What might we glean about modern love by looking back at America’s favorite love songs? We decided to find out.
Popular music has always reflected the times in which we live. War, equality, depression; we can trace the evolution of America through some of its greatest songs. Marvin Gaye captured a generation’s frustration with Vietnam on “What’s Going On;” Aretha Franklin said what was on every woman's mind in “Respect;” and Nirvana made the establishment take kids seriously with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Equally so, our love songs — or, more specifically, our songs about searching for love, falling in love, and making love — have reflected the state of American relationships. So what might we glean about modern love by looking back at America’s favorite love songs?
We decided to find out. We combed over 100 years of Billboard Top 40 hits for songs with “love”—or any variation on love: loving, loved, luv—in the title. While this obviously doesn’t cover every love song ever written, we hope it represents a solid sampling of popular love songs over time.
As expected, the results revealed some interesting tidbits about the evolution of the love song and the unique influence they have and will continue to play in our lives.
The Decade of Love
The 1960s really were all about the love, especially when it came to its music. Not only did 1964 see 84 songs with “love” in the title make the Billboard charts, but 1967 — often thought of as the “Summer of Love” — featured the most chart toppers with “love” in the title. That was the year of “All You Need is Love” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher.” High points in a decade that was pretty much the greatest musical love fest of the 20th Century.
War and Depression Doesn’t Inspire Much Love
In times of trouble, musicians don’t tend to write many love songs. There were visible dips in the number of love songs written following major American conflicts, including both World Wars, 9/11, and even the 1929 economic crisis. The two lowest points for love songs came at the height of American wars abroad: in 1942 and 2005.
Love and Politics Do Go Together
Obama sold us on change we can believe in. He also changed the nation’s mood, reflected by a visible bump in the popularity of love songs after the 2008 election. (Taylor Swift's “Love Story” anyone?) But not all political milestones left the country in a good place. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the music of love died a little, too.
Music Helps Make a Baby
Put the timeline of popular love songs next to a timeline of American births and you’ll notice both graphs have one major peak in common: the early 1960s. Now there is no way to tell whether or not couples were inspired to get busy by Elvis Presley or The Beatles, but we can’t help think they played some part in creating the Baby Boomer generations. Especially when the same correlation can be made for the inverse: 1973 and 1999 saw very few love songs and as very few babies.
Contemporary Music Isn’t So Concerned With Love
In the time since rock ’n’ roll went mainstream the decade with the least number of love songs appears to be the ‘00s. While the 1940s only saw 170 songs with “love” on the charts, the 2000s had a measly 160. Either 9/11 didn’t have Americans feeling particularly lovey-dovey or millennials aren’t very interested in romance anymore.
Crooners Steal Our Hearts
Of all the artists to ever sing a love song, the ones that charted most often were your mom’s (or grandmother’s) ol' heartthrobs. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby (both with 21 songs), Perry Cuomo (17), Paul Anka (14), and Elvis Presley (15) were most ubiquitous when it came to the charts. But more surprising were their elders; 1920s and 1930s big band leaders like Guy Lombardo and Paul Whiteman (17 and 16) also found considerable chart success when it came to love songs.
So where are all the more modern artists? Well, The Beatles made a solid showing with 10. And R&B sirens like Donna Summer (10) and Diana Ross (10) helped define the era of disco love. (Though, if you count Ross’ time with the The Supremes she has a whopping 20 love songs on the charts coming close to Sinatra’s record.)
But we don’t expect these numbers to hold for long. Modern artists like Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake still have a long career ahead of them and we have no doubt their love numbers will improve by the end of it.
We Love Rock ‘n’ Roll
It seems Rock loves love songs the most. Of all the genres of popular music that have graced the Billboard Top 40 charts over the last century, Rock charted the most love songs by a wide margin. The 1980s were a particularly good decade for love rock: Robert Palmer’s ”Addicted to Love,” Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is,” and Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” all went to number 1.
Otherwise, American standards from the big bands and crooners made a solid showing. A look at the charts since 1980s shows a good amount of love songs from country artists. (In fact the “love” song that lasted the longest on the charts was Faith Hill’s “The Way You Love Me.”) Even more surprising in that time? Rap songs managed to out chart R&B when it came to tracks with “love” in the title, 46 to 43. (Note: Not all the songs were classified under a specific genre.)
Just A Simple “I Love You” Is Fine
Of all the possible ways one could include “love” in the title of your song — like “I Love My Wife, But Oh You Kid!”, “I'm N Luv (Wit A Stripper)”, and “One-Zy, Two-Zy (I Love You-Zy)” — the most popular is maybe the most obvious. Songs titled “I Love You” (17) reigned supreme — even Vanilla Ice wrote one — with other popular choices being the equally simple “Love Me” (13) or “My Love” (10).