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A different kind of love song

We’ve always written songs about love. But now a new generation of musicians are redefining what it means
December 6, 2023

“Flowers”, the best-selling single of the past year, was released in the early days of January 2023 by the indefatigable American pop sensation Miley Cyrus. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the colour and vim of the song lit up the pale midwinter charts, debuting at number one in the UK and staying there for 10 weeks. 

It’s a barnstormer of a track, a tale of defiance and reclamation in the wake of a breakup; Cyrus singing as if suddenly alive to the idea that one does not need a relationship to feel loved—after all, she reasons, she can buy herself flowers, write her own name in the sand. “I can love me better,” she sings. “I can love me better than you can.”

“Flowers” was meticulously put together by a team of chart-conquering songwriters and producers, from Cyrus herself to Kid Harpoon. It has a power and precision to its aim that meets the singer’s voice—an instrument not marked by prettiness but by a kind of American determination. 

Cyrus’s voice is well-suited to pop music, well-trained and well-honed. Loitering somewhere between nose and throat, hard and husky, it carries some of her own history: the child star offspring of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, raised between Tennessee, Los Angeles and the Disney Channel. There is some of that same infrangible ambition, that distinctly new world reinvention as she sings of moving on from her failed relationship with “no remorse, no regret”.

The interesting thing about “Flowers” is that, for a heartbreak song, it dwells little on love. The word itself appears over 20 times, and yet the ear somehow skips past it, resting instead on the track’s hard, bright details: cherry red nails, a home ablaze, on the indomitable refrain: “I can take myself dancing.”

When Cyrus does sing of “love” her voice takes the word lightly; it becomes a step, a beat on the way to the word “better”, as if we are in the presence of optimism drowning out sorrow. 

Today the word love does not always have as much to carry as it once did

A few years ago, a study in the journal Sexuality and Culture found that we write fewer love songs than we did in the 1960s. Instead, songs are about sex rather than emotional attachment. The comparison was flawed, of course. In the pop songs of the 1960s, when somebody sang of “love” they might also have been singing about physical desire, bodily autonomy, forbidden longing, infidelities, brief flings; the word was a catch-all term, encompassing all of the feelings and wants that could not be addressed directly in lyrics. Today, the word love does not always have as much to carry as it once did, and so its appearance in song, and the emotional investment of its delivery, have shifted. 

In the case of Cyrus’s hit, it’s interesting to note that while she sings about loving herself, her focus is on the physical illustrations of that love, in much the same way that a rapper might detail the mounting evidence of their success (see also: another of this year’s best-sellers, Central Cee and Dave’s “Sprinter”, with its talk of endless women, fast cars and platinum Amex cards).

Precisely a year on from the release of “Flowers” comes Iechyd Da, the sixth album by the British songwriter Bill Ryder-Jones. Its penultimate track, “Thankfully for Anthony”, is one of its highlights. Although it moves at a more lugubrious pace, thematically it’s not so different from Cyrus’s song—Ryder-Jones singing of emerging from hard times and choosing love.\

Here, though, the word “love” carries everything. It is the song’s central lexical pivot, and each iteration falls afresh, freighted with hope, wonder and warmth, but also the complication and vulnerability involved in loving and being loved. It’s a remarkable act of intimacy.

Ryder-Jones is from West Kirby, and his voice finds something in the word’s pronunciation that is flung far from Cyrus’s polished American pop intonation: love’s vowel sound dips low, becoming Scouse, and tender; it becomes weighty and expansive, as if accommodating a variety of meanings.

There is a place for all kinds of song—those written by committee and primed for chart success are every bit as worthy as those that are perhaps less pristine, more personal. But in these days of dwindling love songs, it is a joy to hear one that reconnects to the power of that word. A song that can love better, as Cyrus might sing it, can love better than you.