Love songs tap into feelings that sometimes we forget are even there—until we hear it.
From ancient Egyptians to Taylor Swift, people have been writing love songs for centuries.
One of the earliest songs on record was found in a 4,300-year-old Egyptian tomb. Though most of the lyrics have yet to be translated, an inscription read: “I love and admire your beauty. I am under it.” Over 4,000 years ago, a pharaoh felt the need to immortalize his loved one in song just before his death. That rivals John Cusack and his boom box for most romantic moment in musical history.
And though tastes in music have evolved drastically since that time, one unifying theme remains: love.
With all other aspects of music constantly changing, what makes love songs so enduring? According to Grammy Award-winning songwriter/producer Shannon Sanders, “True love is not as common to come by as people might think. Love songs connect with us because the experience is so rare, really. When you’re listening to a really good one, it’s like a glimpse or snapshot of what you want or wish to have someday … Love songs tap into feelings that sometimes we forget are even there—until we hear it.”
Love songs tap into a primal, emotional part of everyone. Many of the most cherished love songs of all time weren’t just inspired by the overwhelming feeling of devotion, but by one specific person. From the gorgeously poetic “In Your Eyes” to the burning heartbreak of “Don’t Speak,” songs inspired by real life, love, and loss have topped the charts for decades. Here, we’ll tell you more about the people behind the songs and what makes chansons d’amour so everlasting.
Rosanna Arquette has a lot to be famous for. Not only is she related to Patricia and David Arquette, but the star of After Hours has a notable acting career of her own. But she may be remembered most for the songs she inspired.
After years of denial, David Paich of the band Toto admitted their hit song “Rosanna” was written for Rosanna Arquette. Paich said he was working on the song when Arquette walked into the studio. “She was cuter than ever and I had a crush on her, and as she walked out I just finished the line with ‘Rosanna.’”
Since Arquette was dating Toto band member Steve Porcaro at the time, the lyrics for “Rosanna” were the closest Paich ever got to proclaiming his affections.
But Arquette’s work as a love song muse didn’t stop there. It’s rumored that Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” was written for Arquette, who he was dating at the time. Though Gabriel has never confirmed this, Cameron Crowe confirmed that Arquette was a major part of getting the song into one of the most romantic scenes in movie history. Crowe desperately wanted the song for Say Anything and initially Gabriel wasn’t interested. But Arquette put in a good word for Crowe, Gabriel saw the film, and now the song will forever be remembered as one of the greatest love songs of all time.
Nowadays, Phil Collins is known for poppy hits and semi-sappy songs. Though he’s an immense talent and his work is incredibly popular, most don’t associate him with songs about deep emotion. Yet, “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” remains one of the most heartbreaking songs in pop music history.
Collins’ five-year marriage to first wife Andrea Bertorelli came to an end, leaving him all alone without his wife or children. From this place of pain, he wrote “Against All Odds.” Collins later told This American Life that he hoped the song could bring them back together. “When she hears this, it’s all going to be OK,” he hoped.
Though they didn’t reconcile, Collins admitted he never could have written that song or the subsequent album without going through the horrible torment of heartbreak.
Sanders agrees that such anguish can make the greatest music. She says, “If you’ve suffered in a love experience, a really good love song makes you feel like someone can relate to what you’ve been through or are going through. That’s why a good love song defies genres. If the words are there, it will be felt.”
Collins’ words still resonate today by articulating the truth of such a painful yet relatable situation.
Pattie Boyd could practically fill a two-disc set with songs written about her. The model and photographer was married to George Harrison of the Beatles, inspiring the lovely song “Something.” But being the muse for one classic love song wasn’t enough. Boyd had many more to come.
While she was married to Harrison, Eric Clapton fell in love with her. This wasn’t just a crush or a fleeting attraction; Clapton was nearly driven mad when Boyd didn’t immediately return his affections. He wrote “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight” for her, but it still wasn’t enough to drive her away from Harrison.
In a letter to Boyd, Clapton wrote, “I would sacrifice my family, my god, and my own existence, and still you will not move. I am at the end of my mind…If you want me, take me, I am yours…If you don’t want me, please break the spell that binds me.”
Later, Boyd left Harrison for Clapton, but not before a short affair with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. Wood and Harrison had a “rock star wife swap,” of sorts, but the brief fling resulted in two more songs dedicated to Boyd: “Mystifies Me” and “Breathe on Me.”
“Brown Sugar” caused controversy when it first came out due to its discussion of an interracial relationship. But the song was inspired by a real woman in Mick Jagger’s life, Marsha Hunt.
A University of California, Berkeley, graduate, Hunt moved to London in 1966 to pursue an acting and singing career. She gained notoriety in the West End production of Hair and later appeared nude in Vogue. Her interracial relationship with Jagger was kept a secret for years, despite the fact they had a child together. Jagger often wrote her love letters, and during this time he penned the lyrics to “Brown Sugar.”
Sadly, the relationship didn’t last, and Hunt was left with little to show for her time with the famous singer and her contribution to his music. In 2012, she sold several secret letters from Jagger in an effort to pay her bills. It’s an unfortunate example of a love song far outlasting the love itself.
Paul and Linda McCartney were married in 1969 and stayed together until her untimely death in 1998. During their time together, Paul wrote many songs about his beloved wife. Their initial courtship was captured in “Two of Us” while the depth of their connection was expressed in “Maybe I’m Amazed.”
