“Love songs have been a majority of all songs ever written” and “Love in music has been expressed in all cultures and among all gender, race, and age groups” are claims made by social scientists who study this sort of thing. I suspect no-one reading this will be surprised by these statements or find them difficult to believe, but I think it’s a pity that we have elevated romantic love to such a privileged position in popular culture that we neglect other forms of love, particularly friendship.
There are lots of genuinely wonderful love songs and I imagine most people have heard at least one which they believe summed up their feelings at the time. Surely every teenager, at least in the west, goes through a rite of passage where they repeatedly listen to a particular love song which they feel perfectly captures exactly how they feel? Sadly, I don’t think the same can be said of friendship.
In my (admittedly limited) research, I’ve found a number of pop songs about friendship, but have been largely unimpressed with the quality of lyrics (and indeed music) on offer to express what I think is the true wonderfulness of this incredibly enriching and important aspect of our lives. The fact is, you’d be hard-pushed to compile a double-album’s worth of decent tracks about friendship.
I’ve been thinking about this since taking part in a fundraising event for the British Humanist Association’s choir where people gave short talks and the choir sung songs on a range of themes including Birth, Love, Hope, and Death. They chose Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water for the theme I was asked to talk about, Friendship:
When you’re weary
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I’m on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
It’s a beautiful song and deservedly one that is loved by many. However, the song is rather melancholy, being about friendship in times of trouble, and most of its lyrics could pass for those of love song, a lot like that other classic, You’ve Got a Friend by Carole King:
When you’re down and troubled
and you need a helping hand
and nothing, whoa nothing is going right.
Close your eyes and think of me
and soon I will be there
to brighten up even your darkest nights.
You just call out my name,
and you know wherever I am
I’ll come running, oh yeah baby
to see you again.
As part of my talk at the BHA Choir event, I played the audience a song called Yeh Dosti (“This Friendship”), my favourite of the musical numbers from the greatest of all Bollywood movies, Sholay. This is the most joyous song about friendship I know – it’s got a catchy, upbeat tune and wonderful lyrics about living and dying together in an unbreakable friendship that I’d bet half of India could sing to you even today, more than 30 years after the film’s release. Sadly, it’s brilliance is somewhat lost in translation and I can’t help feeling that those of you who can’t understand Hindi are missing out on a real gem of a song. Unlike many of its western counterparts, there’s no mistaking this for a love song – it’s an out and out celebration of what I think is the greatest bromance ever committed to film.
It’s not just songs; most movies, in fact most of the stories we tell in any format (except perhaps computer games), are centred around romantic love, even when purporting to be about other things. It seems to me that popular culture is bereft of decent expressions of the significance and benefits of friendship. Instead, we over-emphasise romantic love in our artistic endeavours, and, in my opinion, our culture is poorer for it.
Films about everything from cars which transform into robots to superheroes from outer space have romantic subplots shoehorned into them to cater for what I imagine the writers think are audiences’ expectations. It’s as if the people who make songs, movies, soap operas, adverts ,and so on, believe these things are incomplete, or irrelevant, without romantic love being a key element. This is an insidious idea, because it can make us feel our own lives are incomplete without romantic love, that our stories are somehow inferior or inadequate without a central romance to provide ultimate meaning.
The idealised depiction of romantic love in most popular culture can give us unrealistic expectations of what it actually entails in the real world – how many of us grow up with the notion of “The One”, only to be bitterly disillusioned by the end of our first romantic relationship? How many people go through life feeling that the one thing that would make everything better is a romantic partner, only to find that this is not true? When I made this argument at the BHA event, quite a number of people clapped – the first time a round of applause has made me sad.
It’s easy to wax lyrical about romantic love – we have a wealth of cultural references to it to draw from; it truly is one of the things that can bring the greatest happiness, meaning and purpose to our lives. But romantic love can be hard to come by and we should be grateful for the fact that, for most of us, friendship is on offer far more widely. I hope no-one reading this longs for friendship in the way that so many of us spend so much time and energy longing for romantic love.
As you’ve probably gathered from reading this, I haven’t had the kind of success in romantic relationships I might have hoped for as a teenager. I’m spelling that out for you so that you don’t feel I’m showing off when I write this next sentence: I’ve had more than my fair share of deep, meaningful, transformative friendships. My best romantic relationships have been with people who have been, and continue to be, my friends. If I believed in God, I would thank her for blessing me with so many friends, for they have saved me in my darkest hours and heightened my joy in my happiest times. My friends are the people who occupy the most special places in my life and in my heart, they are the people with whom my soul resonates at a fundamental level and they are, at their best, indistinguishable from my family.
I’ll end with a thought I’ve often raised in the past year or so as I’ve spoken about why I’m a Humanist: the things religious believers look for in God, the things some of them think they find in God – meaning, purpose, comfort, love – are things we can all find, for real, in each other, in our fellow human beings, in our friends.