In its teaching on marriage, the Church is the last guardian of true romance. We know that is true not just because the Catechism says so—but because our popular songs agree.
“Marry me, Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone," sings Taylor Swift, describing the words she longs to hear from her Romeo. But the only way her “Love Story" works is if marriage is indissoluble.
“The most beautiful-est thing in this world is Daddy’s little girl," go the words to “Glory," Jay-Z’s song to his daughter. But only his and Beyonce’s openness to life led to what he calls “his greatest creation."
“Let me be your one and only," begs Adele, adding, “I know it ain’t easy, giving up your heart." That’s because love only makes sense if it’s total and exclusive.
There are many exceptions in the repertoire of pop music, of course. We are talking about party music, not liturgical hymns. But in the most powerful and most honest love songs, real marriage comes up again and again.
The top-selling love songs want a love that lasts till death—like Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’s “Endless Love." They know love is expressed in a child—like Bryan Adams’ declaration that “when you can see your unborn children in her eyes, you know you really love a woman." They want love to be exclusive—like the Turtles’ declaration that “I can’t see me loving nobody but you for all my life."
You see it in songs of joy, but you also see it in songs of pain.
The Catholic Church’s teaching that marriage is really and truly “till death do us part" is, in fact, not the harsh aberration some would make it out to be. It is the simple understanding that all young lovers have when they say “I do." Love is forever; breaking up is an intolerable wound; real love does not stop. What we feel is true—and the commitment we make is real.
Country music is famous for showcasing the pain that comes from love’s end with famous titles like “I’ve Got Tears in My Ears From Lying on My Back Crying Over You."
But the popular singer Adele seems to have made an art form out of describing the excruciating pain of breakup. It leaves her “Rolling in the Deep" and wanting to “Set Fire to the Rain." “Don’t You Remember?" she cries, and she decides that the only way to go forward is to “Find Someone Like You."
There is a primal connection that is established when two people commit to each other and then consummate that commitment sexually.
And the terrible toll divorce takes at the end of a marriage is responsible for the phenomenon of the “divorce album." Artists have produced some of their most acclaimed work while trying to work through the pain of divorce.
Bob Dylan says of Blood on the Tracks (a sad dissection of the end of his marriage), “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, you know, people enjoying that kind of pain?”
Phil Collins nearly breaks down in a documentary about Face Value, his “divorce album," when he sings the line, “I can remember when it was easy to say I love you."
Pink’s Funhouse album explored the emotions that follow divorce, from angry defiance (“So what? I’m still a rockstar!") to extreme vulnerability (“I need you. I’m sorry. Please don’t leave me.").
Their pain lays bear what the human heart means when it says, “I love you."
Love means sticking it out, as Al Green sings: “Let’s stay together…I’ll be loving you whether / Times are good or bad, happy or sad."
Love means never quitting, as Jason Mraz sings: “I won’t give up on love. God knows we’re worth it."
And the critical question for young lovers is always ultimately the question posed by the Beatles: “Will you still need me / Will you still feed me / When I’m sixty-four?"
Openness to children
Pop songs, whose original audience was teenagers, are not quite as keen on singing about pregnancy as they are about loving each other forever. But the openness to life that the Church sees as integral to true romance does make an appearance now and again in pop songs.
An important song for my wife and myself early on in our marriage was “Danny’s Song" by Kenny Loggins. It begins: “Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you honey," with words that fit so many young couples.
But then it continues with two charming lines that trace a marriage’s stages: “Now I smile and face the girl that shares my name" and then, after mention of a new little boy, “Now I see a family where there once was none."
First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a little one in the baby carriage.
As the first dance at our wedding, we chose a country song that vigorously celebrates openness to children: Garth Brooks’ “Two of a Kind Working on a Full House."
Garth sings these “theology of the body" lyrics about the unitive and procreative dimensions of unobstructed marital intimacy:
“We’re playing for fun, but we’re playing for keeps—
So draw the curtain, honey
Turn the lights down low …
I’m yours and you’re mine
Hey, that’s what it’s all about.
