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Have people had enough of silly love songs?

Published: 28 September 2004

A University of Southampton academic, who is investigating love songs from the 16th century to the 1970s, claims that not only is that not the case, but also that song plays a vital role in constructing myths of romantic love.

The research, provisionally entitled Silly Love Songs: Gender, Performance and Romance, investigates the relationship between song and romance, tracing the different ways that songs interact with other media, such as novels and films, to articulate the prevailing social views of their time. Its particular focus is on songs that occupy an uneasy place between classical and popular music, high art and ephemera: the kind of songs we love, but that often make us cringe.

Dr. Jeanice Brooks, a Reader in Music at the top Russell Group University, plans to explore in depth the role romance plays in women's lives in order to understand love songs' undeniable appeal to female audiences past and present and to shed light on what makes them so powerful and emotionally compelling. In particular, she will look at the role of romance and love songs in elaborating narratives of feminine identity, a topic of controversy amongst feminist historians, sociologists and literary critics.

Three case studies will explore distinct moments in the history of song and romance. The first focuses on late 16th century French court songs and chivalric romance, which helped project the ideals of courtly love in the context of newly prominent images of courtiership. The second looks at the parlour songs of the first half of the 19th century and their relationship to the novel, including those of Jane Austen. Self-accompanied singing of a drawing-room repertory was principally the domain of young unmarried women, part of a courtship process now linked to the ideal of companionate marriage.

The final case study examines film and popular song of the 1970s and the vision of romance projected by mass culture in the wake of the Women's Movement and the sexual revolution. Materials will include The Way We Were and Love Story, both runaway screen hits with Oscar-winning scores, featuring relationships between young women from marginalized ethnic groups and WASP men. Despite the boom in research on popular culture, 'soft' pop music of the late twentieth century, as represented by performers such as Barbra Streisand, has received almost no scholarly attention.

Jeanice explains: "My research will break new ground in two ways: by placing at its heart song repertories that have previously been undervalued or neglected; and by adopting an approach which emphasizes performance and the way songs are received by audiences, rather than the composer- and work-centred approach usually taken in music history."

The outcome of Jeanice's research - which is due to start in earnest in January next year - is likely to be a book which looks at love songs in relation to books and films. The research is being undertaken with the support of a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

Notes for editors

  1. Dr Jeanice Brooks studied singing and music education in the US and France before coming to Southampton where she is currently a Reader in Music. Her monograph on music and courtly ideologies in the Renaissance, Courtly Song in Late Sixteenth-Century France (Chicago 2000) won the American Sixteenth Century Society and Conference's Roland H. Bainton prize for the best book in music or art history to be published that year.
  2. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University has over 19,200 students and 4800 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £250 million.

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