Love expert Mandy Len Catron on the 7 best Canadian love songs
"Love is really experienced like a whole set of emotions or like a range of emotions," Catron says
Mandy Len Catron never planned on becoming a "love expert." The quotations are hers, as she's not quite comfortable with that designation, and yet she knows that with all of the research she's done on the science of love, she's more qualified than many who eagerly boast that label.
Catron is the author of the viral 2015 New York Times essay, "To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This." She released her acclaimed book, How to Fall In Love With Anyone, last June, and writes "Mixed Feelings" for the Rumpus, a science-based advice column. Ahead of Valentine's Day, the writer and researcher was asked by CBC Music to choose the best Canadian love songs of all time.
On a cold Sunday morning in early February, we sat down with Catron to discuss her selection of the seven best love songs, talking about everything from sex and desire to masculinity and vulnerability, centering queer and racialized identities, and how nostalgia influences our affection.
How big a role have love songs played in your personal life?
Oh, huge! Some of these songs that I chose, I chose for very personal reasons. Not all of them, but Bryan Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do it For You" is the first song I slow-danced to at a birthday party when I was 10.
Your first slow dance was when you were 10? That's is very advanced.
Oh, I felt very sophisticated and so grown-up. [Laughs] Which is funny, because my first kiss wasn't until years later. I was behind on that.
What makes a successful love song?
So I was thinking about this in the shower this morning [and] this is my theory of love songs: some people call romantic love an emotion and I don't think that's actually a very good characterization of what love is, because when you think about any experience of love that you've had, it's not a single clear feeling. Love is really experienced like a whole set of emotions or like a range of emotions and it can be anything from lust to longing to desire to affection to heartbreak or rage. All of these things can be a part of love. This is kind of considered a controversial idea, but Helen Fisher, she's a biological anthropologist, she argues that love is a drive. Like the sex drive or the drive to eat. Love is an innate human impulse that most of us have, though there are probably exceptions to that, so a great love song is a song that captures some aspect of one of those feelings within a larger range of feelings.
Some people argue that love is a social construction. And other people argue that it's a biological impulse. I think the most convincing theory — and Carrie Jenkins writes about this in her book, What Love is and What it Can Be — basically it's a biological impulse that is channelled through our social world, so that social forces shape it but we are sort of born with this physiology that is designed for love. Even when I was a kid, and I wasn't dating, I understood what it meant to want someone's attention and I think that's a really basic thing. Lots of people would argue that our experiences of love as adults are really shaped by the caregiving that we receive as babies. So the first year of your life, your brain sort of fully develops, and one of the things you develop is your attachment style, and that's really determined by your caregivers, how secure you feel, how much nurturing you get. And so we reenact those patterns in our adult lives. So lots of psychologists think we're wired for love and all its various forms — romantic, maternal, friendship, all of those things — in the very beginning of our life. We have the wiring for love even before we necessarily experience it.
So your first pick is "(Everything I Do) I Do it For You" by Bryan Adams. It was also your first slow dance when you were 10 years old. What do you think about "Everything I Do" now? What makes it successful beyond that nostalgia factor?
To be perfectly honest, I don't know that any of us can separate our feelings about a song from the nostalgia factor. I also took piano lessons for one year. This was the only song that I could play. It's almost like — and this is probably why it works really well for Robin Hood — is that it captures this courtly love tradition and modernized it. But it's capturing this very traditional sense of romance, being these courtly knights performing for the hearts of their beloveds. The interesting thing about courtly love that I think is so compelling is that it's really about unrealized love. Longing. A desire to please and impress someone that you ultimately can never have. This song takes that concept and modernizes it.
Your next song, "Secret Heart" by Ron Sexsmith, a lot of people come to it through Feist's cover. But you've chosen the original.
I discovered it that way, too. And then I was like, "This version I like so much better." This song is very sweet. But this is one of those things where if you read the lyrics, it would be a very cheesy poem. It would be very Hallmark card, but when paired with the music and also his voice, which I just love, it feels so vulnerable. It's so great. This is really the power of music. It can transform a fairly sentimental lyric into something that feels sort of profound.
