In the spirit of Italian literary critic Franco Moretti and his practice of “distant reading,” Generation Bubble offers a series of essays devoted to our attempts to “unlisten” to pop past and present — to consider individual songs in light of how they helped structure everyday life in their moment.
Motown singer Mary Wells released “Two Lovers” in 1962. It was one of her first big hits, paving the way for her biggest, “My Guy,” which is in some ways the diametric opposite of the earlier song. “My Guy,” written by Smokey Robinson (who was in the midst of an unbelievable pop-songwriting roll), can seem as though it’s saddled with schmaltzy, anodyne lyrics, but Wells salvages it with a poised, restrained performance that seems to hint at wayward thoughts being repressed. When she reaches the ending refrain, “There’s not a man today that could take me away from my guy,” it sounds a little as though she is trying to convince herself. The strained insistence in her voice complements the stilted phrasing when she pleads, “When it comes to being happy, we are.” No, really, we are.
Such ambivalence becomes explicit in “Two Lovers,” which was also written and produced by Robinson. It is one of the better songs about cheating, perhaps because it is such a cheat itself. It opens up with the baldfaced declaration — “Well, I’ve got two lovers and I ain’t ashamed / Two lovers, and I love them both the same” — as if no one in the world in 1962 could have a problem with that, as if the news were going to make us all celebrate too. It’s as startling in its own way as the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” another deviant 1960s pop hit. It flies in the face, of course, of longstanding ideas about female sexual propriety, stating as seeming fact something Victorian novelists frequently went to great lengths to depict as psychologically impossible. According to the ideology, anyway, a woman was supposed to love once and forever, her heart a steel trap impossible to open once it clamped its jaws on the beloved.
But for those first few measures of “Two Lovers,” it is as though an alternate universe has been created where women need not fear being seen as a slut for having romantic options. Opening the song with these lines announces a utopia, and that’s its chief hook: the lines permit the possibility of listeners’ imagining an alternative to the hypocrisy of forbidden love, sexual shame, and suppressed passion. It promises a love that can be divisible yet undiminished, the opportunity for multiple loves that are equally strong and true and make possible an even greater satisfaction without compromise. In those lines you hear a woman slough off the responsibility imposed on her by centuries of patriarchy: to guarantee the sanctity of inheritance with her own selflessness, through her own willingness to become a piece of property herself.
But then the song turns on itself by systematically retracting everything the radical opening lines seemed to offer. First, we learn that the singer’s second “lover” is apparently a capricious jerk: “You know, he treats me bad, makes me sad, / Makes me cry, but still I can’t deny that I love him.” Her unashamed love has become a kind of compulsion, her transgressiveness shown to bring her not pleasure but pain. Implicit is the idea that because she has flouted convention, he is somehow justified in his behavior, as though gentlemanly conduct must be purchased with submissive fidelity on the woman’s part.
Then it turns out that the second lover is actually just the same guy as the first lover — someone with a “split personality.” Far from being polyamorous and proud, the singer is sadly revealed as a masochistic woman tolerating rough treatment, no different from the woman in “He Hit Me” (”… and I knew he really loved me”). Indeed, she goes on to apologize for giving the appearance of having been untrue, taking the blame for his bad behavior. The invention of a second lover is made to seem a defense mechanism brought on by the trauma of seeing cruelty mingled with trust.
Ultimately, “Two Lovers” seems depressingly conventional, at best a well-intentioned public service announcement for domestic abuse.
Ultimately, “Two Lovers” seems depressingly conventional, at best a well-intentioned public service announcement for domestic abuse. But the song’s backpedaling doesn’t negate its initial subversiveness. In some ways, the repudiation enhances its radical nature: We are expected to jump to the wrong conclusion and enjoy our confusion when we learn how wrong we were, when we are reminded that what we were first led to believe is after all quite impossible: you really can’t validate non-monogamous female sexuality publicly and openly in popular song. Through its programmed sleight of hand, the song reminds us of how we quick we are to permit ourselves to think the unthinkable. It reminds us just how close to the surface that permission is and how quickly we can shift our whole way of evaluating what behavior is permissible, conceivable, considerable. That vaguely illicit thrill mirrors the actual feeling of cheating to a degree, and the letdown we feel from the last verse mimics the way brute facts of social mores inevitably encroach on us.
But the thrill in hearing the song is not in our feeling as though we were getting away with something — not in the betrayal of cheating at all — but in that suspended moment in which it seems like there is nothing to get away with. What’s thrilling in “I’ve got two lovers and I ain’t ashamed” is the way that multiple, complicated, ambivalent desires are acknowledged and thereby simplified, naturalized. It extends the promise that simply being honest about the feelings could resolve them into the complacency that Wells so adeptly conveys with her voice. For that moment, you forget that this sort of honesty is not especially welcome, and it certainly doesn’t simplify anything, no matter how natural it may feel.
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