June 5, 2012

Songs about friends who'll be there for you

One of the not-so-noticeable, yet still substantial changes in our culture has been the disappearance of songs about friendship as active social support. It's not so palpable because in any time period friendship not a highly common theme.

Still, the cocooning times of roughly the past 20-25 years has seen a rise in the more avoidant attachment styles in our relationships with others, and that means far fewer people who feel comfortable reaching out to others, or even feel comfortable having someone else reach out to them. That's what I mean by "active" social support.

Instead, we've replaced that with hypothetical and at-a-distance support -- I'll support your right to do whatever, as long as you support mine. Let me wreck my life, and I'll let you wreck yours. The most I'll do is help you in the area of self-esteem and self-empowerment, i.e., help you get along without having to make contact with or rely on other people. Isolation is the most important value. No one can cocoon so deeply and for so long, however, without feeling down -- they realize that being cut off from others doesn't bode well for their survival.

So they periodically need reassurance -- still at a distance -- that You Are Not Alone, and that they aren't total losers. The whole "you are not alone" message is a powerful sign of how fragmented our communities are. If they were cohesive, even those in the minority would know they weren't alone -- they'd know first-hand from associating with others like them. It's only when everyone burrows into their own little cell within the hive that a good number of them could sensibly think, "Am I the only one who...?"

The song that best sums up the socially avoidant way of reassuring others is "Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera from 2002. Others that exemplify the zeitgeist include "We R Who We R" by Kesha, "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga, "Firework" by Katy Perry, and "Fuckin' Perfect" by Pink. It is true, but also a red herring, to note that they are gay anthems, since gays do not consume enough music to be driving these songs to the top of the charts and make them sell like crazy. It's the mainstream of society that feels so isolated and insecure, yet afraid of reaching out to anyone, that's made these songs iconic of our age. The basic message is: feel better about yourself, and don't rely on others to help you through anything -- you're awesome enough to feel awesome all by yourself.

The previous cocooning period was the mid-century, roughly the mid-'30s through the late '50s. They felt alienated, isolated, and reluctant to reach out to others, as shown in Edward Hopper paintings and film noir movies. Still, I don't know whether they were as neurotic as we are today, needing pop songs to tell them it was fine to be on your own and pat yourself on the back. Then again, I don't have enough songs in my head from that period to say for sure. But I also don't see many songs about friends having each other's back. If you want to take a look, try the weekly #1 hits back to 1940, or the Year-End hits back to 1951 (list of years is at the bottom). This list has year-end hits back to 1946, but without links to their Wikipedia entries.

Like it or not, there's no better motivation to seek out more friends, and establish closer bonds with them, than a rising violence rate. It provides a rude awakening to people who think they'll just sail through life with as little help from others as possible. That means we'll see songs about actively supportive friends gradually rise from the '60s through the '80s. I've grouped some of the more popular songs in this genre into three categories below.

First, those where the friend is a romantic partner, usually a current one but perhaps one whose status is unknown. The important thing is that a strong enough romantic involvement can provide you with actively supportive friends even when the relationship ends. The first major examples of friend songs that I know of are of this type, suggesting that during a rising-crime period, people first look to their spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend to pull double-duty as their primary confidante and support system. These are "Reach Out I'll Be There" by the Four Tops (1966) and "I'll Be There" by the Jackson 5 (1970).

By the '80s there were quite a handful of this type, such as "That's What Friends Are For" by Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John, and "Livin' on a Prayer" and "I'll Be There for You" by Bon Jovi. Even a yet-to-be relationship was approached as a source of support, and not only of physical pleasure, as heard in Bruce Springsteen's hit song "Dancing in the Dark". Right at the end of the rising-crime period, Gin Blossoms released the last enjoyable song of this type, 1992's "Hey Jealousy".

The most direct expression of this type, though, and thus perhaps the most memorable, is "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper.

