Dolly Parton will always love you, but she doesn’t love you love you. Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images; background: Fidan/iStock via Getty Images
Love songs are like Rorschach tests—or, to put it more romantically, puffy clouds. We hear in them what we want, and that leaves lots of room for misinterpretation. Just because a pop tune has a pretty melody and the word love somewhere in the lyrics doesn’t mean it’s about the kind of healthy, mutually gratifying relationship most people want. Sometimes, songs are secretly sad, twisted, or just plain messy. What follows are 11 “love” songs you might want to omit from your Valentine’s Day playlist.
1. “The One I Love” // R.E.M.
Throughout R.E.M.’s first big hit, Michael Stipe refers to another person as “a simple prop to occupy my time.” That’s a pretty good indicator that “The One I Love” is about using and abusing people, though many fans continue to hear this 1987 college-rock staple as a genuine declaration of love. “It’s probably better that they think it’s a love song at this point,” Stipe told Q magazine in 1992. “That song just came up from somewhere and I recognized it as being really violent and awful.”
2. “Every Breath You Take” // The Police
Sting, frontman for The Police, has referred to this 1983 smash as “a nasty little song.” In his mind, it’s about “jealousy and surveillance and ownership,” and he should know, since he wrote it. But many people ignore the blatantly sinister lyrics and focus on the smooth guitar tone and gentle melody. A couple once told Sting they played the track at their wedding. His response: “Well, good luck.”
3. “Marry You” // Bruno Mars
According to this 2010 Bruno Mars hit, marriage is a sacred union involving two people and a whole lot of booze. “Is it the look in your eyes / Or is it this dancing juice?” Mars asks in the chorus. It’s definitely the latter, as this couple is admittedly wrecked on tequila and “looking for something dumb to do.” As for the next morning, “If we wake up and you wanna break up, that’s cool,” Mars sings.
4. “Kiss On My List” // Hall & Oates
A lot of people think the chorus of this 1980 Hall & Oates classic goes, “Your kiss is on my lips.” That would be pretty romantic. Except co-writer Daryl Hall actually sings list, a word that suggests the song’s emotionally stunted narrator doesn’t value his lady’s smooches as much as he should. “It’s an anti-love song,” Hall wrote in the liner notes. “It means that your kiss is only on the list of the best things. It’s not the only thing. Everyone thinks it’s ‘I love you and without you I would die.’ It’s the exact opposite of that.”
5. “Crash Into Me” // Dave Matthews Band
The instrumental portion of this 1996 jam-band ballad is enough to make anyone swoon. But there’s no getting around Dave Matthews’s lyrics, which describe a peeping Tom leering at a young woman through the window. “He’s the kind of person you’d call the police on,” Matthews admitted in an episode of VH1’s Storytellers.
6. “Just What I Needed” // The Cars
Written by Cars frontman Ric Ocasek and sung by bassist Benjamin Orr, “Just What I Needed” describes a very unhealthy relationship. The narrator accuses his lover of “wasting” all of his time—which he’s totally cool with, because she offers him what he’s seeking. And what’s that, exactly? “I needed someone to feed,” Orr sings. “I needed someone to bleed.” This guy might have also needed some therapy.
7. “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You” // Heart
Heart’s “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You,” one of the strangest songs to ever reach the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, is the handiwork of Robert John “Mutt” Lange, the superstar producer and songwriter behind hits for Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Shania Twain. The deceptively pretty power ballad tells the tale of a woman who picks up a dude on the side of the road and takes him to a motel with the secret goal of getting pregnant. She leaves a note telling him not to come looking for her, and when their paths cross years later—after she’s had his baby—she basically tells him to scram. Heart singer Ann Wilson has described “All I Wanna Do” as “kind of an empty, weird, sort of hateful story,” which is why she now alters the lyrics in concert.
8. “Can’t Feel My Face” // The Weeknd
If this dancefloor-wrecking 2015 smash is about an actual woman, she’s not the kind of person you want to get involved with. “And I know she’ll be the death of me,” The Weeknd sings at the top of the first verse. “At least we’ll both be numb.” Of course, the “she” most likely refers to cocaine. The Weeknd basically admits to the not-so-hidden meaning (and marvels at the single’s mainstream popularity) on his 2016 song “Reminder”: “I just won a new award for a kids show / Talkin’ ’bout a face numbin’ off a bag of blow.”
9. “I Will Always Love You” // Dolly Parton
“I Will Always Love You,” which was penned and originally recorded by Dolly Parton, is an absolute heartbreaker. It’s about selflessly walking away from a relationship because you realize you’re not what the other person needs. Interestingly, Parton didn’t write the song about a love affair. It was inspired by her difficult decision to split from longtime musical collaborator Porter Wagoner and pursue her own solo career. No matter how majestically Dolly, Whitney Houston, or anyone else sings it, the title line is meant to be devastating.
10. “One” // U2
“One” is about at least two different things, and neither is love in the typical idealized pop-song sense. Bono has said the 1992 U2 classic was partially inspired by the idea of a boy coming out as gay to his super-religious father. Beyond that, it’s about the challenges people face in overcoming their differences and finding ways to live together. This applies to lovers as much as it does to bandmates. “It’s anti-romantic,” Bono says in the book U2 by U2. “‘We are one but not the same. We get to carry each other.’ It’s a reminder that we have no choice.”
11. “One Way Or Another” // Blondie
In courtship, there’s persistence—and then there’s stalking. The guy who inspired Debbie Harry to write “One Way Or Another” was definitely on the wrong side of that line. “I was actually stalked,” Harry told Entertainment Weekly. “So it came out of a not-so-friendly personal event. I tried to inject a little levity into it to make it more lighthearted. It was a survival mechanism.”
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