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Can She Have It All? Pregnancy Narratives in Contemporary Category Romance
by Annika Rosanowski

Imagine a pregnant woman. Is she overweight? Does she look like she was too tired to care about the clothes she put on? Is she waddling around on swollen feet? The answer to [End Page 1] all of these questions is most likely “no.” Representations of pregnancy in Western cultures currently revolve around pregnancy as a form of success: pregnant celebrities wear the latest trends and look fabulous, active mothers choose their preferred model of jogging strollers, and a whole array of films feature pregnant career women. In fact, the genre of “romcoms” now includes “momcoms,” stories “that promise women romance, love, and sex, all through the transformative power of pregnancy” (Oliver 3). However, while the display of the pregnant body suggests a form of female empowerment, it simultaneously creates new expectations of women.

Pregnancy has become an index for women with which to measure their success, even in genres that are mostly produced by and for women. Writing about chick lit, for example, Cecily Devereux states that “[t]he conclusion, . . . with or without the wedding, is ideologically driven, reaffirming a conviction in the propriety and perhaps necessity of heteronormative union and babies as the conclusion to a woman’s young life” (222). Category romance titles that focus on pregnancy similarly employ pregnancy to reinforce patriarchal ideologies by participating in a particular representation of pregnancy which reinforces traditional family values and demonstrates that “a childless life is worthless, and anyone who doesn’t want kids must be bitter and selfish and morally deficient” (Kushner). In these pregnancy novels, the heroine’s fulfillment —the happy ending that is made possible by having a baby—is dependent on the choices she makes, such as marrying the father or changing her style of dress. This dependency perpetuates stereotypes for distinguishing “good” from “bad” mothers. Robyn Longhurst comes to the conclusion “that bad mothers tend to be (re)presented as lacking in a number of ways,” such as financial means or a husband (118).

That is not to say that category romance as a whole portrays pregnancy as woman’s destiny, as numerous authors envision a happy end without a baby, and some, such as Penny Jordan’s The Reluctant Surrender (2010), even feature a couple actively deciding against having a baby without being any less fulfilled for it.[1] Likewise, depictions of single motherhood exist that do not represent the heroine as a “bad” mother. Again, Jordan would be another good example with The Sicilian’s Baby Bargain (2009).[2] Yet, there is no shortage of novels that do end with a baby, many of which focus on the actual time or discovery of the pregnancy, rather than those set after the birth. This subset of category romance novels is the subject of my analysis, and I will refer to these texts as “pregnancy narratives” from here on.

I focus on category romance because the women in this genre are not desperate for a baby;[3] in fact, most pregnancies are unplanned. Category romance does not presuppose that women want or need babies; yet, it focuses on the heroine’s fulfillment, and in the narratives that revolve around pregnancy—rather than the raising of children or the time after the birth—this fulfillment is only made possible through the heroine’s pregnancy. This type of narrative thereby creates career women who unfailingly learn that only becoming pregnant can lead to true happiness, which is different from chick-lit where most of the protagonists, such as Bridget Jones, actively yearn to leave singlehood behind in favor of domesticity.

My sample of category romance novels is based on publications by Harlequin, due to the publishing company’s long history and its dominating place in the romance market. They have furthermore all been selected at random on various trips to secondhand bookstores. I chose titles that clearly indicate a pregnancy narrative, but the individual texts depended on what was available at the stores at the time of my visit. Within my sample, pregnancy as the [End Page 2] vehicle for the plot—and something clearly identified by the novel’s title as an important part of the narrative—first appeared in 1994, when Emma Goldrick’s Baby Makes Three was published in the “Harlequin Romance” series. The “Presents” series, which Harlequin’s website describes as “the home of the alpha male” with a focus on “sky-rocketing sexual tension” and thus making the sexual affair the center of the story (“Harlequin”), followed in 1997 Emma Darcy’s Jack’s Baby, whose title clearly identified it as a pregnancy story. From then on, pregnancy was a recurring theme among the publications (Figure 1).[4]

A bar chart with years from 1994 to 2015 on the X axis and number of books (from 0 to 30) on the y axis.

Figure 1: Publications of pregnancy titles in the “Romance” and “Presents” imprints by year.

The theme even sparked several mini-series in the new millennium, such as “Bought for Her Baby” (2008) or “Expecting!” (2006-present).

As Figure 1 shows, pregnancy titles in the “Romance” line increased from an average of seven titles per year at the end of the 1990s to about fifteen per year after 2007. The “Presents” imprint took even more enthusiastically to the theme and published more than twenty-five titles in 2009 and 2010. The decrease in titles for the following years, until the number picked up again in 2015, could be related to the “crescendo [of criticism] in 2009” aimed at “Nadya Suleman, the so-called Octo-Mom and her decision . . . to use reproductive technology to give birth to multiples when she was already the mother of six and dependent on welfare” (Rogers 121). Suleman had several media appearances in 2010, and her dependency on welfare, use of rehabilitation facilities, sentence to community service for welfare fraud, and alleged statements about regretting the decision to have children continued to be chronicled for several years afterward (“Natalie”). The negative public opinion formed through this media coverage—while based on Suleman’s use of reproductive technologies and reliance on welfare—might perhaps have resulted in less Harlequin pregnancy narratives, if either the publisher itself or the writers became more hesitant about the reception these texts would receive on the market.

The interest in the pregnancy theme, despite the temporary decrease in titles, is ongoing. It emerged as a trend in the mid-1990s, mirroring a development in Hollywood films as well as in women’s magazines (Boswell; Hine; Sha and Kirkman), and is related to [End Page 3] the achievements of Second Wave feminism. The women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s advocated a re-evaluation of pregnancy, as writers like Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva “attempted to articulate a positive account of pregnancy and of the maternal body” (Oliver 21). Popular culture joined this debate in 1991 when Vanity Fair’s cover featured a naked and very pregnant Demi Moore. Just how problematic the publicly displayed, uncovered pregnant body was at that time can be inferred from the shocked reaction that the image caused. Gabrielle Hine states that “the issue was widely criticized as offensive and numerous stores refused to sell it,” whereas Moore’s post-partum body on the cover in 1992—equally naked despite the body paint used to give the impression that she is wearing a male suit—“provoked less debate” (581). Moore’s picture broke a taboo, and others—most notably Beyoncé’s recent photoshoot, in which she presented her heavily pregnant belly in underwear—followed. By now, entire blogs are dedicated to images of pregnant celebrities in various states of dress or undress, a phenomenon to which I will return in my discussion of the novels’ covers.

