Is 2010's Top 40 Music "Relationship Healthy?"

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I love lists, music and relationship health, so I was psyched that the Boston Public Health Commission released its second annual lists of "Healthiest" and "Unhealthiest" songs about relationships this week. I was a little less psyched when I read them, but the results are interesting anyway.

Seriously, if love did not exist, it's safe to say that pop music would never have taken off either. Most songs -- from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to pretty much every single Taylor Swift releases -- have at least a little bit to do with finding, keeping, losing or crying over that special someone who may or may not round out our human existence.

So I have a heart. I know from my "Baby don't leave mes" and "You keep me hanging ons." I have some much-maligned Air Supply and a sad amount of 70s light rock on my iPod (because I am old) along with all of the other stuff that gives me some credibility in my less romantic hours. Honestly, even my students will tell you that I'm pretty much on a cool page where music is concerned, just because I love most genres and keep up with new releases. So I think it's great that the teen violence prevention program "Start Strong" developed a "Sound Relationships Nutritional Label" a year ago. Why shouldn't people pay attention to what the songs they're mindlessly humming are really saying?

That said, how sad is it that the healthiest song of 2010 -- Train's "If It's Love" -- includes this lyric:

And if I'm addicted to loving you
And you're addicted to my love too...
Took a loan on a house I own
Can't be a queen bee without a bee throne
I wanna buy ya everything
Except cologne 'cause it's poison...
Have ten kids and give them everything
Hold our cell phones up in the air
And just be glad we made it here alive.

Cologne is poison. What? Cellphones in the air. Again, what? I am not a Train fan in general, sorry, which I know makes the jillions of people out there singing "Hey Soul Sister" to themselves a little twitchy. I can't help it. I've never gotten over the soy latte line in "Drops of Jupiter," and I just don't find Pat Monahan's voice that enjoyable. Opinions, schmopinions. But musical tastes aside, how are love addiction, refinancing a house, poison cologne and cellphones in the air as arbiters of relationship health?

Ick. I'm not trying to be a hater here, honestly, but plenty more things say "I love you" than increasing your risk for foreclosure. This is number one on the healthy charts?

Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" is number two, and I guess I can overlook getting drunk on the beach and him ogling her in skintight jeans because he thinks she looks great without makeup on and he's her Valentine etc. But clocking in at number three, Monica's "Everything to Me" kicks off like so:

Boy if you ever left my side
It'd be like taking the sun from
The sky
I'd probably die without
You in
My life.

Awesome! She goes on to repeat "I need you, I need you, I need you" and refers to him as the air that she breathes. Typical pop music, yes, but this is supposed to be the healthy list. I don't want anyone to think they'll die without anyone. Timbaland's "If We Ever Meet Again" basically says that he'll have a lot more to say next time he meets a girl in a bar, which is healthy in its simplicity, I suppose. Selena Gomez's "Naturally" is pretty much okay, and Miley Cyrus's "When I Look at You" is a fairly bland commentary on someone lighting up your life. Then there's Taylor Swift's "Mine."

Flash forward and we're taking on the world together
And there's a drawer of my things at your place
You learn my secrets and you figure out why I'm guarded
You say we'll never make my parents' mistakes
But we've got bills to pay,
We got nothing figured out.

Oy. Were I these list-makers, I'd have traded the #1 Train tune with #10, "Just the Way You Are" by Bruno Mars, an honestly joyful affirmation of seeing the beauty in a loved one who may not see the best in herself but (although..."Her nails, her nails, I'd kiss them all day if she'd let me" skeeves me out a lot.)

As for what did top the unhealthy list? Usher has the distinction of holding down the one and two slots with the unfortunately-named "Lil Freak" and "Hot Tottie." The latter title loses points for stupid, before you even get to the more words part.

I'm like ooh Kimosabe
Your body is my hobby
We freakin'
This ain't cheatin' as long as we tell nobody
Tell your girls you're leaving
I'll meet you in the lobby
I'm so cold, yeah you that Hot Tottie.

I am guessing Usher does not have a cold for which he needs a restorative beverage, and would suggest building model trains or the like if he's looking for a hobby for real, but I think that was just in the service of the rhyme, honestly.

"Teens were particularly bothered by Usher’s lyrics for ‘Hot Tottie’," said Casey Corcoran, director of the Commission’s Start Strong Initiative. "In it, Usher describes a relationship world view where it isn’t cheating if nobody knows and brags about his partner not wanting him to use a condom. These kinds of attitudes aren’t just unhealthy, they’re dangerous."

There are other unlovely sentiments among the unhealthiest. Cee-Lo's "F@@k You" gets to the point:

I guess the change in my pocket
Wasn't enough I'm like, F*ck you!
And f*ck her too!

Well, then.

Moving on.

Even little Justin Bieber gets dinged for "Eeenie Meenie," a screed against a "bad chick," because "shorty is a eenie meenie miney mo lova." Rihanna interestingly makes this list twice -- once on her own with "Only Girl" ("I want you to love me like I'm a hot ride") and again with the undeniably catchy, popular duet with Eminem, "Love the Way You Lie," which, yeah, the title pretty much says it all. The teens felt like while the song accurately depicted an abusive relationship, it didn't speak enough to getting out of one -- the most difficult part of all.

Rihanna's ex-boyfriend and convicted attacker Chris Brown is on the list with "Deuces" -- "You'll regret the day I find another girl."

Except, well, maybe you won't.

Shakira "swings them hips like nunchucks" on "Give it Up to Me" and Ke$ha and her dollar sign share that "Your love is my drug." Also, she likes the guy's beard.

Kesha performs on the NBC Today Show at Rockefeller Center in New York City on August 13, 2010.    UPI/John Angelillo Photo via Newscom

Okay, okay. Should the lyrics of pop songs be taken seriously or as an airtight indicator of the relationship health of our young people especially? Like anything else, not entirely, but I'm going to make a fairly trite statement that I mean nonetheless and say that the messages kids get should not be ignored. And the fact that this project puts song and image analysis into the hands of teenagers is promising, if not the final arbiter of emotional and physical health. I'm a vocal supporter of free speech and am fundamentally opposed to censorship, while at the same time acutely aware of the impact of negative messages on people who are just forming their views and practice of romantic relationships.

And scanning both of these lists tells me that whereas pop music has never necessarily been the brain trust, it is one indicator of the teenaged landscape. I want to know if my cousin in her senior year of high school or the student in my office thinks she should be Usher's hobby, and I would certainly be the militant auntie who says no boy (or girl) gets to say "F@@k you!" to you without consequences, Cee-Lo. I also, in my idealistic way, want her to hold out for the "Just the Way You Are" guy, even if he says weird things about her nails, I guess. And while the time will surely come when they have someone else's stuff in a drawer at his place or hers, it's nice if free will and common sense come together in the process.

Bottom line: anything that helps us understand what they're going through and what they need, even if it's a Miley video? Call it research, or maybe just paying attention -- scanning the environment and seeing it through their eyes and (even if it's painful) hearing it through their ears. I'd argue that that's at least a little bit healthy.

Contributing editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. Her photos are on Flickr.


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