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by William H. Benson

February 14, 2013

     Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta was in court last week. More well known as Lady Gaga, she explained to the judge that she refuses to pay her former employee $390,000 for overtime hours because “she is a hood rat . . . suing me for money that she didn’t earn.” Lady Gaga said that she paid Jennifer O’Neill $75,000 a year, but O’Neill said she worked “virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” One can conclude that there was a breakdown in their employer-employee relationship

     In 2009 Lady Gaga released her pop hit “Bad Romance,” and I would admit that the music is superb. High school and college bands now play it frequently, but its lyrics, which Stefani Germanotta wrote, are inane, repetitive, witless, and vulgar, the exact ingredients necessary for a bad romance.

     Like other oxymorons—such as jumbo shrimp, plastic glasses, criminal law, civil war, and freezer burn—a “bad romance” cannot be. If it is a romance it is hearts, flowers, candy, cards, gifts, and Valentine’s Day all year long. If it is bad, then it is no longer a romance, but an oppressive nightmare.

     I am reminded of an essay entitled Popular Songs vs. The Facts of Life that the semantics professor, S. I. Hayakawa, wrote in 1954. Although dated, the essay makes a pertinent point that is still true today, that popular songs’ lyrics suffer from the “IFD disease—the triple-threat disorder of Idealization, Frustration, and Demoralization—that is often illustrated in the attitudes toward love.”

     Some songs idealize love, that it is instant, magic, forever, that all problems are solved, and that “you don’t have to do anything—the right magic makes all effort unnecessary.” So you hear lyrics that mention a “teen angel” or “just one look.” Inevitably the real world disrupts this idealization, people feel frustrated, and you hear lyrics about “feeling blue, being all alone, and crying a river of tears.”

Then, some lyrics, such as Dione Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” arrive at the third stage, that of demoralization, detachment, and absolute withdrawal from all romance.

     What is missing from the three categories of IFD disease is that inevitability called “change.” Conditions, feelings, circumstances, attitudes, desires, goals, and wishes constantly change. The exterior life does not always match what is changing in the inner life.

     Gail Sheehy, a best-selling author on relationships, said that women today divorce husbands who are physically and verbally abusive, or are chronic womanizers, or are alcoholics. The reverse is also true. Men men wake up one day and acknowledge a fact that the popular songs will not admit, that physical beauty does not equal or even indicate intelligence or a civil and polite tongue.

     Kenneth Burke, an American writer, said that “poetry is equipment for living.” It is tragic that the memorization and repetition of popular song lyrics is the closest that most youth ever get to poetry.

     Hayakawa said that “literature is learning. By literary symbols we are introduced to emotions and situations that we have not yet experienced.” It is further tragic that so few youth read or know of romances gone awry, such as the “two star-crossed lovers” in “Romeo and Juliet,” or how Othello’s need for certainty goaded him into murdering his wife, Desdemona, or how Macbeth’s spouse, Lady Macbeth, convinced him to murder the king. In their case, ambition made romance bad, very bad.

     Edward Tayler, English professor at Columbia, told his freshman literature students, “You’re here for very selfish reasons. You’re here to build a self. You create a self, you don’t inherit it. One way to create it is out of the past.” It is a selfish thing for a youth to devote years to reading literature and history. After all, he or she could be holding down a job, buying a house, getting married, but I say that reading literature and the past is a better preparation for life’s realities than repeating popular songs’ lyrics.

     In his essay, Hayakawa asked the question, “Do popular songs, listened to, often memorized and sung during youthful courtship, make the attainment of emotional maturity more difficult than it need be?” He answers his own question by quoting a therapist, who said, “I am up to my eyes in marriage counseling. I am consulted repeatedly about ill-considered marriages based upon very superficial and inadequate ideas regarding the nature of love and how it is recognized.”

     Some people are so unlucky in love, often through little or no fault of their own, other than poor planning and wishful thinking, and so they endure a series of bad romances. If you happen to have a “good” romance, enjoy it today, of all days, for you are indeed the lucky one. You are the fortunate one.