Category romance likewise reacted to social changes in the course of its publication history. In 1980, Tania Modleski argued that Harlequin novels “are always about a poor girl marrying a wealthy man” (443) and that the “genuine heroine must not even understand sexual desire” (444), but as jay Dixon shows in her work on Mills and Boon fiction between 1909-1995, these claims are not accurate when it comes to category romances from the early twentieth century, and the books “have changed over the past decades” even more dramatically (5). Nowadays, the heroine can be a CEO (Jessica Gilmore’s The Heiress’s Secret Baby, 2015), or own a company (Kandy Shepherd’s From Paradise…to Pregnant, 2015), and a sexually assertive heroine can be found across several imprints, some of which even feature sex as a fundamental part of their storyline, such as “Dare” (2018-present), “Desire” (2011-present), “Blaze” (2001-2017) or “Presents” (1973-present). The incorporation of “some aspects of feminist values—much greater emphasis on women’s sexual desire and much less on the requirement to be a virgin bride, more career women and greater independence for the romantic heroine, for example” even led to a pushback from feminist critics against the initial negative evaluation of the genre (Weisser 132-33). The feminist movement affected popular culture, and pregnancy was taken up as a theme in category romance with the same enthusiasm as it was in Hollywood or in women’s magazines.

Before I address the representation and function of pregnancy at the level of the narrative to show that the heroine’s fulfillment in pregnancy narratives is always dependent on having a baby, let me offer a short analysis of the covers, which also participate in shaping the image of the “good” mother by attaching this value to certain dress and lifestyle choices. In their studies on the representation of pregnancy in Australian and New Zealand women’s magazines respectively, Hine and Sha and Kirkman observe that the monitoring of pregnant celebrities is used to create stereotypes of “good” and “bad” mothers. With regard to Australia’s magazine culture, Sha and Kirkman state that the “magazines tended to feature ‘good’ women (who dressed with restraint) and ‘bad’ women (who did not)” (363). Hine comes to a similar conclusion for her New Zealand selection with regard to discipline, arguing that “[m]agazines . . . associated the ‘success’ of a pregnancy with the size and appearance of the pregnant and post-partum body. Across the sample, pregnant celebrities were represented as graced with willpower, luck, and a fast metabolism” (585). Both magazine samples featured largely U.S. celebrities, which makes their findings relevant for [End Page 4] the North American Harlequin covers. About half of the covers for both imprints feature visibly pregnant bodies.[5]


Three Harlequin Presents covers, each featuring a visibly pregnant woman in an evening gown being embraced by a man.

Figure 2: Sample of “Harlequin Presents” covers. The Marakaios Baby Cover Art Copyright ©2015; His Royal Love-Child Cover Art Copyright ©2006; One Night…Nine-Month Scandal Cover Art Copyright ©2009; all owned by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.

The covers in my sample from “Harlequin Presents” bear the most resemblance to pictures taken of pregnant celebrities, with the women on the covers in Figure 2 all wearing fancy dresses, jewelry (in some), and high heels, when their feet are shown. None of them has put on any weight during their pregnancies, and they all look styled for a night out. This presents women as able to maintain a slim body throughout their pregnancies, while still dressing with style. Hines’s conclusion that current “images of pregnancy encourage the display of the pregnant body, but also endorse the discipline of the pregnant form through an investment in feminine consumer culture” (587) is supported by these covers.

If we compare these covers to pictures taken of pregnant actresses at the Oscars, as seen in Figure 3, we notice striking similarities both in dress and in the angle at which the photo was taken, which often highlights the pregnant belly. [End Page 5]

Embed from Getty Images

Full-length image of a woman in a floor-length purple dress with a deep v neck and short sleeves.

Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic

Embed from Getty Images

Figure 3: Jenna Dewan Tatum (2013), Natalie Portman (2011), and Jessica Alba (2008). Images InStyle:

Further pictures can also be found on US Weekly’s blog “Bump Watch,” which is dedicated to the collection of pictures of pregnant celebrities. Aligning the cover models with the media’s representations of famous pregnant women might also suggest that the heroines of the novels will experience a life of glamor, riches, and success despite—or because of—their pregnancy.

Other Harlequin covers focus on the more private setting of the bedroom, with the heroine dressed in modest—but still sensuous—nightgowns that heighten her femininity and vulnerability, as can be seen in Figure 4:

Harlequin novel covers with circular images showing close-up views of men holding visibly pregnant women wearing elegant nightgowns.

Figure 4: Sample of “Harlequin Presents” covers with modestly dressed, vulnerable heroines. The Italian Prince’s Pregnant Bride Cover Art Copyright ©2007; Pirate Tycoon, Forbidden Baby Cover Art Copyright ©2009; Carrying the Sheikh’s Heir Cover Art Copyright ©2014; all owned by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.

[End Page 6] The pregnant bodies on “Harlequin Romance” covers are not clad in evening dresses or decked out in jewelry, favoring instead modestly dressed mothers-to-be, but the slimness and femininity of the expectant mothers is highlighted by their attire (Figure 5). These covers contribute to an ideal—slim, stylish, well-groomed—that is unattainable for most pregnant women who, in contrast to famous celebrities, cannot rely on nannies, personal assistants, or expensive grooming treatments. This representation of the successful mother puts additional pressure on women to conform to certain expectations, in addition to negotiating (single) motherhood and their jobs.

Close-up images from the waist up of men standing behind women with their arms around their visibly pregnant waists.

Figure 5: Sample of “Harlequin Romance” covers. Nine Months to Change His Life Cover Art Copyright ©2014; The Heiress’s Secret Baby Cover Art Copyright ©2015; Reunited by a Baby Secret Cover Art Copyright ©2015; all owned by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.

The scope of this article cannot include a more in-depth examination of the covers, even though further exploration of the history of the relationship between modeling Harlequin covers on celebrities would certainly prove insightful; however, I find this short introduction useful in that the covers already indicate certain patterns when it comes to the representation of pregnancy in category romance. On the level of the narrative, these patterns emerge through choices that the heroine makes, be it by contacting the father or by giving up her job. By the end of the novel, the reader is implicitly aware that the female protagonist’s fulfillment and her choices are mutually constitutive.

I will first focus on pregnancy narratives in Harlequin’s “Presents” line. My sample consists of fifteen texts that range from 2002-2015 that are clearly identified by their title as a pregnancy narrative. The selection here, too, is based merely on the availability of these [End Page 7] texts at the secondhand bookstores that I visited. The imprint, as the following analysis will show, portrays traditional gender roles. This portrayal stems from the imprint’s requirement to have an alpha male hero who is so influential and wealthy that “there’s nothing in the world his powerful authority and money can’t buy” (“Harlequin”); his exaggerated status causes a socioeconomic divide between him and the heroine that makes her powerless against him in the public sphere and “explains” his dominant behavior in the domestic sphere. True to the imprint’s specifications, the men in these stories are usually billionaires or royals and often presidents or CEOs of international companies, something that is almost always reflected by the title. In that category we have Emma Darcy’s Ruthless Billionaire (2009) or Lynn Raye Harris’s Carrying the Sheikh’s Heir (2014), to name just a few: both titles clearly indicate how powerful the male protagonist is. There are others in which the focus is on conception out of wedlock, such as Lucy Monroe’s One Night Heir (2013) and Pregnancy of Passion (2006) or Miranda Lee’s The Secret Love-Child (2002). “Harlequin Presents” also favors exotic locations and it is therefore not surprising that several titles highlight the European origins of the male protagonist, such as, for example, Maggie Cox’s The Italian’s Pregnancy Proposal (2008) or Sandra Marton’s The Italian Prince’s Pregnant Bride (2007).