Absolutely. And, again, sort of what we see music do is it lets men be vulnerable.
Yes! That's such a good way to put it.
It's very appealing, and wonderful and non-toxic.
I think maybe that's part of why this version is my favourite. It feels so much more vulnerable than the other ones. Feist, she's really good at sweet, a kind of gentle, melodic, catchy tune, but this is more spare. And his voice is just like — yeah, I wonder if it is that male vulnerability that we just don't see much of.
And the imperfections in his voice, again, presenting a different kind of masculinity.
Yeah, like it's not Ed Sheeran, who has a beautiful voice but it's too polished.
Let's talk about your next choice, "Your Rocky Spine" by the Great Lake Swimmers.
I was really into this album in 2010. I saw them perform at the Canada House during the Olympics. There are a lot of things I like about this song. One is that it feels like a love song that exists on surface levels, like a sweet, charming song but then has this really — there's something quintessentially Canadian about this song. On some level that's intentional, maybe on every level, and it's really earnest. And I love that about it. Earnestness is this emotion that is really vulnerable and also a little bit ignorant of its vulnerability and it can be really off-putting for that reason. This is charmingly earnest and when I hear it, I just want to slow dance. In fact, I made Mark [Catron's partner] slow dance with me in our living room when I was doing this research. Tony Dekker's voice has a haunted quality and it pairs really beautifully with this folky treatment.
I was so happy to see "Constant Craving" by k.d. lang on your list.
One of the things about love is there is this state that pretty much everyone has experienced at some point in their life of just total yearning. Unrealized yearning, and maybe even yearning that will never be realized. And there's something really painful about that, but also something beautiful about it. The times in my life where I have really longed for connection, be that romantic or sexual or whatever, with another person that I couldn't have for whatever reason, I feel both a sense of disappointment but also a sense that I am participating in this basic human right. Something about that state of desire taps into this feeling of being very alive. Emotions are so high that you're like, "Oh, I was, like, built to feel this way," even though it's not necessarily sustainable.
There's something profoundly powerful about that queer longing as well, and challenging heteronormative norms.
It's a real assertion that this kind of desire is really meaningful.
Absolutely. And that it's not confined to heteronormative relationships. It belongs to all of us.
In some ways it is asserting that desire is something that exists across whatever sort of boundaries that we make around our sexuality. And yet at the same time, it feels like it is distinctively about queer desire. It can do both of those things. It's both a mainstream success and holds a special value within the queer community. And I love that it is able to do both of those things.
I think a lot of what happens when we talk about queer love is that we [straight people] are like, "Oh, LGBT people. They're just like us." Like when Brokeback Mountain came out, for example, there was this study and I always teach it, that compiled all the reviews of Brokeback Mountain and sort of looked for the similar tropes that were happening throughout. They identified a few basic things, but one of them was basically like, they call it "the gay cowboy movie." Even really positive reviews — and most of the reviews were positive — were "This is like any other love story." So they're really heteronormalizing it. They're really co-opting it and saying, like, "You know how love stories work? This is one of them, even though it's two men."
And the problem with co-opting these queer stories and saying like, "Oh, they have the same feelings as us heterosexual people" is it's trivializing those [stories]. It's not acknowledging the various social forces that complicate queer relationships. Part of the success of this song, when you think about it within this larger social context of when it came out, when she came out — what I remember is that when I heard it, when it was popular, I understood that it was a woman who was attracted to women singing about that attraction. It never felt co-opted to me. It felt like it was a queer love song and it was still popular.
I was also very excited when I saw Dan Hill's "Sometimes When we Touch" on your list. I talk about the power of this song all the time.
My mother was a big Rod Stewart fan and he does a cover of this song, which is the first time I heard it. And I had never listened closely to the lyrics. When I did, I was like, "Wow, this song is not what I thought it was. It's so interesting!" On a superficial level, it feels like your classic torch song. Just like, "Here I am, feeling my feelings very publicly."
