Ahh, Valentine’s Day, the holiest holiday beloved only by Hallmark corporation executives and whatever sickos mass produce those chalk-y heart-shaped candies every goddamn year. At the very least, Valentine’s Day is a great excuse to talk about all the great love and love-adjacent songs that exist in the world (hint: it’s most of popular music) for one cold day in mid-February. But what about the songs we, for whatever reason, were fooled into believing are about some sweet significant other and are actually about, like, being horny and unhappy with said horniness? Or describe something super sad, or straight up, fucked up?
There are more of them than you could imagine, and we’ve compiled a few of our favorites here. So whether you’re in love, outta love, or couldn’t care less, here are some tracks that are absolutely, without a doubt, not romantic. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Perhaps the “on my own” part of the song title and the bewitching repetition of “I’ll keep dancing on my own” in its near-perfect chorus should’ve been my first clues, but this 2010 hit from Swedish pop powerhouse Robyn is every bit as pleasant as the sensation of lust (I would say love, but, come on, it’s just a damn song.) When I first heard it as a young, naive college student, it soundtracked my booze-aided adventures through New York City, empowering me to find romance only when and where it appeared—never forced, because I could always dance on my own. Duh.
It’s very much not about that, at all—lyrical lines like: “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, ooh / I’m right over here, why can’t you see me, ooh / I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home, ooh” make it abundantly clear that Robyn’s scorned, to which I say, fuck that guy.
In second or third grade, I thought the height of love was being really into a girl’s pigtails and/or finding someone to recreate the scene in the classic 2002 film Spider-Man, when Spider-Man and Mary Jane aggressively make out while hanging upside down in a back alley during a rainstorm (to be fair, I still stand by that part). That means my ideas of romance were, let’s call it warped, and when I first heard Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” around the same time, the classic rock band’s lightly veiled tribute to the naughty side of companionship, the full...thrust of the song might not have dawned on me at the time.
My parents were protective of me growing up, but they also knew that I wasn’t a great listener, which explains why they let me indulge in “Whole Lotta Love” at such an early age. It’s easy for an eight-year-old to rationalize or ignore some double meanings here: “Way down inside, honey?” That must be about gooey stuff like feelings. “Every inch of my love?” That’s all about height, something kids often compared in elementary school. “I want to be your backdoor man?” It was easier to come home through the patio since the bus stop was behind our house, duh. Robert Plant’s horny man-moans during the midsection? Why, that’s the power of rock and roll!
I hear things a little differently now, but the song still bangs.
Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I?” was put out into the world in 2003, and that’s when I heard it for the first time—on the way to a school camping trip, as a classmate’s parents played Now That’s What I Call Music, Vol. 14 in the car. I have no idea why the lines “Why can’t I breathe / Whenever I think about you?” resonated with me so deeply as a preteen, but the song does sound kind of like the rush you get when you see your crush. But it’s actually about what happens when your crush is BAD for you, when you can’t or shouldn’t be with them, because—dun dun dun!—you’re both dating other people already!
In retrospect, my classmate and I probably didn’t realize Now That’s What I Call Music was censored, protecting us from lines that would’ve tipped us off. On the original recording, Liz Phair sings “We haven’t fucked yet / But my head’s spinning,” to describe how she knows pursuing a relationship with this guy is something she’ll immediately regret, and how she doesn’t even really need to go through with the Bad Decision for it to negatively impact her life. The Now version bleeps out the verb in that phrase, and I remember my friends and I ad-libbing to fill in the blanks, knowing on some level Liz Phair meant she was close to screwing things up for herself, but not knowing exactly how.
“We haven’t fucked it up yet!” we chanted throughout the weekend, a rendition that misses the point of the original song—that she’d be cheating on her partner if she does sleep with the other person she’s pining after!—but also, kind of captures it perfectly.
The dentist office in my hometown would always blast smooth jazz, a collection of delightful tunes used to lull terrified patients to sleep (you know, before a series of sharp metal objects entered their mouth.) The office’s musical direction changed when I was about 10 and my dentist introduced a new piece of technology—an iPod—after discovering music outside of the elevator genre.
I don’t remember how many songs were on the iPod, but my dentist allowed his patients to curate their appointment’s soundtrack, which was a treat. I always selected the same song, on repeat—Usher’s “U Got it.” The Atlanta’s singer epic break-up anthem sounded like the ultimate love ode, a sexy track, on loop, that boomed, as floss jammed between my teeth and an electric brush with orange toothpaste scrubbed them a faint yellow. My young heart might’ve only experienced a crush or two at that time, but did Usher’s emphatic wailing effect my pre-teen emotions? With lyrics like these?
I want you to know
I really adore you
All my people who know what’s going on
Look at your mate, help me sing my song
Tell her I’m your man, you’re my girl
Absolutely not! I was just happy that I didn’t get a cavity. The heartbreak and the sadness came later in life, but the clean teeth persisted.