In my sample, in “Harlequin Presents” narratives that are clearly identified as a pregnancy narrative and whose focus is on the time of the pregnancy, the pregnancy is never planned. It is often even devastating for the heroine because the pregnancy is frequently discovered just after the heroine and the hero break up. Characteristic of Harlequin romances, the separation is often caused by a misunderstanding or personal fears, as in Lucy Monroe’s His Royal Love-Child (2006), in which Danette agrees to have a secret affair with the prince of an Italian island. Six months later, however, Danette does not want the affair to be secret anymore, which is more than what her lover wants to offer, so she ends the relationship. In another scenario, the characters meet for the first time and end up having a one-night stand, often leading to a longer affair before the pregnancy is discovered. Both the Princess of Surhaadi in Carol Marinelli’s Princess’s Secret Baby (2015) and perfume-maker Leila in Abby Green’s An Heir Fit for a King (2015) end up in bed with a man they only met hours or at most a day earlier.

A small portion of pregnancy novels—three out of fifteen in the sample—evolve from a desire for revenge. In those cases, the hero has a dark secret which drives him to pursue the heroine and tie her to him through marriage and pregnancy, with the plan to destroy her. However, while carrying out his plan, he realizes that she is a different person than he had previously thought and he falls in love with her. Conflicts then arise because the heroine discovers his secret plan, and he has to convince her that his love is now real.

In all cases, the narrative jumps from the conflict to the discovery of the pregnancy, which can be as early as the first month post-conception or as late as the third month. In ten out of fifteen novels, the couple then agrees to enter a marriage of convenience for the sake of the baby. The remaining five novels include two in which the couple are already married because it was part of his plot, and three which conclude with marriage at the end. Marriage, so it is explained, is necessary to provide the child with a stable home. Pregnancy narratives in “Harlequin Presents” are filled with protagonists who grew up as illegitimate and unacknowledged children, or unloved and from a dysfunctional family. In Janette Kenny’s Pirate Tycoon, Forbidden Baby (2009), Keira has suffered her whole life from being kept a secret by her father and abandoned by her mother, and Margo, Kate Hewitt’s protagonist in [End Page 8] The Marakaios Baby (2015), grew up with a mother addicted to crystal meth and no father; both vow to provide their baby with a full set of parents.

At the point that the heroine proposes or agrees to a marriage of convenience, she is convinced that it will be a business-like arrangement without love. The heroes have similar family backstories: Talos in Lucas’s novel Bought: The Greek’s Baby (2010) grew up fatherless and then had to find out that the man he looked up to as a substitute father was corrupt; Monroe’s hero in His Royal Love-Child, Marcello, could never compete with his brother for his father’s affection and was kept out of the family business for years after the father died; and Alex in Tina Duncan’s Her Secret, His Love-Child (2010) was the victim of an abusive father. This observation supports Laura Vivanco’s assessment in her article “Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances” that category romance depicts patriarchy not as detrimental exclusively for women, but as damaging for men as well (1077).

The decision to marry the father—even without love—always proves to have been the “right” one by the end of the novel, as it leads to the heroine’s fulfillment. By retrospectively affirming the heroine’s decision, the pregnancy narratives in both imprints that I examine here contribute to notions of what constitutes a “good” or a “bad” mother. The ideal of the “good” mother includes socioeconomic factors, as Dorothy Rogers, chair of the department of Philosophy and Religion at Montclair State University, pointed out in 2013:

Even in our relatively enlightened age, just about the worst thing a woman can do . . . is bring a child into this world when she [the mother] is unattached, uneducated/undereducated, unemployed/underemployed, without the social sanction of marriage, and with no economic backing—in short, to become the much-maligned welfare mother who is assumed unable to be a ‘good mother.’ (121)

“The perception was,” as Rogers states, that if the birthmother’s pregnancy was unplanned, her “main task was to ‘make things right’” (122). In the pregnancy narratives of the “Presents” imprint, all heroines do indeed inform the father of his new status and agree to a marriage of convenience for the sake of the child.

In order to be a good mother, the heroines have to do everything within their power to provide their child with two parents—married, preferably—financial security, and a home. It might mean giving up career opportunities, moving closer to social support networks, and/or marrying the father. In the course of these narratives, the heroine proves that her child will always come first, that she will protect it, and raise it with love. This need for proof appears as part of the plot as well, because the “Presents” heroes consider themselves the owner of the child, while the mother—if not a “good” one—can be removed from the picture. The heroine therefore needs to demonstrate her worth if she wants to keep her child.

The feelings of the father toward the baby are almost never questioned, despite the unintentional pregnancy. Only one out of fifteen heroines, Morgan’s heroine in One Night…Nine Month Scandal (2010), worries that the hero does not want the child. While some fathers question their paternity in the beginning, it is never in doubt that they want the child as long as it is theirs. The heroes, however, are not emotional about the prospect of fatherhood. Rather, it is about the fact that it is “his” child and ensuring that “his” child will [End Page 9] receive “his” name, as well as everything he himself had lacked growing up. In one of the revenge narratives, Bought: The Greek’s Baby (2010), in which the father is convinced that the heroine is a shallow, cold, and selfish person, he threatens her with taking full custody of the child when he learns of the pregnancy. This is a common scenario across the texts, and several fathers use the same threat to ensure that the heroine agrees to their conditions.

The battle for custody as the right of ownership suggests that the family model in category romance is based on “the property model of parenthood” (Rogers 128). This model, as Janet Farrell Smith argues, has its origin in the patriarchal household of Roman times, when “parental rights and responsibility have explicitly overlapped with property rights” (113), giving the male head of the household the right to treat his child as he would anything else he owns, meaning he could destroy it, let it live, or sell it to someone else.

The modern “Harlequin Presents” pregnancy narrative reflects the idea that patriarchal control is also connected to economic power: the threat of being able to buy the child with the means of a lawyer and the resulting fear in the female protagonist stresses the economic divide between the hero and the heroine. The hero not only wields significant power in the business world, but his financial means far exceed those of the heroine. While the difference in wealth between men and women is realistic—since women in most nations earn less than men[6]—these texts fictionally perpetuate this divide and present marriage as a form of prostitution to which the woman has to agree if she wants access to her child. Several heroes, such as Duncan’s Alex Webber or Hewitt’s Leo Marakaios, even explicitly state that they expect their sexual relationship to resume within their marriage agreement.

