The holiday-industrial complex that props up Valentine's Day has little use for specificity. (Readers without children may be shocked to discover that Dora the Explorer and Mater from "Cars" harbor virtually identical views on romance, at least as presented on kids' paper valentines.)
As a form, though, the love song continues to offer nearly infinite room for the precise details of love as it's lived. In that spirit, here's a Valentine's Day playlist filled not simply with the best love songs (whatever that means), but with some of those that take a more particular stance.
The Best Love Song About a Heartbroken Guy Raging Against the Machine
T-Pain, "Default Picture"
The unofficial king of Auto-Tune takes his obsession with technology to appealing new heights in this cut from last year's sorely underrated "Revolver." The setup is simple: T-Pain falls for a woman based on her Twitter avatar, then describes the agony of unrequited love in the age of social media. ("Am I bothering you?" he asks at one point, "Should I be un-following you?") Yet the emotion T-Pain wrings from the ubiquitous vocal-processing software is anything but easy; indeed, Auto-Tune's android-like qualities paradoxically increase the desperation in T-Pain's voice, adding yet another layer of outsider-looking-in. The result is a perfect marriage of form and function.
The Best Love Song in Which a Guy Changes His Mind About Birth Control
R. Kelly, Tyrese, Robin Thicke, The-Dream, "Pregnant"
In this all-star R&B slow jam -- the six-minute finale of Kelly's 2009 "Untitled" album -- we're told of a man with no appetite for commitment: "See, I'm a player, so I ain't trying to take her on no dates," Kelly sings right at the outset. One night at the club, though, he finds himself bewitched by a woman with "an unbelievable booty," and before he knows it he's asking her to "put them pills on chill"; meetings with a Realtor soon follow, as do promises of shopping sprees (presumably at A Pea in the Pod) and a transformed attitude about love. "Around the world, in and out of clubs, hanging with chicks," Thicke recalls of the bad old days, "And I don't see nothing wrong with having a kid." (Warning: The song, which is here, contains a bad word.)
The Best Love Song in Which the Object of the Singer's Affection Is Readily Available for Purchase at 7-Eleven
Toby Keith, "Red Solo Cup"
The tough-talking country star's 2011 album, "Clancy's Tavern," contained some of the gentlest material he's done. But Keith saved his most heartfelt declaration for this spirited string-band hoedown, which recently earned an unlikely airing on "Glee." "I love you, red Solo cup," Keith sings of the disposable drinking vessel, before adoringly outlining its attributes ("You're easy to stack") and rather maturely acknowledging its drawbacks ("You're easy to crack"). Before it's over he's even managed to make using the cup sound like part of being a good American: "In 14 years they are decomposable / And unlike my home they are not foreclosable / Freddie Mac can kiss my" — well, you know.
The Best Love Song in Which the Object of the Singer's Affection Turns Out to Be the Song Itself
Selena Gomez & the Scene, "Love You Like a Love Song"
Like Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head," the Disney Channel tween star's single compares a great man to a great melody. Or might it be the other way around? "You play through my mind like a symphony," Gomez sings. "There's no way to describe what you do to me." The fun of "Love You Like a Love Song" -- beyond its irresistible electro-disco groove, a typically crafty creation of Mouse House regulars Tim James and Antonina Armato -- is flipping between the two interpretations, imagining Gomez first as a love-struck young lady, then as the world's most glamorous pop critic.
The Best Love Song That Today, at Least, Seems Not About Love
Whitney Houston, “How Will I Know”
Before Saturday afternoon, this up-tempo highlight from Houston's self-titled debut felt like an explosion of pop-soul exuberance. (Consult YouTube for a stunning a cappella version of the tune that showcases the vocal character required of our stars in the pre-T-Pain era.) And of course "How Will I Know" will once again resume that happy mantle: No less than Madonna or Michael Jackson, Houston long ago hit the cultural saturation point at which a star's music becomes bigger than a strict reflection of her circumstance. But in the wake of her death, Houston's sunniest hit now sounds washed with melancholy, the words describing an innocent uncertainty that's turned all too definite. Handle with care.
-- Mikael Wood
Photos: Clockwise, Whitney Houston (1986); R. Kelly; Toby Keith. Credits: Clockwise, Associated Press; Los Angeles Times; Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times