The next major type involves anyone else outside of a romantic relationship. Hopefully the first song that came to mind when you read the title of this post was not the overly sentimental "Wind Beneath My Wings" by Bette Midler, but the prime example, a relatively early song (from 1972), "Lean on Me" by Bill Withers.

From the '80s heyday, there was "Catch My Fall" by Billy Idol, showing that even rebel rockers were looking for others to be there for them, not just cruise along as a lone wolf. In "Waiting on a Friend," the Rolling Stones reminded the fellow skirt-chasers among their fan base that you also have to leave time for social support, although without the "bros before ho's" attitude that only sprung up during the war between the sexes that began circa 1990. "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" by Gary Portnoy provided the theme song to the hit TV show Cheers, where social networks were wide enough to encompass people beyond family members and romantic partners. It's that category that's shrunken the most from our social lives in cocooning times.

Unique among friendship songs, as far as I know, is one where the speaker's voice is of a small child reaching out to unrelated grown-ups -- "Luka" by Suzanne Vega. A kid opens up to another adult in his apartment building about how his parents knock him around, and not even in an overblown emo way; it's sounds pretty natural. "Runaway Train" by Soul Asylum also treated the theme of troubled young people reaching out to others, as late as 1992.

Finally, there are a couple songs where the speaker searches for companionship and protection, going through something greater than a circle of specific individuals. This isn't cocooning away from people, but extending the search for support to less tangible agents of protection. Steve Winwood looked toward the supernatural in "Higher Love," while Red Hot Chili Peppers turned to the built and natural environment of L.A. in "Under the Bridge".

After this, the transition toward hermetic living had gone into full swing. Two songs worth noting from this gear-shifting period are "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips and "What About Your Friends" by TLC. The first song, from 1990, doesn't offer active support to the down-and-out, and like more recent songs suggests that they turn things around through self-esteem. However, it still had one foot in the earlier time, so that the speaker tells the troubled person that they may have screwed up their own life, and to take responsibility for that. This must have prevented it from achieving gay anthem status -- omg, like, totally blaming the victim!

The second song, from 1992, already signals the breaking-apart of trust in the wider society. The message is that you can never be too sure of who your real friends are. Yeah, no shit. Devoting an entire song to that can only mean that you need to be far more cautious than you already have been, i.e. stop trusting others so generously. No part of that song celebrates having friends to support you, and being there to support them.

For many people in our cocooning age, this major source of meaning in our lives has gone up in a puff of smoke. Not just our own felt security in tight social networks, but also the feeling that others depend on us, and hence that it matters whether or not we're here. Everywhere the culture is pervaded by Look But Don't Touch. Instead of having someone be there to help you through your problems, they're only willing to say you're already a rockstar so don't change. Anyone who isn't a raging narcissist knows that that's bullshit, so they're left with no real support.

And ditto for when they would be in the supporting role -- so few people want to be helped anymore, since that would breach their isolation chamber on a regular basis. Rather, they only want you to do what they would do to you in the same situation -- tell them they're already a perfect person, let the haters hate, You Are Not Alone, bla bla bla, and you'll feel all better. These days a truly caring person can't pass judgement, an often necessary part of helping others out, but can only become frustrated by having to mouth the standard load of crap.

On the bright side, a people person today still can find a small like-minded minority, not to mention the store of songs that still resonate with normal folks in their time of need. And then cocooning periods never last forever, so we'll see a reversal probably within a single generation.


  1. you really are an amazing observer.and have a good taste in music too.

  2. Very interesting.

    Once again, I want to emphasize the lack of assortative mating amongst the Millenials. Assortative mating - where people pair up according to physical attractiveness, and sometimes other factors - tends to create strong community bonds.

    What we have now is a nightmare. Women are largely locked up, and pressured to have sex with assymetrical men. Which they refuse to do.

  3. 90s hardcore was full of songs about sticking up for your friends. Listen to Floorpunch.


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