The representation of the pregnancy itself is limited to a few stereotypes, while the fetus itself is almost completely absent from the texts;[7] this is also true of medical technology with the exception of ultrasound. All women in these fifteen novels suffer from morning sickness which alerts them to their condition—the heroine’s weakness due to her nausea, as well as back pain or swollen feet, excuse her vulnerability, to which the hero responds by taking care of her. She is carried over hot sand, put into cars, put to rest, or escorted away from crowded gatherings. Her mobility, so the novels suggest, is limited and dependent on masculine strength and chivalry. She is not necessarily confined to a bed, but several heroes ensure that the heroine is kept in one location, usually without access to modern technology, and not one of the heroines keeps working once the hero discovers the pregnancy.[8] For that reason, the treatment of the heroine with its focus on rest rather than on exercise or mental stimulation is reminiscent of the rest cure, a nineteenth-century practice that was believed to alleviate depression, particularly that of women after giving birth.[9]

While the rest cure was criticized in popular fiction as early as 1892 in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, and even though it is medically recognized as ineffective or even counterproductive, it is revived in the “Harlequin Presents” pregnancy novel as an act of care. It is used to present the men as attentive to the heroine’s emotional and physical needs and enables her to be taken care of instead of fulfilling the role of nurturer herself. Only a small number of novels cover the entirety of the pregnancy from discovery to birth. The majority confines itself to a timeframe of a few months, often ending before the event of the birth. It is therefore not possible to draw any conclusions from my samples about the hero’s role as care-giver with regard to the baby, a question that presents a trajectory for further research. [End Page 10]

The pregnant body is almost never described explicitly. The size of the stomach is never mentioned once it outgrows a small bump, despite the fact that couples in the novels still have sex in the sixth month of pregnancy or later. The narration instead focuses on the transformation of the heroine’s body into a more feminine one; pregnancy softens her and makes her more attractive. Her withdrawal from the public sphere can then be read as being rewarded with beauty, constituted by traditional models of femininity. Attention is, however, paid to her breasts and how pregnancy has enlarged them, which again makes her more desirable, and perpetuates stereotypical views on what makes women attractive. While chick-lit protagonists are explicit about their desire to conform to the norms of the fashion and beauty industries—which can be considered replacements of patriarchal discourse (Jerković)—the heroine’s conformity in category romance is implicit; every step toward feminine beauty ideals takes her closer to her happy ending. One example is Bought: The Greek’s Baby, in which the heroine was never seen without lipstick before the pregnancy (22-23), and the hero is sure that “[j]ust the thought of losing her figure and not fitting into all her designer clothes must have made her crazy” (26). But losing her memory after an accident allows her “true” self to surface, which changes her provocative wardrobe into “pink cotton dress[es]” (153), and rewards her with the love of the hero.

More than anything else, though, it is what the pregnancy signifies that is attractive to the male hero. This is made the most explicit in Monroe’s His Royal Love-Child, in which Marcello experiences “pride in his accomplishment” (131) and the woman’s role in a pregnancy is described as entirely passive. Danette says, “I didn’t get myself pregnant” (135), despite the fact that she was aware that they were having unprotected sex and assumed that he was the one not conscious of it, and he agrees, “No, amante. I did that” (135, emphasis in original). Her pregnancy puts him into a “territorial mood” (142) and he makes it clear to her that she carries his child in her body (120). This conflation of the baby and property is a repeat of the hero’s earlier desire to ensure custody of the child because he considers himself the owner while the mother is merely the vessel and is, if not a good candidate for the mother-role, expendable. This is made explicit at an earlier point in the same novel when the heroine realizes that “the man really, desperately, wanted the baby in her womb, but it had nothing to do with her being the mother” (emphasis in the original, 99).

Other scholars who examined the ways in which pregnancy is treated in the public sphere have noted that pregnant women are now “more susceptible to public surveillance” (Hefferman et al. 322). Drawing on studies by Robyn Longhurst, Jane M. Ussher, Susan Markens, and C.H. Browner, Kristin Hefferman et al. conclude that—because the pregnant body is considered “a ‘container’ for the foetus”—everything the mother does or decides has to be considerate of the baby, in order “to avoid being labeled as a ‘bad’ mother” (322). This split between the pregnant woman and her fetus is particularly noteworthy, as it explains why the Harlequin heroine is so often forced to prove that she is a good mother if she wants to remain a part of her child’s life, particularly in the pregnancy revenge narratives discussed earlier. Marriage without love is a legality in which the baby receives the hero’s name, thereby allowing him to claim ownership of the child. For the mother, marriage is a means to give the baby financial security and the stability that, it is explained through the heroine’s own unhappy upbringing, only a traditional family model can provide.

The hero’s agreement to or proposal of a marriage of convenience, however, does not mean that she is recognized as a good mother, merely that she consents to his control in exchange for his function as father. She first has to prove her worth before the economic [End Page 11] agreement can be transformed into a marriage of love. A similar use of pregnancy as a device for transformation has been noticed in Hollywood films by Oliver, who explains that “pregnancy has become a metaphor for other types of transformations” (8). In romantic comedies, it “is the means through which both the male and female characters grow and mature as individuals, and thereby become suitable partners and parents” (9-10). The Harlequin heroine does not always have to prove her worth as a mother; yet, she ultimately always proves that she is worthy of the hero’s love and that the marriage of convenience is more than a mere business arrangement. The hero is likewise transformed through her pregnancy and has, by the end, “been forced to acknowledge his own sexism and has resolved to change his behavior,” a conclusion that Vivanco argues is representative of the “Presents” line in general (1068).

Although the pregnancy appears to be the main focus in these Harlequin narratives, it is a mere plot device, with the baby functioning as the connecting point that keeps the two characters together despite their conflicts and misperceptions. For the sake of the baby, the heroine marries the hero. Sometimes that means having to fit into her husband’s household as well, most likely if her husband is of royal blood. Having to do so enables the heroine to realize that what she had been afraid of all along was her feelings of love for the hero. Along similar lines, Parley Ann Boswell notes that pregnancies are often “used as plot devices, tropes, and deus ex machina” (9), because “our recognition of pregnancy allows it, once introduced into a plot, to morph nimbly and become almost anything from a whispered word, to an abstract idea, to a visual image, to a consumable good” (10). That said, the nature or character of a good marriage is often discussed in these texts, as the characters ponder the often-loveless relationship of their own parents and the detrimental effect it had on themselves as children. Likewise, the heroine realizes that an economically stable but dispassionate marriage is not enough for her own wellbeing; for instance, Green’s protagonist acknowledges that she might wither and die in this loveless environment (170), and the majority follow the example of Duncan’s heroine and decide to leave the hero after all. The hero’s reaction to her decision falls into one of two categories: he has either fallen in love with her in the course of their short marriage and now has to convince her of his feelings, or the threat of losing her makes him realize that what he has been feeling for her is indeed love.