And like what you said before, that sentimentality. It's so earnest, maybe it's off-putting.
This one actually is off-putting, but he really leans into it. [Laughs] This one is so superior [to the Rod Stewart cover]. I mean, it's [Dan Hill's] song. If you just listen to the chorus — probably everybody knows the chorus whether you want to know it or not — it exists in the cultural consciousness. The chorus is earnest to the point of being painful. However, when you read the verses, [it's] so much more complicated than that, like he's getting into some complicated feelings. This is a guy who is really uncomfortable with the demands of vulnerability and being really straightforward about that, and being really open about that in a way that I think we almost never are. And that's why I love it. It's really a song about the ugly side of love. Yeah, that we're supposed to hide and he just doesn't hide it. He's like, "Yeah, let me show you."
And he rejects so many different things that he is supposed to carry as a man of colour, particularly as men of colour in Canada in the '70s. All of these different racist stereotypes that are heaped upon him, and he is doing everything in his power to present masculinity in a different way.
"You asked me if I love you/ and I choke on my reply/ I'd rather hurt you honestly/ than mislead you with a lie." There's so much integrity in that, but it's also not cool.
This is not really a love song on so many levels. But his character has a lot of love for the person because he actually respects them and he wants to have this dialogue that is uncomfortable. Can you imagine this song nowadays? It would just be ghosting.
Yeah, it's not a love song in the conventional sense of the word. It's really a man grappling with the social expectations of love and really rejecting them. It's amazing. When I read the lyrics to this I was sort of shocked because you think, "Oh, this is a guy with his heart on his sleeve." But actually, no, this is a guy with some really complicated feelings and he's laying them out for you. And in ways that are not going to make you feel good about your relationship. [Laughs]
Let's talk about "Earned It" by the Weeknd.
OK. I just want to start out by saying the feminist in me has so many objections to this song, which feels important to say. However, I also love it. I wanted to include a song that I felt was just purely sexy. There is something in his voice that I love. There's something in the music itself, the rhythm of the song combined with his beautiful falsetto is totally hot. I don't know if I can articulate musically what's going on there. I mean, on some level songs that feel very sexy, there's something transgressive about them. And this song is transgressive, and not merely because it's on the 50 Shades of Greysoundtrack.
[Laughs] It's my understanding that the movie is the least sexy thing.
Yeah, I haven't seen it and I tried to read the books and failed. I felt that as a "love expert" I should have but it couldn't sustain my interest. I know a lot more about love than I know about sex from a research perspective. But there's something about being transgressive, about going against our better sensibilities that makes it hot and that's what this does.
And finally, Céline Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."
Now if this comes on the radio, I will turn it off, because if I hear the song, I will hear it for weeks. It'll get caught in my brain and my psyche. When I was 17, over the course of a week I think I saw Titanic in the theatre like four or five times. There was something about that movie and also the song that really spoke to a very safe and overly romanticized notion of love. This very sanitized, idealistic way in which it crossed these class barriers, which we know never happens, really spoke to a lot of people and I was one of them. Céline Dion is a total queen, and she needs recognition for that. I read online that she recorded this in one take — she went in, she sang it and she left because that's what queens do.
That pennywhistle is so perfect and so ridiculous.
It's so ridiculous!
I feel like it's supposed to connect to Jack's allegedly Irish heritage.
I'd never thought about that! I mean the thing is this movie is so beautiful. These people are so beautiful. Like it's such a spectacle and the song captures everything that the movie captured but just in, like, a micro version.
It's fascinating how she starts off in almost a whisper, a little girl voice really, and then she gets bigger and bigger. She knows how to build.
This is a world we all want to believe existed, this extreme beauty and luxury of Atlantic travel and then the tragedy of this perfect fantasy world — it's very compelling. The lyrics are ridiculous but it doesn't matter. She carries it ... I think maybe no one else could sing this song. I don't think anyone ever should.