I Don’t Think/Feel Like Writing
Word Choice and Sincerity in Sara Bareilles’s Love Song
Many popular songs are monologues, a sort of first-person narrative spoken either to a third party or — particularly in the case of love songs — to a second person with whom the singer/narrator has a special relationship. A recently iconic love song is what I want to discuss today, the aptly named Love Song by Sara Bareilles.
I like this song for many reasons, not least of which is because it contains the most cleverly self-contradicting, self-referential lyrics since the “I bet you think this song is about you” in Carly Simon’s 1972 hit, You’re So Vain.
Sara’s narrator asserts that she’s not going to write a love song, even as she’s in the middle of doing precisely that. For a conscious writer or a literate reader, this inner conflict is absolutely delicious.
But, what really kicks my kidneys about this song is the fact that I misstate a certain lyric every time I sing along, in the car or wherever. Even when I begin the song telling myself (as a former singer who was fond of performing cover tunes well and accurately) “Do not screw up these lyrics” … I still manage to #@¢% it up, every time.
The real lyric in question is:
Convince me to please you. Make me think that I need this, too.
As God is my witness, I mistyped the lyric even as I was writing it above! To me, the phrasing just seems unnatural, and I always retell it as: “Make me feel that I need this, too.”
The Whole Story
To be fair, I think the entire Love Song story needs to be told, before we go on to micro-analyze the single word choice with which I take exception. Here is how I would retell Sara’s song as a short story:
Head under water, and they tell me to breathe easy for a while. Breathing gets harder; even I know that.
You made room for me, but it’s too soon to see if I’m happy in your hands. I’m unusually hard to hold on to.
Blank stares at blank pages, no easy way to say this: you mean well, but you make this hard on me. I’m not gonna write you a love song because you asked for it, because you need one. You see, I’m not gonna write you a love song because you tell me it’s make or break in this.
If you’re on your way, I’m not gonna write you to stay. If all I have is leaving, I’m going to need a better reason to write you a love song.
I learned the hard way that they all say things you want to hear. My heavy heart sinks deep down under you. And your twisted words — your help just hurts: you are not what I thought you were.
Hello to high and dry.
Convince me to please you: make me think feel that I need this, too. I’m trying to let you hear me as I am.
Promise me you’ll leave the light on to help me see, with daylight (my guide) gone. I believe there’s a way you can love me because I say I won’t write you a love song because you asked for it, because you need one.
You see, I’m not gonna write you a love song because you tell me it’s make or break in this. Is that why you wanted a love song: because you asked for it? Because you need one?
I’m not gonna write you a love song because you tell me it’s make or break in this. If you’re on your way, I’m not gonna write you to stay.
If your heart is nowhere in it, I don’t want it for a minute. Babe, I’ll walk the Seven Seas when I believe that there’s a reason to write you a love song, today.
The Why Of It
There are several possible interpretations as to why I habitually flub Sara’s lyrics in this way.
First, one might hypothesize that Sara is a thinker personality and I am more of a feeling type. She sings “think” because that’s her experience, while I prefer “feel” because I lean more toward the sentimental than the rational. Anyone who knows me beyond my name is already chuckling to themselves while reading this, because anyone who knows me knows that this explanation is a non-starter.
I was born in Rodin’s famous sculptural pose … (which was no picnic for my mom). I am, without doubt, a thinker.
Second, one might hypothesize that I am assuming Sara would feel rather than think, because she’s a girl. That’s a fair argument, from an outsider’s view. However, this particular song has a very personal meaning for me: when I sing it, I’m singing it as me (male) to one of my exes (female), not as a surrogate Sara.
Psychoanalyzing myself on this matter (see, there’s me thinking!) I have come to the conclusion that what I am doing is editing the monologue for narrative consistency and force. In other words, in a pathetically writerly way, I’m trying to improve Sara’s story.
One Word To A Better Story
How does changing this one line from “think” to “feel” improve the story, at least in my writer/editor brain?
It’s all about the connotation. The word “think” has an implication of being potentially wrong, either incorrect or deluded. What we think is representative of an outer reality with which it may or may not jibe.
The word “feel,” however (except when used as a sort of couples-therapy euphemism for “think”) is about immediately internal experience that defines its own reality. What we feel is what we feel, but what we think can be right or wrong.
Saying “make me think” seems to say “fool me into thinking.” It implies a desire to shift from the narrator’s general dismissiveness toward writing a love song toward a sham authenticity, a delusion in which the narrator wants to write a love song only because he/she has been tricked into so.
Beyond the connotation of deludedness, as we noticed before the word “think” is a word of detachment. One thinks about something, whereas one feels what one feels. That the narrator points the word “think” at herself detaches her from her own feelings, implying an unreadiness or even unwillingness to feel.
The implied falsehood of the proposed “convince me” makes the singer sound stubbornly skeptical and determined not to be genuinely convinced, and thus determined to see the relationship die. A Feeler is in the moment, defined by her own feeling, but a Thinker maintains a higher, more rational perspective, a cognitive distance from which this shared “need” — even if nominally accomplished — could be dismissed with an eye-roll and a scoff.
Oh, Sara. No, no, no.
My writer’s instincts tell me that this single word selection unravels the desperate sincerity of the rest of the monologue, the very powerful sense that Sara conveys of truly wishing that the situation could be made right.
And, this fracturing moment of cynicism makes the narrator far less sympathetic to my reader’s ears. However selfish and ignorant it certainly is when non-artists make creative demands of their artist partners, the casually foregone conclusion of failure in Love Song makes the narrator sound like a conscious and willing saboteur, transforming the irony of the song’s self-reference from a sweet anecdote about a conflicted artist composing a love song in spite of her doubt and writer’s block, to a cold and passive-aggressive snark about writing a piss-off song while claiming you can’t write an affectionate one.
The difference between a tragic hero and a villain is that the tragic hero is trying to do what’s right, but ends up doing wrong anyway. A villain, however, is conscious of the destruction he wreaks.
“Make me feel that I need this” implies a genuine desire to find a compromise, to change the relationship for the better, an admirable stance even if all efforts are doomed to tragedy.
“Make me think” sounds decidedly and detachedly contrary to the very idea of writing a love song (despite that it seems almost mockingly embedded inside one) and this makes the narrator not only the author of the song, but also of the ultimate break-up and all of the sorrow that goes along with it.