This brings me to the question: What happens to the heroine’s job? Only a few novels discuss her career aspirations. In Kate Hewitt’s The Marakaios Baby (2015), Margo gives her career as a reason for not marrying Leo, explaining that she does not want to be a housewife for fear of being bored, and Keira in Pirate Tycoon, Forbidden Baby is indignant when told that being pregnant is her new job. In all cases, the plot drives the transition from working woman to mother. The marriage because of her pregnancy nullifies all previous conversations about the incompatibility of marriage and the heroine’s independence, because it is now not merely herself she has to care for. In the case of a royal wedding, the heroine has no choice but to take up wifely duties as she will become the new queen—the press also often makes it impossible for the heroine to return to her job, as Leila has to find out when her perfume shop is overrun by the media. Leo and King Alix Saint Croix give their wives an opportunity to work, Leo by providing her with a job in his office and King Alix by presenting his perfume-maker wife with a factory in which she can produce new scents. In both cases, it is only with his help that she can resume work, and in neither is it treated as a potential career. [End Page 12]

Without fail, the transformation into a housewife ultimately makes the heroine of the pregnancy narrative happy. The Princess of Surhaadi finds fulfillment in her family and Eve, the heiress and society girl from Bought: The Greek’s Baby, excels in her role as mother of three while juggling social affairs. The heroines do not need a career to find happiness. The hero exists, so Talos tells his wife in Lucas’s novel, “to satisfy [her] every desire” (146). Along similar lines, Leo argues that he is “not expecting [her] to have duties” around the house; she can do as much or as little as she wants, and being his wife offers her “freedom, not a burden” (Hewitt 95). In all cases, the heroine finds fulfillment through a pregnancy that was unplanned. Becoming a mother had not been part of her plan to lead a happy life, and as such, the pregnancy narrative presents the reader with the “insight” that babies will make her happy, even if she had not considered having one at all or at this stage in her life. The heroine “has it all” in the end: love, wealth, social status, a family, and the option to work.[10] However, the narrative of the novels suggests that none of this would have been possible without the baby.

The “Harlequin Romance” line, in contrast, focuses more on “relatable women” and does not require alpha male heroes (“Harlequin”). Possibly for that reason, the intersection of career and family is more explicitly discussed in the “Romance” than in the “Presents” imprint. Novels in the “Presents” line that focus on pregnancy usually begin with the demand that the heroine will not work during her pregnancy or the first few years of the child’s life, examples of which would be The Marakaois Baby or Pirate Tycoon, Forbidden Baby. The pregnancy titles in the “Harlequin Romance” imprint, such as Jacki Braun’s Boardroom Baby Surprise (2009), Barbara McMahon’s The Boss’s Little Miracle (2007), or Jessica Hart’s Promoted to Wife and Mother (2008), all indicate that their focus is on parenthood as well as on the workplace. The reason that this imprint is more flexible in its representation of the negotiating of a woman’s career and her ability to be a mother is partially due to the fact that “Harlequin Romance” offers a more equal footing for the relationship that can, as Vivanco observes, often be described with the terms “friends” or “partners” (1078). The following analysis of eight pregnancy-focused titles from 2007-2015 will show, however, that even the pregnancy narratives in this imprint suggest that a woman needs a baby to find fulfillment.[11]

The men in the “Harlequin Romance” pregnancy narrative are often at the center of the story. The heroines do not need to prove to the father that they are good mothers; instead, they need to teach the hero to be in touch with his emotions, to accept support and care, or to realize that a career is not a life, such as in Rebecca Winters’s The Greek’s Tiny Miracle (2014) and Michelle Douglas’s The Secretary’s Secret (2011), as well as her Reunited by a Baby Secret (2015). Yet, as my analysis will show, this imprint offers more flexibility than the “Presents” one, enabling more variety in the scenarios. It can therefore also be the hero who has to show the heroine that there is more to life than a career, as in Gilmore’s The Heiress’s Secret Baby; or that he is a permanent addition to her life and is willing to earn her trust, an example of which would be McMahon’s The Pregnancy Promise (2008).

In contrast to pregnancy narratives in the “Presents” line, the novels do not have to begin with a conflict or a break-up. In several instances, such as in Shepherd’s From Paradise…to Pregnant or McMahon’s The Pregnancy Promise, the characters spend more than a hundred pages—that is, almost half of the book—getting to know each other prior either to having sex or at least to discovering the pregnancy. Once the pregnancy is discovered, the decision to keep the baby is as immediate as it is in the “Presents” imprint and likewise never [End Page 13] doubted, even though some texts mention “alternatives like abortion or adoption” and Marianna, Douglas’s heroine, admits that she had thought about it (Reunited 17).

If abortion as an option is raised, it is done by men, and the heroine makes it clear that it is her choice to have the baby: “He wanted her to get rid of their beautiful baby? Oh, that so wasn’t going to happen!” (Douglas, Secretary 50). Shepherd’s heroine, Zoe, is similarly passionate when the doctor tells her that she has “options”: “‘No.’ Zoe was stunned by the immediacy of her reply. ‘No options. I’m keeping it’” (184). Only “bad” women would truly consider an abortion, as McMahon’s The Pregnancy Promise makes clear via the hero’s traumatized state after his ex-girlfriend, a beautiful but cold supermodel, “aborted the[ir] child because she didn’t want stretch marks marring her skin” (84). Oliver states that Hollywood films employ “the language of choice used by the pro-choice movement” in order to justify “a woman’s ‘right to choose her baby,’ in spite of what others may think” (10). Harlequin avails itself of the same sentiment for its “Romance” pregnancy narratives. Some heroines call it a choice, but even without expressing it as such, the romance heroine is depicted as “choosing” the baby when offered alternatives. Category romance titles that follow this representation thereby promote traditional values by presenting the “choice” to have the baby as the way to happiness and fulfillment, a way the women had not even considered.

While abortion remains a taboo topic, infertility is a recurring theme in “Harlequin Romance” pregnancy narratives. It is often the hero who is unable to have (more) children; the male protagonist in The Heiress’s Secret Baby is infertile due to cancer treatment in his youth and becomes the adoptive father of the heroine’s baby, and Winters’s hero was injured in a bomb attack after his affair with the heroine and she is now carrying the only child he will ever have. Only The Pregnancy Promise features a female protagonist, Lianne, who might not be able to reproduce in the future, as the doctor urges her to have a hysterectomy to save her own health. Despite the fact that Lianne’s time is running out if she wants to have a baby, she opts for finding a man in order to become pregnant rather than turning to reproductive technologies. Except for Lianne, whose timeframe to have a baby is reduced to a few months, the Harlequin heroines do not express any form of “baby hunger” that might drive women to employ medical technologies in order to become pregnant. Lianne, however, represents the threat that a woman’s chance of having a child might slip from her grasp if she waits too long. The reliance on heterosexual sex that produces the baby in all texts, despite the shadow of infertility, reassures the readers that sex and love,[12] not technology, produces children. And most importantly, the shadow of male infertility emphasizes women’s function as producer of future generations; the heroine’s decision to keep the baby secures the future because without her child there would be no babies at all.

As I stated before, the “Romance” imprint is more flexible when it comes to negotiating motherhood and careers. Most pregnancy texts discuss the compatibility of both, as well as women’s options, while ultimately concluding with happiness in the form of a family. However, the family model that is reflected is more modern than the traditional patriarchal type in which the mother’s job is at home. Depending on the narrative—and on the author, as it seems that particular writers favor certain family models—the heroine can keep her company or position as CEO after the birth, as Gilmore’s and Shepherd’s do. In others—Winters’s The Greek’s Tiny Miracle, for example—the heroine gives up her job and does not resume it by the end of the novel. Douglas’s secretary likewise decides to resign from her job and to move back to her hometown, although she has plans to “get a job;” [End Page 14] whether she does so after the conclusion of the novel is up to the reader to decide (Secretary 44). Regardless of the decision the soon-to-be-mother makes, the question of whether a woman can have both a career and a job is always answered with a “yes,” and it is either the hero who assures the heroine that women can have both (Gilmore 99), or she herself explicitly states that she “will organize [her] own life–[her] own house and furniture, not to mention [her] work,” despite being pregnant (Douglas, Reunited 49).

