"Love Never Felt So Good"... or Did It?

When I saw that Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson were making their way up the charts with their duet "Love Never Felt So Good", my first thought was, "Hey... isn't Michael Jackson dead?" Modern technology then caught up with my momentary confusion (and fear of zombies) to inform me that the song is featured on Jackson's second posthumous album Xscape (2014); a remixed version has also been released with Timberlake adding his vocals to the track. The song was first written and recorded by Jackson and Paul Anka back in 1983 as a demo, but was never officially released under Jackson's name. So now, as a tribute to Jackson's impact on modern pop music, we have this song in its present form. I'm not a Michael Jackson fan, so I can't speak to the song's faithfulness to his legacy or anything else. What I can say something about is the content of the song, which seems somewhat paradoxical and yet completely stereotypical of the modern approach to love, and the increasing emphasis on the feeling of being in love rather than the essence of love itself.

The song's title carries with it a certain assumption about its meaning: when we hear the phrase "love never felt so good", we tend to complete it mentally with a temporal phrase, such as "until I met you; until I experienced your love". We have a tendency to assume that what is meant by this phrase is that love was never fully appreciated or experienced until the current beloved came into the lover's life and opened new vistas of love for him. Now, in the arms of this beloved, the goodness of love is truly felt and enjoyed. However, this interpretation is dead wrong in the context of the lyrical construction of this song. Rather than the beloved enhancing or perfecting the experience of love for the lover, the beloved is actually being held in opposition to love: "Baby, love never felt so good / And I doubt if it ever could / Not like you hold me". The message being conveyed here is not "you perfect love", but "you are better than love; I prefer you to love". In all likelihood, the pleasure of love could never give to one the same type of "goodness" that this other person is able to offer. The "goodness" that exists between the two is explicitly not love; it is something else, something better. But what exactly do the poet and the subject of his song share together? It is described in the lyrics as holding one another, spending nights together, and, oddly enough, loving each other. All of this appears to be a contradiction in terms: how can you prefer the beloved to love itself? How can your experience of the beloved be both love and not love at the same time? How is it possible to separate the two?

The truth is you can't, really. As human beings, we were built to love and be loved. It's everything we desire to receive from others and everything we truly want to give to others. To say we don't want love or that we want something better than love is to lie to ourselves about what we really are. There's no shame in desiring to be loved; it's part of what it means to be human. But we do need to understand the nature of love itself properly before we can fully understand what we truly desire when we want to be loved. As we are all well aware, loving and being loved are complicated matters. And the examples and experiences of love that we are privy to tend to mix that deepest desire of our hearts with a lot of other things that are not so desirable. As Josef Pieper comments in his essay "On Love", "we need only leaf through a few magazines at the barber's to want not to let the word 'love' cross our lips for a good long time". Sentimentalism and commercialism and sexualism, cheating and abuse, breakups and makeups and divorce and remarriage, pills and Playboy and prostitution and Cosmo, rape and abortion and cohabitation and commitment, almost everything surrounding the idea of love between the sexes serves to scare people away from love entirely. In the face of all of this, people have a tendency to want to boil things down to the basics and strip away anything else that seems extraneous. In the case of love, many people ask themselves: what do I like about being in love? And the answer usually runs something like this: the good feelings I get from it. Therefore, in order to avoid the bother and responsibility and even trauma that comes with the experience of love, a person may try to isolate those good feelings and work only to perpetuate them. In this case, the so-called lover and beloved will only come together in order to perpetuate good feelings with one another. All of the other nuisances and responsibilities that come with loving and being loved by another person are neatly avoided. One only keeps "the good stuff".

It's perfectly acceptable that the poet should make a distinction between what he experiences with his beloved in this song and what love actually is. It is true that what the two are doing together is not anyone's definition of "love". What's interesting to me in the chorus of this song is the evidence that, despite our insistence that the "good feelings" separated from the responsibilities of love is really what we want, we can't really fool the deepest desires of our hearts. The chorus of the song says this: "Baby, every time I love you / It's in and out of my life / In, out, baby / Tell me if you really love me / It's in and out my life / Drivin' me crazy". Is this the best songwriting the world has ever seen? Definitely not. (And they accuse Justin Bieber of being unoriginal.) But it does express something inherent to our human desire for love: we can't escape it. No matter how good the setup seems to be -- a beloved who provides a maximum experience of pleasure for a minimum amount of effort seems ideal -- the human heart will constantly clamor for more. "Good feelings" are actually not good enough. Erotic love desires permanence, commitment, and, yes, responsibility. We don't actually want the good things of our lives to flit in and out, to be here one moment and gone the next. We don't really want the beloved to be nothing more than a call-girl (or boy), an instrument of pleasure that we bring out of the closet when we're feeling down and put away again once we feel better. We actually want to relate to other people; we want the beloved to truly love us, to be a permanent part of our existence, to care for us in all aspects of our lives and not just physical stimulation. We want to know that we are valued as persons, that we are loved for who we are, that we are indispensable to someone. This is what the human heart truly longs for; this is what is driving the poet crazy.

The poet wants the beloved to "tell me if you really love me". This admission in a certain sense undoes everything that is said in the previous stanzas: there is nothing actually better than love, even if it doesn't always "feel so good". Our true happiness does not consist of a maximization of pleasure and a minimization of pain. Our true happiness consists of being affirmed by the true love of another, of abiding in that love with the assurance of permanence, and upholding that love in responsible reciprocity. Nothing truly feels as good as being secure in the love of the ones we love. This is a human truth that, no matter how much we twist and turn to try to get around it, and no matter how much we mangle the reality under a commercialized, sexualized, utilitarian mentality, will always rise to the surface, driving us crazy and making us restless until we seek it out and find it.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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