There's been a lot written about why the Lumineers' "Ho Hey" is a surprise hit – it's relief to a weary top 40 audience strafed by one too many epic techno builds; it's yet another demonstration of the power of a TV commercial, et cetera. To all those, add this overlooked aspect of the Lumineers' hit: as we approach Valentine's Day, it's one of the few romantic songs on pop radio.
The relative paucity of love songs might just be timing. Justin Bieber's "As Long as You Love Me" and Ne-Yo's "Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)" recently ran their course at top 40. Bruno Mars' "When I Was Your Man" is ascending rapidly now, but his "Locked Out of Heaven" is more about sex than love.
It used to be an easy snipe at pop radio that it only accommodated songs about love – happy or sad. Now, an actual love song grapples for its place between "I Knew You Were Trouble" and multiple iterations on partying like there's no tomorrow, although those might include the opportunity to hook up with someone else's guy.
In earlier times, the love ballad was always held in reserve for the third single that would propel an artist's already successful project toward the stratosphere. Even by the early '00s, that formula was wearing down. Christina Aguilera's "I Turn to You" actually slowed the momentum of her self-titled debut album. So she came back with "Dirrty." And when "Beautiful" propelled itself off Stripped, it wasn't a love song, but a then-unusual ballad of personal empowerment.
Those two songs have a lot of descendents at today's radio. "Beautiful" has echoes in Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire," while "Dirrty" informs every Ke$ha song about how girls now can do what the guys do. Aguilera recently tried to reclaim that formula with the decidedly unromantic "Your Body." To recap: She's only seen the guy she's interested in, she doesn't need to be introduced, and there will be no messy entanglements. In fact, she sings, "I'll finish off on my own."
Maroon 5 managed an enduring love song in "She Will Be Loved," a case of when the third-single strategy worked beautifully. Even then, it was a lyrical change-up for the band. By the next album, its hits were about not giving a bleep or shooting your girlfriend's lover. The three hits from Overexposed have all been breakup songs of some sort. (Maybe, just maybe, the protagonist in "Daylight" is bemoaning leaving town for a business trip, but the pending separation seems more permanent.)
Teen idols are still allowed to record love ballads, although they will then face resistance for being teen idols. The not-quite-a-teen-idol-anymore Justin Bieber has managed to push through three positive romantic songs. However, One Direction didn't have the same luck with "Little Things." Hunter Hayes' "Wanted" benefitted at country from being a straightforward love song amidst all the attitude-laced rockers. But even that hasn't hastened its build at top 40.
Some of the issue is top 40's resistance to ballads at a time when programmers believe that the Portable People Meter rewards tempo. Ed Sheeran's "The A Team" proved that a ballad can break through. But it's not a love song. In fact, the combination of pretty melody and pretty bleak lyrics is probably a lot of what made "The A Team" a hit.
It could also be that romance is in less demand these days, as asserted by a recent New York Times article about dating being supplanted by lower-stakes "hanging out." There is a song about a guy who impresses on the first date, but it's Swift's country bittersweet single, "Begin Again." Top 40 radio likes Swift best when she's ticked off.
There is definitely some "tenor-of-the-times" angst in the love songs that do break through. The girl in "Ho Hey" is long gone and with another guy, although a lot of listeners probably hear only "I belong with you/You belong with me/You're my sweetheart." There's something undeniably touching and resonant in Ne-Yo's "Let Me Love You" offer to take on a lifetime's worth of baggage. But that's a big task, and his own therapist would probably ask why he's seeking out emotionally unavailable women.
Maybe what the love ballad needs is the sort of spotlight that summer songs get each year. So, what's your nomination for the official love song of Valentine's Day 2013? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.