McCartney’s large body of work around Linda shows that love songs, even all about one person, can still express a wide range of feeling. “Long-Haired Lady” takes us back to McCartney’s first feelings and impressions of his future wife. “My Love” has incredibly simple lyrics, but you feel his passion in every word.
Music is such a perfect vessel to express love, that it can sustain an array of songs about one person in one relationship. Though the couple may have stayed the same, their love continued to grow and change, so the songs did, too.
Christie Brinkley is a world-famous supermodel who surprised many by marrying Billy Joel in 1985. Joel sums up their seemingly mismatched pairing in his hit song “Uptown Girl.”
Though this song seems clearly inspired by his real life, Joel explained that the backstory of “Uptown Girl” was far more complicated.
The song started as a piece of classical music. Inspired by the works of Beethoven, the original “Uptown Girl” had a flowery, operatic feel. But as he began to hang around Brinkley and her “uptown” friends, it seemed like the perfect scenario for a song. So, he married his classical piece with his story about Brinkley’s high society life, added in a pinch of Frankie Valli, and got “Uptown Girl.”
The unexpected story behind such a simple, catchy song proves that capturing a recognizable feeling takes a lot more work than just putting pen to paper. Though many of us will never date models or be famous singers from Long Island, somehow we can all recognize ourselves in the story of “Uptown Girl.” Sometimes it takes unexpected sources to make the greatest hits.
Guns N’ Roses wasn’t known for soaring love ballads before “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
Lead singer Axl Rose was dating Erin Everly and struggling to write a poem about his love for her. One day, guitarist Slash started playing a cyclical riff. He didn’t think much of it. Rose, on the other hand, loved the sound and his poem for Erin immediately sprung to mind. Once “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was complete, the band thought it was much too sappy, but Rose insisted the song could be a hit.
The song rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and maintained its position for 24 weeks. Before, the band was seen as overly aggressive and non-commercial. But this heartfelt ballad gave them a whole new audience.
Though many rock groups of the ’80s tried their hands at love ballads (“Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “When I See You Smile”), none hold up like “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Rose’s devotion to Everly shines through the song, from the poetic lyrics to the passionate vocals. The song didn’t come off as cheesy because it felt real.
Diane Warren may not be a household name, but she’s responsible for writing some of the biggest love songs in pop history. From “If I Could Turn Back Time” to “How Do I Live,” Warren has created an empire by writing incredibly emotional music. Yet she claims she’s never been in love.
Warren told Marie Claire that though she doesn’t plan on getting married and though she’s never felt real love, that doesn’t stop her from creating iconic, passionate music. Since she doesn’t have a particular muse, Warren finds inspiration everywhere.
For example, Aerosmith’s soaring ballad “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” is technically about Barbra Streisand. Warren saw an interview with James Brolin where he spoke about his new love, Streisand. His words inspired Warren’s lyrics, so in the end we got Steven Tyler singing a love song about Barbra Streisand.
Warren’s work proves that love is so universal, you don’t even have to experience it yourself to write truthfully about it. As music industry vet and owner of Venn Arts Music Supervision Jonathan Hecht says, “Love is a feeling that encompasses so many feelings that anyone from any time and in any place can relate to it.”
Though one may have never experienced a romantic love, we’ve all felt deep love at some point in our lives. Because the emotion is so vast and relatable, it’s no wonder songwriters continued to be drawn to the topic year after year.
David Wolff was Cyndi Lauper’s manager and boyfriend early in her career. Being involved in the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE), he introduced the idea of using manager Captain Lou Albano and other wrestling personalities in Lauper’s video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Wolff himself was featured in her “She Bop” and “Time After Time” videos.
In fact, “Time After Time” is mostly about their relationship.
Lauper explained that the lyrics for “Time After Time” combined lots of little memories from their life together. The lyrics “Lying in bed I hear the clock tick and think of you” weren’t randomly chosen. Lauper described a whole story about an insanely loud clock that Wolff once gave her. Though we only hear a tiny mention of the clock in the song, we can feel the history behind it.
It’s what makes the song so emotional and moving. Songwriter Sanders agrees, “Many songs are more like ‘quilts’—they are different memories of different people pieced together into a song.”
“Time After Time” may not be solely about Wolff, but their time together greatly influenced the song, making it more specific and real.
We may only know Gwen Stefani as a superstar singer today because Tony Kanal broke up with her in 1994. (Well, apart from her incredible talent that she had regardless of a man.)
Stefani and Kanal were both members of No Doubt, and Stefani was desperately in love. Her main goals in life were to marry Kanal, have babies, and live as a happy family, but that dream was shattered when Kanal broke off their relationship.
Her swell of pain inspired her to start writing songs, something she’d never thought she could do. Stefani told The Guardian:
“Before, I was really passive, all I cared about was being in love with my boyfriend. I didn’t have any creative power, nothing…But after the breakup I just started writing all these songs and suddenly I was: ‘Oh I think I’m really good at this!'”
Those songs came to fill most of their next album Tragic Kingdom, which turned the band into a pop sensation. “Don’t Speak,” a song directly about the Stefani/Kanal breakup, was an instant success, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Top Airplay Chart. Although Stefani and Kanal were no longer together, they were still bandmates who had to spend every night relieving their breakup through song.
Though Stefani was devastated at the time of her breakup, she put that gut-wrenching emotion into her music. Everyone can feel her hurt in “Don’t Speak” and we instantly relate to that sense of loss. Today, Stefani is a major pop sensation and it wouldn’t have happened without that heartache.