Love & Sex

Love Lessons From Estelle

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It's a rare pop musician who writes about love for grownups instead of teenagers.

by Litsa Dremousis

Love Lessons From… is a Nerve column in which Litsa Dremousis examines the love-and-sex themes of buzzy pop culture.

Hip-hop/soul/pop songstress Estelle is more than a Grammy-winning singer with a gorgeous face and even more stunning voice. Her upcoming album, All of Me, due February 28 on Atlantic Records, could save you a couple grand in therapy. While most love songs of all genres tend to fall into two camps — "I'll never get over you" or the equally extreme and improbable "I'm over you right this second" — Estelle wisely eschews black and white statements and paints a record of love songs in glorious and varying shades of gray. In other words, she writes love songs about the way love usually unfolds in real life. 

As a species, we often suck at love. Half of everyone, coupled or not, is achingly lonely, and people often remain in crappy relationships because they don't want to be judged a loser, even though there's nothing triumphant about staying badly paired. Meanwhile, millions of individuals are in mutual love; the smart ones work to not take each other for granted, but others lose track of each other, despite sleeping in the same bed. Things unravel, and soon they're telling each other — finally! — what they really think of each other's parents. Messy business, this love.

So, we frequently turn to pop culture for solace and/or distraction regarding romantic love. We yearn to hear and see our point of view represented, to believe someone else has felt the way we feel. And if this person is astoundingly beautiful to boot, well, so much the better. This is where Estelle comes in. Most of pop culture is full of terrible advice, implicit and explicit, about love. By contrast, check out "Thank You," the first single from All of Me. Since its release last month, the soaring breakup ballad has engendered frenzied critical praise, and its video has racked up 640,000 YouTube views. 

In the face of heartbreak, Estelle is elegant and straightforward. When she sings, "Sometimes I wonder if you even care or realize why I took care of you" at the song's start, it's immediately clear she's devastated. But she concludes by saying that while she knows "these tears I cry sure won't be the last," her time with her ex is finished and she's thankful to him (hence the song's title) because now she knows what she doesn't want. It's a bold and realistic approach to a crushing goodbye — I'm not going to carry a torch forever, nor am I going to fuck the next eight guys I see. I'm going to cry, heal, and move on. Look at that — an R&B torch song that's actually emotionally healthy!

And in fact, All of Me is imbued with emotional health at each turn, starting with opener "Back to Love," which is as buoyant and catchy as "Thank You" is contemplative and sad. On "Back to Love," Estelle captures the ephemeral joy we feel when our love is returned, then has the insight to ask on the next track, the hip-hop-infused "Break My Heart," "You want me to trust you, but how can I trust you when I don't know the first thing about you?" And instead of rushing right in, as is the norm in nine-tenths of everything everywhere else, she actually pauses to think it through. How many times have we heard a teenage instruction to "follow your heart?" It's practically the first commandment of modern pop culture. But Estelle's All of Me proves sometimes the boldest moves are the most grown-up. And for that, we should thank her.

Litsa Dremousis' work appears in The Believer, Esquire, Huffington Post, Jezebel, McSweeney's, MSN Music, The A.V. Club, on NPR, and in sundry other venues. She is completing her first novel. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis. She archives her previously published work at http://theslipperyfish.blogspot.com/.

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