It’s Easter this weekend, so between family obligations and general merrymaking I don’t have much time to write. While I have a couple of pieces I’ve been meaning to put together for weeks now, I thought that I would keep this one short. These next couple pieces are important to me and I want to be able to give them the time that I think that they deserve, rather than rushing them out. So for this week I’m going to compare two songs by two very different artists that happen to share the same name.
Now I should say that I enjoy both of these songs. Although they are very different, they have a good message and I like listening to both of them. At the end of the day I don’t think I have any right to say that either one is better than the other, because I don’t have the experience or knowledge to do so. I am what you might call musically illiterate, and as early as two hours ago I had to ask my girlfriend who the hell Keith Urban is. So what follows will not be a critical review of two songs by someone who really understands music. It’s just me, talking about these songs.
The first song I want to talk about is Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.” It was released in 2010 on his debut album Doo-Wop & Hooligans. The song was wildly successful and even netted Bruno Mars a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. The song is similar to a lot of Bruno Mars’ music, with a bright pop sound that is instantly appealing and extremely catchy. This was my first introduction to Bruno Mars as a performer. As an aside, the music video first and only YouTube comment I’ve ever read: “Some people say… That Bruno should be a teacher. So that he can teach men how to REALLY love their woman.” I’ve tried to steer clear of comments since then.
I like this song at face value, and it certainly impressed me when I first heard it. Bruno Mars is an excellent singer, and he knows how to put together a fun song. But as I listened to it on the radio I started to get disenchanted with it. The song is very enjoyable, and Mars’ performance certainly gives you the sense of his affection for the person he’s singing about. Yet, perhaps because I heard it so often, I started to become frustrated with the lyrics’ obsession with the physical aspects of the fictional woman in Mars’ life. To give an example:
“Her lips, her lips, I could kiss them all day if she’d let me
Her laugh her laugh, she hates but I think it’s so sexy
She’s so beautiful
And I tell her everyday”
The impression that I got is that he loves her, just the way she is, but she also happens to be beautiful. I was young, and I had exactly no real experience with love. So I wrote this off as shallow, and thought less of the song because of it. But like many opinions that I had when I was 18, I’ve had to reconsider it, largely because of one line that I hadn’t really noticed before. It goes:
“I know when I compliment her, she won’t believe me
And it’s so, it’s so sad to think that she doesn’t see what I see
But every time she ask me do I look okay?
When I see your face
There’s not a thing that I would change
‘Cause you’re amazing
Just the way you are”
So now with six years and a modicum of relationship experience under my belt, I owe Bruno Mars an apology. Because anyone who has ever had a girlfriend, or a significant other I suppose, understands this sentiment. They ask us how they look and we respond by saying that they look great. They shoot back that we always say that. Of course we do. We love you, and we love the way that you look. If you happen to have a few stray hairs then it certainly isn’t going to matter to us.
It’s true that this is about looks, but it’s about more than that. It’s not just because you look great. Although you do. We love the way that you look. Because you look like you. Why would we ever want you to look different?
I was planning to put down this song for being shallow and being made to appeal to a larger audience than the next song, but that isn’t fair at all. Reconsidering it, this song is a touching piece that accurately captures how we feel when are in love. We can’t really all of the supposed issues they’re asking about. We just see them, and they make us happy. And that’s more than enough.
Now I will move onto the second song, which I imagine you’ve already guessed. I am clearly biased towards this piece, partially because it’s from one of my favorite artists, and partially because my parents danced to it at their wedding. Though they assure me they only did it because it was popular at the time. This song is Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”
I would say that this song is on the opposite end of the musical spectrum, but upon reflection I think that would be death metal. And much as I would like to hear a death metal cover of “Just the Way You Are,” this is not the case. The song was released in 1977, on Joel’s excellent album The Stranger. It was very popular in its own right, and in 1979 it won Joel Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
The piece is slow and simple, primarily featuring just Joel, his piano, and one excellent saxophone solo. It has a sweet, almost sad quality to it that makes it stand out musically. Unlike the Bruno Mars song, this barely touches on the physical at all, only briefly mentioning the subject’s hair and clothes. The first song seems to be one of young love, with the singer enraptured by every little detail of his partner. But Joel’s song does something very different.
The tone of the song is comfortable and almost resigned, not aiming for romantic highs, but discussing the simple pleasures of being with someone. Joel assures his lover that he will stand by her side and be faithful, and be there, no matter what. He reminds her that she will, “Always have my unspoken passion.” As if they’re reached a point where they don’t need to say it in words any more. It’s not really praising her or anything about her, it’s just a song about their relationship. He just wants his lover to know that he cares for her, every day, and that he just wants her to be there for him.
In my incredibly limited experience, people are profoundly silly when it comes to love. Centuries of romantic literature, music, and film has given us a skewed view of what love is and what love should be. Of course there are wonderful, deliriously happy moments that we experience through romantic love. But this is only part of what it is, and focusing on these misunderstands what is really important about relationships.
I have an acquaintance that talks at length about how he/she wants to have the perfect romantic story, the kind of story he/she could tell his/her children. I think this is, pardon my French, absolute bullshit. The important thing is not how you find the person you love. That story that’s fed to us through romantic movies is just the beginning, not even a tenth of the actual story. It’s staying with them, even when things are not good or when they need work.
The big romantic gestures are important, and need to be a part of a relationship. But they pale in comparison to the simple, pleasant moments when she lays her head on your shoulder or takes your hand without thinking about it. I’ve always gravitated towards songs that come close to talking about these moments and experiences because they are both simple and profound. Just as loving someone is both simple and profound.
Although Elton John’s “Your Song,” is my favorite love song, the song that best captures this for me is Ben Rector’s, “I Like You.” It’s a lovely, simplistic piece that openly bemoans the fact that “there are way too many love songs.” But what strikes me about it is one line that sums up my feelings about love:
“Life is not the mountaintops
It’s the walking in between
And I like you walking next to me.”
I enjoy both “Just the Way You Are,” songs, but Joel’s version will always satisfy me more. His song reaches for a kind of love and a kind of relationship that can last and endure the test of time. It’s a simple little love song that addresses a more profound kind of love than what we are fed through television and movies. It may not have the dramatic flair of a Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks affair, but to me it’s much more beautiful.
“I don’t want clever conversation
I never want to work that hard
I just want someone that I can talk to
I want you just the way you are”