At some point in my childhood, just before my teens, I was struck by the fact that almost all of the songs that I was hearing on the radio, half-consciously humming along to or committing to memory were about love.
Different shades of love, yes, and different stages of it: the heat and hunger of its infancy, the expansive warmth of its maturity, the bleeding pain when all that’s left of it is shards. But love nonetheless.
Starland Vocal Band mulled the naughty pleasures of an “Afternoon Delight.” Daryl Hall pined for the sweet validation of a sweetheart’s gesture in “Sara Smile.” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” Elton John implored Kiki Dee, and back then he hadn’t informed the world, or fully accepted, that the people most likely to hold that kind of power over him didn’t have names like Kiki.
Those were all huge hits in 1976, which is when I turned 12. And the No. 1 single that year?
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“Silly Love Songs,” which Paul McCartney thought that “people would have had enough of.” No way, because there’s nothing silly about love, and when it comes to music, love is almost all there is.
When it comes to life, too.
On Tuesday love went to the Supreme Court, where the lawyers and the justices spoke of “equal participation” and “equal protection,” of “due process” and “animus,” of the Constitution and states’ rights.
There were legal terms and points of reference aplenty. It’s easy to become lost in them, and just as easy to follow the leads of journalists who are framing the proceedings as a high drama starring enigmatic actors: Justice Anthony Kennedy with his swing vote, Chief Justice John Roberts with his sensitivity to the court’s legacy.
More than a legal question
But it’s important to step back and remember what this is really about: the most exquisite emotion that any of us can have, the most exalted bond, and whether we’re content to tell one group of Americans that their love is less dignified – and less worthy of celebration – than another group’s.
There’s no alternate message for gays and lesbians to read into prohibitions against same-sex marriage, because our society, like so many others, decided long ago that marriage was the most formal recognition of love, the ultimate blessing bestowed on it.
For many years now the tireless, dauntless advocates who blazed the trail to Tuesday have eloquently detailed the practical reasons for legalizing same-sex marriage, the measurable rights that it establishes or ensures.
It eliminates anxieties and injustices regarding hospital visits, medical decisions, estates, Social Security benefits, child custody, child care, immigration and more. It’s the best way to replace limbo with stability, freeing good people to get on with the rest of their lives.
But the expansion of marriage to include gays and lesbians does something even broader and deeper than that. It alters the very soundtrack of our existences, removing a refrain of disapproval, however minor, however muted.
Shame intruded on melodies
I long detected that refrain in all of those silly love songs, which dominated the pop charts of my youth and dominate the pop charts now, because they traced a landscape that I would almost certainly have to tiptoe across, that was only partly hospitable to the likes of me.
So while they filled me with longing, as they were meant to, they also filled me with an unintended sadness. With envy, too, because I knew that for other people – straight people – worry and shame didn’t intrude on the melodies.
So much has changed. One of the most widely played love songs of last year, “Stay With Me,” is performed by Sam Smith, whose fans are fully aware that he’s gay. They’re aware, too, that the “one-night stand” that he mentions in the opening line is with another man.
At a music festival later this year, he’s scheduled to appear with Elton John, now out of the closet, now knighted and now with kids and a husband, whom he married under British law, which allows it.
U.S. law remains a patchwork: equality in this state, inequality in that one. That’s where the Supreme Court comes in.
Love, humanity are entwined
It can endorse inconsistency. Or the justices can do what’s right and what’s necessary, acknowledging that there’s no way to divorce a person’s way of loving from his or her humanity – that they’re entwined, like verse and chorus, and to treat one as inferior is to treat both that way.
We’ll probably get a ruling in June.
And with any luck, that judgment will turn all the love songs of yesterday, today and tomorrow into universal anthems that make the same promise to every listener, no matter the object of his or her affection.