Yeah, we’re two of a kind
Workin’ on a full house."
Most songs fall short of the Church’s rich understanding of sexual morality, however. Songs about sex are usually best skipped—you can try, but it’s a stretch, to make “Your Body Is a Wonderland" refer to marriage.
But even in some of our unwholesome pop songs there is a certain sad honesty.
“Night Moves," by Bob Seger has always struck me as a song haunted by regret. In it the singer remembers things that happened “Out in the back seat of my ’60 Chevy" that he really ought to keep to himself. But then the song suddenly turns sad and uses imagery evocative of death and decay:
“I woke last night to the sound of thunder / How far off? I sat and wondered / Started humming a song from 1962 / Ain’t it funny how the night moves / When you don’t seem to have as much to lose? / … With autumn closing in."
The meaning of “night moves" changes in those lines from “uninhibited fun" to “a purposeless life, nearly finished but wasted." And that seems an appropriate characterization of his consummated but abandoned long, lost love.
Then there are songs that reveal that, whether we are open or not, sex leads to babies. In the 1980s there was “Papa don’t preach" by Madonna. “I’m keeping my baby," she says.
In the 1990s there was “The Freshmen," a song by a two-hit wonder group, Verve Pipe.
It’s a depressing but catchy song that never makes sense until you realize it is about abortion. “Now I’m guilt-stricken, sobbing with my head on the floor / Stopped a baby’s breath…" the lead singer sings and wallows in the complicated emotions he is now stuck with for the rest of his life.
In the end, he just repeats in disbelief: “We were merely freshmen. We were merely freshmen."
In the 2000s came Jason Mraz with a reflection on his own parents’ divorce and what that meant to him, their son. He sees not a lack of openness to children, but a lack of openness to parenting.
In “Love for a Child" he sings, ironically: “It’s kinda nice to work the floor since the divorce. / I’ve been enjoying both my Christmases and my birthday cakes / And taking drugs and making love at far too young an age / And they never checked to see my grades / What a fool I’d be to start complaining now."
There is practically a genre of songs about what divorce does to children—from John Lennon’s “Mother" (“Momma don’t go; Daddy come home," he repeats over and over) to American Idol Kelly Clarkston’s “Because of You" (“I heard you cry / Every night.… You never thought of anyone else / You just saw your pain / And now I cry in the middle of the night.").
But openness to children is not only expressed in pain in pop songs.
As we travel along with nine in our van, we love the Train song “When It’s Love" for the line: “We can laugh, we can sing / Have ten kids and give them everything."
And then there’s the country song by Lonestar that declares what the best view on earth is: “My Front Porch Looking In" on the children in the living room.
Ah, country music. When you are in the mood for some sentimental profundity, there’s nothing like it. There are great lines in country songs about exclusivity—being faithful to one spouse, and one only, for a lifetime (despite some less edifying titles like “All My Exes live in Texas").
Take Brad Paisely’s “Little Moments," which celebrates not the glories of love but the mundane moments: “I know she’s not perfect but she tries so hard for me / And I thank God that she isn’t ’cause how boring would that be?"
Or take Paisley’s “Waiting on a Woman" in which an older man gives a younger man advice about how women are worth waiting for—and he means waiting for the honeymoon, waiting for through a lifetime, and even waiting up in heaven when the husband dies first.
But mainstream pop songs include plenty of paeans to fidelity, too. The hip-folk soundtrack of the movie Juno has several, from its opening song (“All I want is you, will you be my bride?) to its throwback middle track (“I’m sticking with you / Because I’m made out of glue") to its finale (“I don’t see what anyone can see / In anyone else but you").
But these are all just silly love songs to most of the world.
Only the Catholic Church actually believes what we lovers actually feel. When I looked at April and told her I would love her until I die, I meant it. The Church knows I meant it. And the Church holds me to it.
So I say to April, in the words of the recent hit song by Train: “Forever can never be long enough for me / To feel like I’ve had long enough with you. / Marry me / Today and every day."
And to those who regret lost love, I say with real compassion: “If you loved it, then you should have put a ring on it."