“Love will get you like a case of anthrax”: the Gang of Four’s cheery advice sets the tone for twenty-plus years of on-off punky alternative disdain for love songs. Andy Gill and company took a hardline leftist tone – songs about love were a bait-and-switch tactic, designed to give a mass audience the illusion of communication and involvement, when in fact traditional methods of romance reduced participants to spectators in their own lives. But not every sneerer needs to be so articulate – usually it’s enough to dismiss the love song in its straightforward form (a song that’s an expression of love from one person to another) as sentimental, or sugary and false, or just plain boring.

Of course, this kind of opposition to the very concept of the love song was hardly new to punk. A recurrent trope of rock criticism from the beginning has been to unfavourably contrast love, as a theme, with more daring or realistic or surreal or socially-engaged songwriting, generally summed up by the words “Bob” and “Dylan”. Nik Cohn as usual sums it up best: “Suddenly, pop writers could go beyond three-chord love songs, they didn’t have to act mindless any more. Mostly, they could say what they meant….most of it was total foolishness”. Still, as Cohn notes, the shift was irrevocable: thirty years afterwards there are still plenty of people who would say that the latest Rage Against The Machine polemic is de facto better than any love song, no matter how well crafted, simply because of its subject matter.

But where does this reaction spring from? For starters, a vast number of love songs are boring or twee or otherwise unimaginative (but then so are a vast number of lovers). The more general distaste for the form, though, springs from something in the nature of the love song itself. At the heart of love songs there’s a contradiction – it’s at once the most artificial genre there is, because it revolves around the public display of a private bond, but at the same time it’s the style of songwriting which most aspires to a universal relevance.

“‘I-love-you’ suppresses explanations, adjustments, degrees, scruples.” writes Roland Barthes. All other emotions are made fuller or richer by expansion or explanation: love is diminished. To add to or qualify “I love you” is somehow to deny it. But in order to translate the private meaning in the words for a public context – in, for example, a song – expansion is precisely what has to happen. So the love song dances around the central fact, relies on metaphors and conceits, hoping its images will spark some flash or other of recognition in the listener. It even goes as far as to celebrate its own inadequacy – Al Green’s gorgeous “L.O.V.E. Love” revolves around the singer’s helplessness in the face of even singing about love.

The inexpressible nature of love is as much a burden on lovers as it is on songwriters, though: while each “I love you” is unique, meaningful only in the moment it’s said, there’s still the residual itch to fix that uniqueness, to ground it somehow in the rest of the world. So landmarks, songs, days, places are all seized on – a tree becomes ‘our’ tree, a song ‘our’ song. The burden of explaining the inexplicable is shifted onto these externals, whose existence or history before and beyond this role is quickly forgotten by the lovers. The love song, then, comes into being as a way to make the private public, and finds its most perfect use when snatched from a public context to sustain or express private experience.

This multiple role for the love song, this blurring of the boundaries between individual, dual and public experience, is what makes it unpalatable to the ‘alternative’ mind. As I’ve suggested before, the roots of cult culture lie in the way it privileges the individual above anything else. Confessional or protest songwriting is more valuable because it’s a working through of the individual’s emotions or views, and so more honest than the imagery and artifice of songs about love, which go further and presume – oh horror – to speak to a mass audience and to assume love as some kind of universal common ground. When alternative ‘love songs’ are spotlighted, they tend in my experience to be either numbed with irony, or break-up songs (which again reaffirm the individuality principle). In The Sex Revolts, touching on some of these ideas, Joy Press and Simon Reynolds quote Morrissey: “I believe all these things like love, sex, sharing a life with somebody, are quite vague…being only with yourself can be much more intense.”

The artifice in love songs reflects the artifice in romance itself, of course, the symbolic storehouse of cards, rings, and roses which forms the shared language of Western love. So far, so Gang of Four – but where Andy Gill gets it wrong is in seeing this methodology of romance as solely imposed from outside. Participants in conventional romance are willing actors in a theatrical two-hander with a twofold purpose – to structure and control the relationship’s development and to make as unequivocal as possible a public display of it. Sentimental display – the last line of attack against the love song – is really a kind of lovers’ self-sacrifice, a willingness to play down individual tastes as a proof of committment.

Because the love song flits between public and private context so readily, it’s easier for the listener to be rubbed up the wrong way by a particular song – nothing is as annoying or glutinous as a love song which you can’t relate to. That’s why I can theorise all I like, but still end up loathing a Celine Dion or Michael Ball track to the point of distraction. But a blanket denial? Never: the play between public context and private use is what powers all popular art, and the slippery love song shows that play in its most intriguing, effective light.