The affirmation that a woman “can have it all” comes, however, with a caveat. The women in these texts all love their jobs; yet, they are often willing to resign in order to raise the child close to their family (Kit in The Secretary’s Secret or Stephanie in The Greek’s Tiny Miracle); they give up a promotion that would mean relocating in order to stay close to the father (Anna in The Boss’s Little Miracle); or they realize that expanding the company will not be possible if they want to be mothers at the same time (Zoe in From Paradise…to Pregnant). Not all women have to make adjustments in their jobs, but if they have a career, they inevitably have to give up something. Polly, the heroine in The Heiress’s Secret Baby, is the CEO of a large department store. This position, however, means that she “was prickly and bossy. She didn’t know the names of half her staff and was rude to and demanding of the ones she did know” (Gilmore 151). Being a CEO requires her to “adjust” after she returns from a month-long vacation and the “cloaks of respectability and responsibility settling back onto her shoulders . . . were a little heavy” (10, 7). The corporate world has no place for human weakness: “So what if she felt as if a steamroller had run her over physically and emotionally before reversing and finishing the job? She wasn’t paid to have feelings or problems or illnesses” (104). It also requires a particular appearance, so that Polly keeps referring to her makeup as “armour” (159).

When Polly learns of her pregnancy she reacts with shock and, while she ties that response to her “need to be a CEO, not a mother” (99), it is motivated by fears about her inability to be a mother because she “can’t bake” (95) and “can’t sew either” (95). The two, motherhood and a career, are not as compatible as it first seemed after all. In order to be a good mother, Polly needs to realize that a career is not a life (170), and to acknowledge that “valuing her independence, her ability to walk away . . . didn’t seem such an achievement anymore” (213). The conclusions across my sample suggest that a woman can have a career, but she needs a baby if she wants to be happy. The necessity of a baby for fulfillment is not the same as being able to “have it all,” seeing that the baby now becomes mandatory for happiness. Furthermore, the fetus always has to come first if one wants to avoid the label “bad” mother: and that includes giving up career opportunities.

Pregnant women in “Harlequin Romance” are financially secure even if they are not CEOs or owners of a company; they do not seek out the father of their child in order to discuss payments. Douglas’s secretary tells the father: “I don’t want anything from you. I assure you I have everything that I need” (Secretary 51). Marion Lennox’s nurse likewise tells the hero, “I can afford [the baby] [and] I didn’t come here for the money” (134), and Marianna in Reunited by a Baby Secret works as a viticulturist and stresses this point: “I work hard and I draw a good salary. It may not be in the same league as what you earn, Ryan, but it’s more than sufficient for both my and the baby’s needs” (Douglas 64). The heroines are also not interested in a marriage of convenience and some are very outspoken in voicing their opinion when the hero mentions marriage for the sake of the child: Marianna asks, “What kind of antiquated notions do you think I harbor?” (Douglas, Reunited 44). Yet, while several texts explicitly state that single women “get pregnant all the time” and that “[n]o one expects [End Page 15] them to get married any more” because “[n]o one thinks it’s shameful or a scandal” (44), all but one of the women contact the father.[13] That is not to say that there are no Harlequin titles in which the heroine decides against contacting or involving the father and instead raises the child alone, as Julia James’s The Greek and the Single Mom from 2010 or Jordan’s A Secret Disgrace from 2012 in the “Presents” imprint demonstrate. However, under consideration here are only narratives that have the pregnancy at the center and James’s, as well as Jordan’s and other single-mom titles, focus on the events after the birth with an actual child present in the storyline.

The majority of the heroines—seven out of eight in my sample—do not expect the father to get involved after they contact him: “I’ll not raise him expecting anything from you. You can walk away” (Lennox 142). However, letting the father know of his new status is portrayed as “the right thing to do” (146), and ultimately always leads to a conventional family by the end of the novel because the hero wants to be a part of his child’s life. Despite the pregnancy novels’ assurance that there is no shame in single motherhood, the happy ending in this particular strand of “Harlequin Romance” publication suggests that the father is a necessary part of finding fulfillment and that forming a family is what good mothers achieve. Some narratives, such as Winters’s The Greek’s Tiny Miracle, explicitly articulate the importance of a child having a father in its life: “[Y]ou’ve known nothing about your own father—not even his name. I can see how devastating that has been for you, which makes it more vital than ever that the baby growing inside you has my name so it can take its rightful place in the world” (107).

As in the “Presents” line, pregnancy in the “Harlequin Romance” functions as a plot device that transforms the two protagonists into suitable partners or good parents. Four novels concentrate on the relationship between the heroine and the hero. The other half feature a hero who needs to learn that being a father and having a family enables him to overcome his own trauma. In these texts, her pregnancy provides a mere vehicle for his transformation from “lone wolf” to father (Douglas, Reunited 47). This is reminiscent of the pregnancy movies of the 1980s and 1990s in which the man was domesticated “at the expense of the pregnant woman, who is used primarily as a backdrop against which the men ‘find’ themselves and learn the true meaning of love and family” (Oliver 41). The fact that male domestication is still a main theme in category romance well after 2000 speaks to the persistent anxiety—and reality—that an unwanted pregnancy will result in single parenthood. Pregnancy in category romance provides a fantasy in which men would rather sue the mothers for custody than abandon their child, and where they turn from cold corporate professionals into caring fathers.

I have shown that Harlequin’s “Presents” and “Romance” imprints both feature a strand of pregnancy narratives that contribute to a particular representation of pregnancy in popular culture. In Hollywood as well as in women’s magazines, pregnancy is represented as women’s “biological destiny” (Sha and Kirkman 365), which is perpetuated by this type of category romance where a woman can have a career, but only a child leads to happiness and fulfillment. Popular culture also strongly polices what makes a “good” mother by heralding certain choices, while punishing those who transgress. In the examined pregnancy narratives, “good” mothers are expected to do everything in their power to give the child a father; their success is then rewarded with love and a family instead of single motherhood. Category romance reflects current discourses on pregnancy and while the narratives examined here allow the articulation of some feminist values (depending on the imprint), it [End Page 16] does so within a patriarchal framework that is ultimately reinforced by the conclusion of the narratives.

[1] I want to thank my anonymous reviewer for bringing Penny Jordan and the titles mentioned here to my attention. I also want to express my gratitude to Eric Selinger for his keen eye for detail and the thoughtful observations he made when reading the draft of this article.

[2] The “Harlequin Romance” series “The Single Mom Diaries,” including texts such as Raye Morgan’s A Daddy for Her Sons (2013), is specifically dedicated to the exploration of single motherhood. “Harlequin Presents” likewise features single mothers, for example in Cathy William’s A Reluctant Wife (2013).

