is their desire more important than their desire for each other?” If these questions don’t make your body ache with premonitions of love’s coming exhaustion, well, we have a very different relation to love. And yet, I love love songs. (Hate, love —it’s all dialectical or something.) Love songs tend to be thought of as joyous songs of devotion, paeans to the quotidian pleasures of loving union. Think of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” A good love song, however, knows disappointment and suggests exhaustion. The best ones always know, no matter how soaringly optimistic they might be, that love is impossible and that that impossibility is what will do you in. Take “Call Me Maybe,” where flirtation and infatuation, those supposedly lesser but objectively more exciting moments of love, reign supreme. As the chorus soars, an encomium to romance, Carly Rae Jepsen lets us in on an open secret: love (and desire) always exceeds its object. Before you came into my life, she sings, I missed you so bad. The temporality is jarring and makes the object of infatuation almost irrelevant—Jepsen, like the rest of us, has been missing something for so long and it’s unlikely love is going to fix that. In addition to being a devastating line, this is the single greatest one-line explanation of desire. When you’re reading Freud, Lacan, & co., keep this line in mind, it will do you wonders.
The love song as chronicle of exhausting desire, melancholy inhering in devotion and even exuberance, runs across the spectrum of pop music. One of its great moments comes in Chris Knox’s “Not Given Lightly.” Released in 1989, coincidentally the same year, according to sure-sighted prognosticator Francis Fukuyama, that history ended, Knox’s song would, at the very minimum, provide its listener with a hard to name anxiety about the possibility of love. History didn’t end but love became a little more anxious. “Not Given Lightly” is certainly Knox’s best known song; in fact, according to the Australian Performing Rights Association, it is the 13th best New Zealand Song of All Time. A musician, film critic, and artist, for three decades Knox was at the center of New Zealand pop: he was there at the founding of Flying Nun Records, the center of the New Zealand music scene that gave us the Verlaines, the Chills, the Clean, and Dead C, among so many others. Knox himself was in the late 70s New Zealand punk bands The Enemy and Toy Love, as well as the eclectic, unwitting progenitors of the lo-fi aesthetic, the Tall Dwarfs.
Fond of Iggy Pop, Knox was known for masochistically carving up his body with whatever shard of something he could find during live performances. So it is, perhaps, no surprise that if a love “not given lightly” seems to suggest the seriousness of real love, that it is a love that has been thought through—just the opposite, in fact, of Jepsen’s summertime infatuation—the “not given lightly” of Knox’s song is taken from the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” itself a love song to masochism that takes its title from Leopold von Sacher Masoch’s 1870 novel of the same name. If, as we have heard so many times, “it’s turtles all the way down,” then when it comes to love, this genealogy (Jepsen-Knox-VU-Sacher Masoch) suggests that maybe it’s masochism all the way down. The Velvet Underground put it like this: Taste the whip, in love not given lightly/Taste the whip, now plead for me/I am tired, I am weary/I could sleep for a thousand years. So when we hear Knox, in the chorus, sing, in his off-key voice, Cause it’s you that I love/And it’s true that I love/And it’s love not given lightly/But I knew this was love/And it’s you that I love/And it’s more than what it might be, we are certainly hearing Knox’s devotional love, but we should also hear it as touched, perhaps not so lightly, by masochism.
If the masochism of a love not given lightly, for the Velvet Underground, results in exhaustion, then for Knox, the bliss of love comes while sleeping. As anyone who’s ever woken up knows well, waking gently and pleasantly is nothing more than a dangerous fantasy. And yet, this is how Knox begins, luring his listener into the coming day of love. Hello my friend/It’s morning, time to wake now. But what are they waking from? Your body and mine, entwined will have to break now/I want your flesh, your warmth to stay beside me/Oh, how I wish, you could be deep inside me. The fantasy here of love as embodied union, is, if possible at all, only available in sleep. Here is Roland Barthes, in A Lover’s Discourse: “Naming of the total union: ‘the sole and simple pleasure’ (Aristotle), ‘the joy without stain and without mixture, the perfection of dreams, the term of all hopes’ (Ibn-Hazm), ‘the divine magnificence’ (Novalis); it is undifferentiated and undivided repose. Or again, the fulfillment of ownership; I dream that we delight in each other according to an absolute appropriation; this is fruitful union, love’s fruition (with its initial fricative and shifting vowels before the murmuring final syllable, the word increases the delight it speaks of by an oral pleasure; saying it, I enjoy this union in my mouth).” Knox begins, then, by waking his lover from sleep, from the only possibility of love’s fruitful union.
Now that they are awake, there is a bit less union: they are a bit less entwined and certainly not deep inside one another. When we’re alone I cannot always face you/Maybe my mood won’t let these arms embrace you/That doesn’t mean my love’s somehow diminished/Give me the time to show our love’s unfinished. Somnambulant love is all embodied union, while waking, cognizant love is all awkward non-embraces. Knox holds onto the fantasy, though—if his partner just gives him enough time, he will get love right. It’s a futile attempt—the second verse here trying to forget the lessons of the first.
Unlike Jepsen, whose song is about the desire that is always already there and thus the object of her infatuation is supposed to call her (maybe?), Knox’s song was written for his partner at the time, Barbara Ward. The specificity comes toward the end of the song, when the guitar cuts out and the listener is left with nothing but the drum machine and Knox’s voice. This is a love song, to John and Leisha’s mother, Knox sings, This isn’t easy, I might not write another. We might think here both of the trajectory of the verses and what, exactly, isn’t easy. From the blissful entwined bodies of sleep, to the awkward moods and unembraceable bodies clinging to an imagined future realization of love, Knox then identifies his partner mediated through the configuration of the nuclear family. I’ll spare you the Freudian reading this progression seems to demand; it’s a bit too on the nose. But the fantasy of conjugal love as union, of satisfaction of desire—a fantasy that will not go away—is so disappointing, because waking life is so frequently melancholy moods and awkward non-embraces. And, here the Oedipalized scenario Knox calls forth suggests something else, too—the conjugal love that opens the song is always competing with other intensities, other loves and filiations. While the verse seems to suggest that writing the song wasn’t easy, Knox has also been telling us all along that he might not write another song like this because love is just so fucking difficult.
Knox then begins the final iteration of the chorus with a wearied, sighing, buuut iiiit’s you that I love, and it’s true that I love, and it’s love not given lightly. The whole song, the whole ordeal of love, is captured in that wearied sigh, which is followed by the return of that jangling guitar. All our loves, Knox knows, are weary sighs brought on by having woken up next to a friend.
Love songs are at their best, I think, when they are, like “Not Given Lightly,” didactic about the inevitable disappointments of love and desire. For Knox, like all too many of us, it’s all downhill once we wake up, and love is mostly an attempt to go back to sleep while having to be awake. This is the masochistic nature of love. Writing of what she calls “exquisite masochism,’ Claire Jarvis puts it this way: “Exquisite masochism is organized into scenes with carefully ordered roles and accoutrements. Furthermore, masochistic scenes feature sexual relationships that develop through ongoing negotiations and that involve partners’ persistent reexamination of their sexual and romantic connections.” Knox’s song is a bit like a skeletal outline of this masochism: the rote, tinny drum machine and the repetitive, jangly, simple chord progression provide the ordered roles and accoutrements, reinforcing the banal melancholy of love. There is, however, a joy in loving songs like this—if we just listen, maybe love won’t be so disappointing when it inevitably disappoints.