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Love songs are changing. What today's love songs say about us

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Love songs are so important. Think about all the songs that have been the soundtrack to your relationships.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HONESTLY LOVE YOU")

OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN: (Singing) I love you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Falling in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A TEENAGER IN LOVE")

DION AND THE BELMONTS: (Singing) Teenager in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY LOVE")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Baby love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) All you need is love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED LOVE").

LL COOL J: (Singing) I need love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T GET ENOUGH OF YOUR LOVE").

BARRY WHITE: (Singing) Can't get enough of your love, babe.

MARTIN: ...All the slow jams...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN")

PERCY SLEDGE: (Singing) When a man loves a woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE MY BREATH AWAY")

BERLIN: (Singing) Take my breath away.

MARTIN: ...That led to the wedding bells.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT LAST")

ETTA JAMES: (Singing) At last.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")

THE DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) Going to the chapel of love.

MARTIN: ...That led to the wedding night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE TO LOVE YOU BABY")

DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) Oh, I love to love you, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JE T'AIME MOI NON PLUS")

SERGE GAINSBOURG: (Whispering) Je t'aime. Je t'aime.

MARTIN: But there is evidence that the love song is in trouble. Last summer, Spotify revealed that among Gen Z listeners, the most searched term for music was the word sad. Recently, researchers at BYU studied Billboard's top 100 songs of 2019. They were looking at whether love songs told stories of secure romantic attachments or insecure - meaning, was the song about fear that a partner would leave, or were singers distancing themselves emotionally? - that sort of thing. Here's what researcher McKell Jorgensen-Wells found.

MCKELL JORGENSEN-WELLS: Eighty-six percent of them had an insecure attachment style.

MARTIN: Eighty-six percent.

JORGENSEN-WELLS: Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next" we coded as avoidant.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK U, NEXT")

ARIANA GRANDE: (Singing) Though I'd end up with Sean, but he wasn't a match.

JORGENSEN-WELLS: "Youngblood" by 5 Seconds of Summer was anxious-avoidant mix.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNGBLOOD")

5 SECONDS OF SUMMER: (Singing) You push and you push and I'm pulling away, pulling away from you.

MARTIN: That's just two examples, and here's another thing. A different study looked at love songs between 1971 and 2011, and if you're a parent who's ever awkwardly listened to the radio or a playlist with your kids, you already know this - when it comes to subject matter, there's been a noticeable shift from love to lust. McKell Jorgensen-Wells noticed the same thing.

JORGENSEN-WELLS: Genre had a big influence. Rap and hip-hop and R&B were more often focused on sexuality, and pop was more often focused on love.

MARTIN: So as part of our MORNING EDITION series we're calling The Summer of Love, let's take a look at the disappearing love song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO?")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Baby, baby, where did our love go?

MARTIN: Jesse Washington wrote about the disappearing love song for Andscape, and he is with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome.

JESSE WASHINGTON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You also think that the dominance of hip-hop on the pop charts in recent years has led to a shift in storytelling perspective, but why? I mean, don't hip-hop-heads fall in love, too?

WASHINGTON: They do, but they're not going to tell you. You know, hip-hop is primarily a young, aggressive male - although there's a lot of women coming up who are imitating the male viewpoints and emotionlessness of relationships - and so just the whole ethos of hip-hop is hard, man. If something is good amongst young people now, they say, that's hard. Love is soft. Love is vulnerable, and that is never something that has been in the communities where hip-hop comes from.

MARTIN: You wrote specifically about Black artists, and you wrote, quoting here, "The deepest forms of love are fading out of popular Black music." What do you make of it?

WASHINGTON: Sadly, I think that there has never been less love in Black popular music. I think it's somewhat of a vicious cycle, because when young artists see a type of content that is successful, that they can make money off of, they imitate that. I also think that - and a lot of people that I spoke to for my story really pointed out an eternal truth of the Black community, which is our music reflects what's really going on. It's usually not a point of the music causing something. It may influence and perpetuate it, so I don't want to sit here and blame rap for the loss of love in the Black community, but there is a changing nature of relationships that's going on, and some of the people who I interviewed pointed out that young people are getting mixed messages and conflating sex and love and intimacy in ways that they weren't before.

MARTIN: Does this concern you, that the music that these Black artists that you've studied are bringing forth has this quality to it?

WASHINGTON: It's deeply concerning and disturbing to me. I'm a parent of four young people, and a lot of ways that young people learn to navigate the world - the way I learned to navigate the world when I was their age - is through our music. And I remember how much it spoke to me, and in retrospect, I remember how much it affected me. What is normal? What is acceptable? I think the danger is for young people to say, oh, my relationship is supposed to be toxic. I'm supposed to be unhappy half of the time. You know, I took a quick spin through the current Billboard top 100, and it's just more of the same. You know, you see the songs that are really talking about being unhappy. One of the songs in the top 100 right now is from a tremendously gifted and talented and beautiful artist named SZA, and she has a song called "Saturn." In the first verse, she says, I hate this place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATURN")

SZA: (Singing) I hate this place. Stuck in this paradigm, don't believe in paradise. This must be what hell is like. There's got to be more, got to be more.

WASHINGTON: And so when these are the songs and the messages and the vibes that young people - or any people - are absorbing, I think it can run the risk of affecting the reality of how they view love. And, you know, let me be clear - I'm not judging any artist for their choice in music. It's the balance of what I think is really the dangerous part. You know, Marvin Gaye made a lot of great sex records, but he also made great love records. Broken-heartedness has been a theme of love songs for decades, but we're not seeing the flip side of that.

MARTIN: And also, I just want to point out that the love song has not completely vanished from the earth.

WASHINGTON: The love song is still here. You just got to look for them, and we can also always go back to the timeless classics. Stevie Wonder's love songs will never, ever, ever get old, and so they're still out there. Love is not dead - just on the ropes right now, in a certain sense.

MARTIN: Jesse Washington wrote the article titled "Where Did The Love Go? " for Andscape. Jesse, thank you so much for talking with us.

WASHINGTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BELIEVE (WHEN I FALL IN LOVE WITH YOU IT WILL BE FOREVER)")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) I believe, when I fall in love with you, it will be forever. I believe, when I fall in love this time... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.