[3] My sample only yielded one narrative that starts out with the female protagonist wanting to have a baby, Barbara McMahon’s The Pregnancy Promise (2008).

[4] Only novels with a title that clearly identify it as a story focusing on pregnancy were counted for this statistic, i.e., titles including the words “pregnancy” or “pregnant,” “baby,” “heir,” “nine months,” “expecting,” or similar. Titles were collected using for publications up to 2012 and for the years 2012-2016.

[5] Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Books S.A. or its affiliated companies, used under license.

[6] cf. “The Global Gender Gap Report 2015” by The World Economic Forum or, specifically for North America, “The Gender Wage Pay Gap: 2014” by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research as well as “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap: Spring Edition 2016” done by The American Association of University Women.

[7] The only notable exception in my sample is The Marakaios Baby, in which fear for the fetus’ survival dominates the pregnancy. Even in this novel, though, the focus remains on the bleeding and the potential miscarriage rather than on concrete discussions of or interactions with the baby growing in her.

[8] Pirate Tycoon, Forbidden Baby has the heroine confined to his islands without access to the internet or a phone, and working is prohibited. In His Royal Love-Child, Danette is taken to Marcello’s island so that she cannot see the tabloids, and Talos, the hero of Bought: The Greek’s Baby, likewise takes his heroine to his island; this time to prevent her from regaining her memory.

[9] Silas Weir Mitchel invented the rest cure in the late nineteenth century as a treatment of hysteria and other nervous illnesses. Mostly used on women, this cure confined the patients to their home and bed and prohibited them from any form of mentally engaging activity, such as writing or reading. Famous patients that suffered this treatment were Charlotte Gilman Perkins, who was put to rest to cure her of postnatal depression, and Virginia Woolf.

[10] Most novels do not tell the reader if the heroine will work again. However, they do not state the opposite either. Presumably, it is up to the imagination of the reader to envision if she will remain a fulltime housewife or return to work.

[11] As before, the selection of Harlequin Romance novels is based on their availability in secondhand bookstores at the time of my research.

[12] In category romance, love and sex are co-dependent. Even if the series focuses on sexual encounters, as “Presents” does, the happy ending retroactively turns the one-night- [End Page 17] stand or sex-focused affair into a fated encounter that ends with marriage, thereby ensuring that women’s sexual liberty is tied to state-sanctioned monogamy after all.

[13] The one woman who does not tell the father is Kit, the heroine in The Secretary’s Secret. She does not inform him because he breaks up with her at the beginning of the novel and pre-empts her hope of becoming a family when he tells her that he does not “do long-term, . . . marriage and babies, and [he] certainly [doesn’t] do happy families” (Douglas, Secretary 15). [End Page 18]

Works Cited

Primary Sources:

Braun, Jackie. Boardroom Baby Surprise. Harlequin, 2009. Harlequin Romance.

Cox, Maggie. The Italian’s Pregnancy Proposal. Harlequin, 2008. Harlequin Presents.

Darcy, Emma. Jack’s Baby. Harlequin, 1997. Harlequin Presents.

—. Ruthless Billionaire, Forbidden Baby. Harlequin, 2009. Harlequin Presents.

Duncan, Tina. Her Secret, His Love-Child. Harlequin, 2010. Harlequin Presents.

Douglas, Michelle. Reunited by a Baby Secret. Harlequin, 2015. Harlequin Romance.

—. The Secretary’s Secret. Harlequin, 2011. Harlequin Romance.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Stories. 1892. Dover, 1997.

Gilmore, Jessica. The Heiress’s Secret Baby. Harlequin, 2015. Harlequin Romance.

Goldrick, Emma. Baby Makes Three. Harlequin, 1994. Harlequin Romance.

Green, Abby. An Heir Fit for a King. Harlequin, 2015. Harlequin Presents.

Harris, Lynn Raye. Carrying the Sheikh’s Heir. Harlequin, 2014. Harlequin Presents.

Hart, Jessica. Promoted to Wife and Mother. Harlequin, 2008. Harlequin Romance.

Hewitt, Kate. The Marakaios Baby. Harlequin, 2015. Harlequin Presents.

James, Julia, and Carole Mortimer. An Heir for the Millionaire: The Greek and the Single Mom and The Millionaire’s Contract Bride. Harlequin, 2010. Harlequin Presents.

Jordan, Penny. The Reluctant Surrender. Harlequin, 2010. Harlequin Presents.

—. A Secret Disgrace. Harlequin, 2012. Harlequin Presents.

—. The Sicilian’s Baby Bargain. Harlequin, 2009. Harlequin Presents.

Kenny, Janette. Pirate Tycoon, Forbidden Baby. Harlequin, 2009. Harlequin Presents.

Lee, Miranda. The Secret Love-Child. Harlequin, 2002. Harlequin Presents.

Lennox, Marion. Nine Months to Change His Life. Harlequin, 2014. Harlequin Romance.

Lucas, Jenny. Bought: The Greek’s Baby. Harlequin, 2010. Harlequin Presents.

Marinelli, Carol. Princess’s Secret Baby. Harlequin, 2015. Harlequin Presents.

Marton, Sandra. The Italian Prince’s Pregnant Bride. Harlequin, 2007. Harlequin Presents.

McMahon, Barbara. The Boss’s Little Miracle. Harlequin, 2007. Harlequin Romance.

—. The Pregnancy Promise. Harlequin, 2008. Harlequin Romance.

Monroe, Lucy. His Royal Love-Child. Harlequin, 2006. Harlequin Presents.

—. One Night Heir. Harlequin, 2013. Harlequin Presents.

—. Pregnancy of Passion. Harlequin, 2006. Harlequin Presents.

Morgan, Raye. A Daddy for Her Sons. Harlequin, 2013. Harlequin Romance.

Morgan, Sarah. One Night…Nine Month Scandal. Harlequin, 2010. Harlequin Presents.

Shepherd, Kandy. From Paradise…to Pregnant. Harlequin, 2015. Harlequin Romance.

Williams, Cathy. A Reluctant Wife. Harlequin, 2013. Harlequin Presents.

Winters, Rebecca. The Greek’s Tiny Miracle. Harlequin, 2014. Harlequin Romance.

Secondary Sources:

Boswell, Parley Ann. Pregnancy in Literature and Film. McFarland, 2014.

“Bump Watch.” US Weekly, 28 Feb. 2016, Accessed 13 April 2016.

[End Page 19]

Devereux, Cecily. “‘Chosen Representatives in the Field of Shagging’: Bridget Jones, Britishness, and Reproductive Futurism.” Genre, vol. 46, no. 3, 2013, pp. 213-237.

Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1995. 1999. Routledge, 2016.

“Harlequin Submission Manager.” Harlequin, n.d., Accessed 18 March 2016.

Hefferman, Kristin, Paula Nicolson, and Rebekah Fox. “The Next Generation of Pregnant Women: More Freedom in the Public Sphere or just an Illusion?” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 20, no. 4, 2011, pp. 321-332, doi:10.1080/09589236.2011.617602.

