I did it. I solved one of 2016’s trickiest pop-cultural riddles: I figured out why the new Lady Gaga song is bad. It’s because the way she sings “love” (“It wasn’t LAAAHHHHVE”) is really annoying. And given that she sings the word “love” exactly 15 times in this three-minute song, the pronunciation of “LAAAAHHHHHVE” is a very significant part of “Perfect Illusion.” So if you don’t like the way she pronounces “LAAAAAHHHHVE” (like the overzealous star of a middle school musical about Guy Ritchie–era Madonna), then you will probably not like this song. This is not music criticism, it’s simple arithmetic.
As you may have noticed, “love” is a fairly popular word in music, but it’s not always used responsibly. Love is about abandon, not affect; at best, it’s a portal into the singer’s soul. And since I don’t believe that it is used correctly in “Perfect Illusion,” I have assembled a list of 10 songs in which the word “love” is sung more convincingly than it is in Lady Gaga’s newest single.
A note on the methodology: It is entirely meaningless. I discarded songs in which the accent was on a word before “love,” instead of “love” itself. There is an entire symphony in the way Mary J. Blige says “real” in “Real Love,” or the way Mariah utters “vision” in “Vision of Love.” But in those songs, “love” is more of an afterthought pronunciation-wise, so for that completely arbitrary reason those songs are not on the list. Any song featured in the movie Love Actually was automatically disqualified.
That said, here is my mathematically precise list of songs in which someone sings “love” better than Lady Gaga does in “Perfect Illusion.”
10. Björk: ‘5 Years’
We begin with a bit of a curveball, because, yes, there is a much more famous utterance of the word “love” just a few songs later on Björk’s 1997 album Homogenic, during the gorgeous robot aphrodisiac “All Is Full of Love.” But I have always felt that there’s a lot more of Björk’s very distinct, growly sweet personality in this song, in which she chides an unfeeling ex-flame, “You can’t handle love.” She gives the word a glowing power, as though it is a radioactive substance that the faint of heart cannot even approach without donning a hazmat suit, but which Björk can fearlessly hold in her bare hands. Maybe it’s an Icelandic thing.
9. Donna Summer: ‘I Feel Love’
The song widely considered to be the genesis of modern electronic music is also a playful conversation between (wo)man and machine: “I feel loooooooooooove,” Summer sings, imbuing the word with such overwhelming ecstasy that the last two letters seem to evaporate into thin air. It’s an expression of rapture, yes, but on another level it’s a gentle taunt to her steely backing track. Sure, Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizers can be programmed to play sequences at tempos faster than the human hand would be able to play manually. But can they feel love? At press time, it remained the one thing we had on the robots.
8. Lady Gaga: ‘Paparazzi’/’Bad Romance’ (tie)
See? I’m not just picking on Lady Gaga. I am aware that she has sung the l-word much more compellingly before, both in the sumptuous stalker anthem “Paparazzi” (in the chorus, when she sings, “chase you down until you love me,” in a sigh that perfectly conveys the desperation at the heart of this song) and of course in “Bad Romance” (in which she communicates the difficulty of using this word earnestly in our age of irony, barfing out “lahve-lahve-lahve,” sort of like that performance artist who barfed on her one time at a concert). I choose to believe “Perfect Illusion” is a momentary lapse. She will lahve again.
7. Arthur Russell: ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’
This song is so perfect that I can listen to it only about once a year, because I never want to not be surprised by the tenderness with which Russell whispers, “… love is overtaking me” toward the end of the song, like an epiphany kept quiet, a long-held secret finally shared. Every note Arthur Russell ever sang was like warm milk, but somehow this one is the sweetest.
6. Kris Jenner: ‘I Love My Friends’
You can just tell she really loves her friends!!!!
5. Beyoncé: ‘Drunk in Love’
Beyoncé is someone we traditionally associate with precision and control rather than total abandon, so there’s an uncharacteristic thrill in hearing her just throw her head back and yell, “Drunk in laaoooooooooove!” There’s an entire prism of emotion — joy, fear, pain, acceptance — in just that one word. She animates it with such genuine passion that I wouldn’t be surprised if this song converted a few Beyoncé birthers.
4. Ready for the World: ‘Love You Down’
A reminder that sometimes “love” is a verb. As in, sex.
3. Rihanna ft. Future: ‘Loveeeeeee Song’
Future makes an admirably vulnerable confession in this song: “I need love and affection.” You can hear his initial struggle in saying the l-word (“I don’t wanna give you the wrong impression”), but then he starts to enjoy saying it, as his multi-tracked voice begins howling it into the abyss (“looooo-oooh-oohhve”), like that T-shirt of three wolves howling at the moon. He soon learns that he likes saying the word “love” so much that he adds six extra e’s to it as he spells it out, just to prolong the experience. It’s like eavesdropping on a therapy session! You’re really doing the work, Futureeeeeee.
2. Whitney Houston: ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’
First of all, it’s one of the great parenthetical titles of all time. The beginning of the chorus tricks us into thinking that young Whitney wants a dance partner so desperately that she’ll settle for any old rando. But no. There is a twist: with somebody who loves me. You have, presumably, been drunk on a dance floor at least once since 1987, so you know that the first two minutes and 40 seconds of this song are perfect. But then after that (beginning with the “somebody whooooo” bridge), it becomes something transcendent, heavenly, not quite of this world. And thus any time Whitney belts the word “love” in the last two minutes of this song qualifies for the no. 2 spot. It floats up up up, its lightness underscored by the weighty baritone stomping “DANCE” in the background. The last “loooove,” about 15 seconds before the end of the song, has such power that she must emit a little sigh right after singing it, and that just might be the most poignant part of the song now. Rest easy, Whitney. May your heavenly dance card be forever filled.
1. Céline Dion: Literally Every Song, but Specifically ‘The Power of Love’ and Also ‘That’s the Way It Is’
Early in her career, Céline Dion made it clear that she was not satisfied with the word “love” as it traditionally exists in the English language. Remember that joke in Annie Hall? “Love is too weak a word … I lurve you.” Well, that is not a joke to Céline Dion. It is a manifesto.
This thing called lurve is an eternal force. Lurve is a flute solo letting you know that the ghost of Leonardo DiCaprio is thinking about you right now; lurve is throwing your most expensive possession into the ocean with a whimsical little “aaah!” Lurve is seeing a Meat Loaf video and thinking, “Oh, I have an idea for something way more melodramatic than that.” Lurve is Michelle Pfeiffer sobbing because she’s so happy to be reunited with Robert Redford after that … hostage … riot? … I don’t know, I never actually saw that movie. But also, as Céline has so admirably shown us in the past year, lurve is strength, endurance, and the courage to maintain a belief in it, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
Love fades. Lurve is forever.