While talking about TV on the Radio (TVR) and their flavor of the love song, I think it is important to start things off with the backdrop of the song “Modern Romance,” because it comes from an early part of their career (New Health Rock single, 2004) and because they didn’t write it (in fact a few others have covered it as well). The Yeah Yeah Yeahs wrote it for their 2003 debut album, Fever to Tell.
“Modern Romance” reflects the existential yearnings found in much of TVR’s work. Giving expression to the painful ambiguities plaguing human existence can really define much of the modern and (post-modern—I dislike that word but you know what I mean, somehow…) contemporary scene in art and culture. It appeared in popular culture with the distortions of the animal/human figure by someone like Picasso (though the roots go back much farther of course), in punk rock (let’s not get into the hippies here), and in the pop superstars, sensationalism, consumerism, and materialism that are trying left and right to fill in the void or lack of serious nail-downable-for-everyone meaning to life.
If you’re not familiar with “Modern Romance” a key line in the song is, “there is no modern romance,” followed by a lot of sorrow and conflict in emotion. Really the idea that “there is no modern romance” probably fits for most any generation. Love must be just as painful and intimate as it ever has been; it just always requires someone to feel it and those who do have their say in how painful or glorious it is. What I find most stirring about TVR’s love songs is the tension between the erotic and the sort of existential sensations of yearning or loneliness that they get at through a thick ecosystem of lyrics and sonance.
If you’re anything like me, having a body can be a problem at times. There’s self-consciousness, but conscious dissociation from the body can also be problematic. “These are my arms?”—“How is it possible I can control this material…” —and on and on. Being totally present and in the moment is a way to avoid this, though not always an easy one. One activity where this tension can really come to life is the in sexual experience; you can either totally lose awareness of the body through the intensity of sensations, or you can become intensely self-conscious. Or some place in the middle.
In the song “Staring at the Sun,” from 2004’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, there is a continual shift between the sexual and the existential in terms of lyrical content. Musically, we are in a state of sustained tension, mostly rhythm-based, with a relatively light sonic arrangement, which does provide the other side needed for tension—that of weightlessness. In excerpt: “Your mouth is open wide / The lover is inside / And all the tumult’s done / Collided with the sign / You’re staring at the sun / You’re standing in the sea / Your body’s over me / … / Quietly poor out like light / Like light, like answering the sun.” What we keep getting is the juxtaposition of nature imagery and the human body blending into that environment through…ecstasy? Or light? Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s World War II footage in The Mirror comes to mind. An excerpt from his father’s poetry (translated from Russian): “…There is only reality and light/there’s neither dark nor death in this our world.” TVR essentially says the same thing but using more words and putting “reality” into a more shifty and elusive condition by not naming it directly, and by blending the idea of reality with light. Light/reality is everywhere shifting reflection and shape.
With TVR’s song “Wolf Like Me,” from 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, we are involved in much of the same tension-driven process that in many ways matches the emotional and sensational form of sex (—good sex). It is probably important to mention that there appears to be solicited and procured prostitution in the piece, which is fine. Still the erotic is present and in a very human form. The song goes, “My heart’s aflame / My body’s strained, but, God, I like it / … / Open my hands and let them / Weave onto yours / Feel me, completer / Down to my core / Open my heart and let it / Bleed onto yours / Feeding on fever / Down on all fours / Show you what all that / Howl is for.” After another verse we get to the chaotic climax where the phrase “We are howling forever” comes in off rhythm, repeating, slowly emerging from the background to prominence, and the sexual experience becomes an expression of existential yearning.
TVR’s love/sex songs take us away from the blind and flamboyant eroticism of high school dances. It seems difficult to find a niche in the subject of love (in terms of pop music) that doesn’t creep too far into the adolescent or the melodramatic. But both of those qualities can be a legitimate part of love, no? And let’s be honest, continually integrating and updating the emotional dynamics of love and sex as one develops their interpretation of the world and experience doesn’t always happen.
For most people, it’s nice to be desirable, sure. But that feeling can too quickly (or subtly, gradually and unnoticed) become narcissistic, and you can almost completely collapse into vanity. For the most part, TVR avoids promoting this implosion (unlike much sex-driven pop music) because of their almost constant presence of larger scale tensions. Though again it is up to the listener to get what they want out of it.
To change the subject slightly, there are a lot of commercially prepackaged ideas about love and sex out there. Many exploit the ambiguities of the adolescent blind-leading-the-blind word-of-mouth education with all its culturally induced stereotypes and confusion about the experience of love and lack of reliable long-term answers. For that matter there can be a lot of confusion about the erotic. Which is natural. But as human beings, we help each other understand things, or at least gain new perspectives. Without this, it can be difficult to engage (consciously or unconsciously) in a dialectic that would enable us to come to a personal, open and thus mature understanding of powerful sensations like love and the erotic, especially when we encounter many of these sensations before we have the proper linguistic or emotional ability to process the experience.
Now, of course TVR doesn’t come anywhere near solving these issues. And they don’t try to. They describe highly sensitized versions of love and the erotic, which in turn puts these experiences in the context of the human condition in general. These issues can only be solved in the clichéd but true and valuable and almost inescapable process of discovering solutions for one’s self. But messages and the way in which information is received can be very influential—just ask any employed marketing person—and so what TVR is doing is opening doors for new contexts of receiving information about sex, yearning, confusion, and all that…set to well-crafted and catchy music no less…
One reason to discuss sex and love and coming-to-an-understanding-of-it all is that personal maturity and realistic understandings about these sorts of things will probably affect one’s ability to engage in a romantic relationship, and perhaps to find that relationship fulfilling. And so back to the modern romance. Much of our sorrow about it is just part of the human experience, but maybe some of what is eating at people these days is that things like love and sex are digested chaotically and in disparate contexts and don’t fully integrate and continue to mature with the rest of the human being. Or maybe human beings aren’t “maturing” how they used to?
At times, TVR’s music drips with all the love juices and afterward, we don’t simply cuddle; we remain in humid, semi- and hyper-sensory dimensions with fleshy, emotional electromagnetic fields. I’ve referenced songs from TVR’s earlier work, but the band has continued exploring the dynamics of love and eroticism on their two newest albums. In 2008’s Dear Science, sex is fantastic and celebratory complete with sleigh bells, and the relationship to larger-scale issues is between songs rather than within them. Although the exploration of love on 2011’s Nine Types of Light is still intriguing, much of the tension is gone—at least the depth to the tension. Which is a natural progression I suppose. It is difficult to remain painfully honest with oneself without becoming sick and too self-absorbed, so we let go of certain tensions probably because that is the healthy thing to do, once you’ve been through it. And one group (or person) can only beat the silt out of the same soaked rug so many times before they just have to weave a new one and set it along the bank of the river sweating and enjoying whatever light comes.