Holding on my heart like a hand grenade
Pop Punk and relationship angst
Anguished. Devastated. Love-sick. Most of us have been there- knotted stomach, existential turmoil, and just good old-fashioned heartbreak. The pain of romantic love and loss is such a universal experience, we would pretty much have no arts or media without it. Think of all the songs, symphonies, books, and paintings that would never have come into existence if no one had ever been dumped, rejected, or scorned? We’d have no country music for a start. Adele would be unknown. Works of art such as Rodin’s The Kiss and Frida Kahlo’s The Deer would not have come into being.
Love is not a topic that you would readily associate with punk but there have always been punk songs about love and relationships, ever since its inception. The Ramones had some pretty soppy love songs in their repertoire (some covers)- Baby I Love you, Needles and Pins, I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, I Need Your Love. The Buzzcocks smash Ever Fallen In Love? captures the regret of giving your heart over to someone who couldn’t care less. Even The Clash had Train In Vain, 1-2 Crush On You and their cover of Every Little Bit Hurts.
But it was really the pop punk explosion of the 90s and 2000s that saw a wave of bands- mainly young men- seemingly preoccupied with their tales of dating, crushes, sex, and relationships, heralding a new era of songs that dealt with matters of the heart.
And although punk has a reputation for loud, powerful, fast songs about bringing down the political systems of oppression, there are also plenty of songs about the universal experience of relationships. And the pop punk subgenre- all young men with raging hormones- has pretty much cornered the market. You need a song about how you’ve: been dumped/are in love/was in love but aren’t anymore/been cheated on/wanna get married/can’t live without someone (delete as applicable)- pop punk has you covered.
And as heartbreak has been around since, well…hearts, then it comes as no surprise that history’s philosophers and thinkers have been putting their two pence in over thousands of years of thought.
Why does philosophy concern itself with love and all that? Surely they should be contemplating the nature of existence or something?
Well, that’s just it- love and heartbreak are such an integral part of the human experience, how could they not address it?
The ancient Greeks spent quite a lot of time thinking about it actually. Plato was a bit of a romantic it turns out and put forward the notion that love is a series of elevations that starts out as desire or lust, then can progress to a more intellectual concept, and then can transcend even after that to a spiritual/theological experience. They even had different words for these different stages or types of love. Eros is the intense desire phase, most often associated with the sexual desire, can’t-keep-our-hands-off-each-other period. This is where we get the term ‘erotic’ from.
There’s also the sort of affection we have for our friends- philia. Agape was understood to be a higher form of love, such as you would have for a God- a universal, unconditional love which some ancient writers applied to romantic love as well as love for a deity. There was a real reverence for philia and agape expressions of love as they were considered to be what separates us from animals, in a way the instinctive eros (and animalistic desire) does not.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was not the most obvious philosopher to write about love. He was a man of reason- prioritising the logical and cerebral over the messy and subjective. He spent most of his time teaching, meditating, and having a good ol’ think, so there wasn’t much room in his life for love. For Kant, the reason love and heartbreak make us do some crazy things, is because it is akin to a form of madness. For him, you are much better off using reason to guide your life- not passion. Reason allows reflection and good decision making; passion leads to uncontrollable thoughts and compulsions. And if the two are in conflict, passion almost always wins- which is bad. Giving into our passions is like turning our brains off- we are unmoved by logical advice and moral decision making.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) took a different approach. For him, love is at the heart of our existence. Kierkegaard believed that true love means focusing completely on the other person- make sure it is not a selfish love looking only to achieve your own satisfaction or gratification. Ultimately, love should be caring and selfless.
Another possibly unlikely philosopher to wade in on this was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Whilst not necessarily writing specifically about broken hearts, Nietzsche’s philosophy on suffering could potentially be a comfort for when you’re wallowing in your own devastation. To simplify his stance on it, suffering is not what generates the pain, but rather our ‘senseless suffering’ of it. Suffering can actually be something that betters us and gives us meaning, and if we interpret it as such whilst we’re going through it, we won’t feel so bad.
As well as philosophers, psychologists have had plenty to say about humans and their experience of romantic loss and distress. Scientists have posited that coming through heartache is akin to coming off drugs due to the parts of the brain that are stimulated whilst in love and then coming out of it.
Evolutionary psychologists have found that our caveman-like, reptilian brain responses can be triggered by heartbreak, the same as other stressful situations. Our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism includes many different responses, one being ‘all or nothing thinking’. This refers to when we only see things in extremes. This helps us in life-or-death situations- in prehistoric times, if a sabretooth cat is hurtling towards you, you don’t need to stay and ponder your options. You need to skedaddle promptly. But nowadays this type of thinking- particularly in relation to when our brains are stressed because of a relationship- can be more of a hindrance. When we are nursing our wounds after a breakup, we might be more inclined to think ‘I’ll never find love again’ or ‘my life is ruined, this person is evil’.
So, where does this fit in with pop punk?
Well, a lot of pop punk is heartbreak central. And there’s quite the spectrum of experiences and perspectives on the topic (although I will say again, they are mostly from young, white men).
One of the breakup songs to capture the imagination of a generation is Blink 182’s Dammit. It seems the narrator’s girlfriend has left him for another man (“You’ll show up/And walk by/ On the arm/Of that guy”) and the secret’s out- she’s moved on, all the protagonist is left with is reflections on what went wrong (“I’m writing the report/On losing and failing”). There’s little malice in the song, it’s a lament of mistakes made, and lessons learned and in that respect, there’s a Nietzschean acceptance that sometimes, we all have to suffer to evolve from the experience- “Well I guess this is growing up”.
But Blink 182 have more than a few songs about the eros manifestation of love. Feeling This (“Show me the way to bed/ Show me the way you move”), Always (Let me hold you/Feel you/Taste you”) and Mutt (“She’s open waiting for me/And I know he’s only looking to score”). Dirty gits.
Perhaps because of the longevity of Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s marriage, it is no surprise that a lot of their love songs tend to be of the Kierkegaard-love-is-selfless variety. Songs like Church on Sunday (“If you live with me/I’ll die for you/And this compromise”); Do Da Da (“Hand up your soul to my wrist/And I’ll vow my trust to you”) and Last Night on Earth (“You are the moonlight of my life every night/Giving all my love to you”) all describe a pure, wholesome, and real love. Pretty much the entirety of the band’s first album- 39/Smooth is a bit of a combination of eros and Kierkegaard- songs of intense longing and infatuation mixed with tracks about genuine feelings and deeper love- The Judge’s Daughter, 1000 Hours, Dry Ice.
The New Found Glory track ‘My Friends Over You’ seems to back up the Kant theory that making decisions with your heart (or perhaps another part of your body) does not yield very positive results. The dalliance described in this song seems to be fraught with issues- not least that maybe everyone involved is not being their true selves and therefore the relationship is not built on solid ground (“You were everything I wanted/But I just can’t finish what I started”). The song suggests that the singer is better off with their platonic relationships- elevating the philia type of love over the eros. Plato would be proud. The Pennywise song ‘Bro Hymn’ (the now-performed version being about the death of bassist Jason Thirsk) combines a celebration of friendship with a sober reflection on death and loss- a philia-related heartbreak.
And there are plenty of songs that prove the Kantian hypothesis that love, passion and lust mean the death of reason and good decision making. The Offspring’s 1994 loser-gets-laid track Self Esteem seems to suggest poor decision making on behalf of everyone involved- the want to experience affection, attention and sex leaving everyone open to next morning regrets. It is not only sex that can keep us trapped in a bad dynamic- routine, inertia and fear of being alone can keep us from doing what is objectively better for us and ending the relationship- just ask the protagonist in Sum 41’s In Too Deep (“Maybe we’re just trying too hard/When really it’s closer than it is too far”).
Of course, the phenomenon of ‘extreme thinking’ is something we can all fall prey to when stressed, and it is only natural when we have had our heartbroken that we might think some less than flattering things about the culprit when estimating the damage they’ve done. Blink 182’s What Went Wrong makes the dumper’s impact quite clear- ‘You fucked up my life’. Lagwagon seem to be rather consumed with anger towards an ex-partner in their song Wind In Your Sail (“I wish you the worst dear/ To feel the greatest pain”). In fact, most break up songs fall into this category- demonisation of the ex-partner and/or a desperate assessment of the damage done.
You don’t need to study the ancient philosophers or read tomes on psychology to know and understand the absolute gut-wrenching torment of a love gone sour or a crush unrequited. But the fact that we can draw a link between Kierkegaard and Green Day, Plato and Pennywise, shows perhaps matters of the heart haven’t changed that much at all!