Hine, Gabrielle. “The Changing Shape of Pregnancy in New Zealand Women’s Magazines: 1970-2008.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 13, no. 4, 2013, pp. 575-592, doi:10.1080/14680777.2012.655757.

Jerković, Selma Veseljević. “‘Because I Deserve It!’ Fashion and Beauty Industries in the Service of Patriarchy: The Tale of Chick-Lit.” Facing the Crises: Anglophone Literature in the Postmodern World, edited by Ljubica Matek and Jasna Poljak Rehlicki, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014, pp. 147-163.

Kushner, Eve. “Go Forth and Multiply: Pronatalist Imperatives on Film.” Bitch Media, 1 January 2000, Accessed 9 April 2016.

Longhurst, Robyn. Maternities: Gender, Bodies and Space. Routledge, 2008.

Modleski, Tania. “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 3, 1980, pp. 435-448. JSTOR,

“Natalie Suleman.” Wikipedia, n.d., Accessed 9 April 2016.

Oliver, Kelly. Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films. Columbia University Press, 2012.

Rogers, Dorothy. “Birthmothers and Maternal Identity: The Terms of Relinquishment.” Coming to Life: Philosophies of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering, edited by Sarah LaChance Adams and Caroline R. Lundquist, Fordham University Press, 2013, pp. 120-138.

Sha, Joy, and Maggie Kirkman. “Shaping Pregnancy: Representations of Pregnant Women in Australian Women’s Magazines.” Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 24, no. 61, 2009, pp. 359-371.

Smith, Janet Farrell. “A Child of One’s Own: A Moral Assessment of Property Concepts of Adoption.” Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays, edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt, Cornell University Press, 2005, pp. 112-135.

“The Gender Wage Gap: 2014.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Accessed 16 April 2016.

“The Global Gender Gap Report 2015.” The World Economic Forum, Accessed 16 April 2016.

“The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap: Spring Edition 2016.” American Association of University Women, Accessed 16 April 2016.

Vivanco, Laura. “Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 45, no. 5, 2012, pp. 1060-1089.

Weisser, Susan Ostrov. The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories. Rutgers University Press, 2013.

[End Page 20]


The Stable Muslim Love Triangle – Triangular Desire in African American Muslim Romance Fiction
by Layla Abdullah-Poulos

Romance fiction explores culturally-specific notions of intimacy. Because it portrays a group’s conventions about love and amorousness, it can provide outsiders glimpses of norms and practices. Authors can describe and critique features of a given social context—such as racism or religious prejudice—in ways that inform outsiders and, at the same time, [End Page 1] allow insiders to recognize and identify with behaviors and situations described. For example, Conseula Francis’ analysis of Addicted by Zane demonstrates how romance narratives provide Black women “a powerful counternarrative” to the “oversexed vixens of rap videos or gonzo porn” (173). Romance as a venue to foil extant stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality also situates Black female protagonists as receivers of the eros love typically reserved for White female characters and allows for nuanced social commentary related to the Black American experience. In her analysis of Brenda Jackson’s Tonight and Forever, Julie E. Moody-Freeman outlines how safe sex love scenes between Black protagonists reflect the promotion of Black women’s sexual health during the “age of HIV/AIDS” when the author published the novel (112). Francis and Moody-Freeman’s explorations of African American romance narratives offer powerful critical tools in observing cultural elements of a social group and ways in which the genre may be used by authors to address biases, stereotypes, and social issues affecting its members at the most intimate levels.

African American (AA) Muslim romance fiction is sui generis. It combines Islamic, African American, and American notions of love, courtship, and sexual dialogue. In this article, I explore four romances—Areebah’s Dilemma: Love or Deen by Karimah Grayson, American Boy by Zara J., Khadijah’s Life in Motion by Jatasha Sharif and His Other Wife by Umm Zakiyyah—and argue that they have a consistent, and uniquely AA Muslim, structure. Applying René Girard’s theory of triangular desire to the Islamic thematic underpinnings of AA Muslim romance, I show the consistent presence of a Stable Muslim Love Triangle (SMLT), a culturally-specific triangular romance structure permeating romantic plots. Girard grants fluidity to love triangles in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure and presents one love triangle containing a mediator of desire that dictates the yearning of the subject for the object of desire (2). AA Muslim romance novels consistently include a SMLT triangular structure of desire, wherein Allah (swt)[i] firmly maintains position as mediator of desire at the love triangle’s apex. Consequently, when determining whether to pursue or maintain a romantic relationship with the object of desire, the subject unfailingly relinquishes individual passions and acquiesces to the protocols set by Allah (swt) through interpreted Islamic teachings.

There are three primary manifestations for the SMLT in the surveyed AA texts:

  1. Muslim subject – Muslim object.
  2. Muslim female subject – non-Muslim male object.
  3. Muslim male subject – non-Muslim female object.

Each of the above manifestations of the SMLT involves nuances of religious application and identity that jeopardizes the joining of the novel’s protagonists. When both are Muslim, one protagonist’s un-Islamic behavior imperils the couple’s relationship. When one of the protagonists is non-Muslim, the lack of belief disrupts the SMLT.

AA Muslim romance is a distinctive subgenre reflecting unique notions about love and romance held by African Americans resulting from the infusion of Islamic observations with American heritages. The analyzed works illustrate the multiple cultural identities which comprise the multi-layered American Muslim experience. [End Page 2]

Cultural Identity

Layered Islamic and African American identities encapsulated in the AA Muslim experience simultaneously feed its members’ cultural productions. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish notions of culture and identity that create a distinctive AA Muslim cultural identity.

Although the terms “identity” and “culture” are usually used interchangeably, following Stuart Hall’s approach allows one to explore the differences among the various nationalities, ethnicities, and identities that comprise American Muslim culture while recognizing a common Islamic culture.[1] Hall asserts that identity serves as a point of human delineation: “Identities are constructed through, not outside, difference” (4). Therefore, one establishes identity by creating a distinction from another. An individual may have layered identities from which they have the ability to draw and clarify differences from those around them, although Hall’s identity binary allows for specified application of terms “culture” and “identity”.

Categorizing identity as a space of distinction makes room to apply an explicit definition to the term “culture.” Hall, as well as Geoffrey H. Hartman, designate culture as a sphere of appreciated similarity. Hall asserts that culture comprises practices, representations, languages and customs (439), while Hartman notes that culture is a “specific form of embodiment or solidarity” (36). In other words, a culture comprises associations with people sharing languages, customs and heritages, holding the same values, and relating to representations of shared experiences.

Thus, the term “cultural identity” indicates a distinction within shared experiences. In American Secularism, Joseph Baker and Buster Smith explain that where culture provides artifacts with which an individual may make a stable connection with others, identity is that with which we emotionally describe and differentiate ourselves (504). Personal identification is subjective and varies based on societal influences and internal processes (Baker and Smith 504). Individual relationships to cultural artifacts and desires to identify with cultural nuances of a social group vary as well. AA Muslims, and the authors who identify as such, assert identities distinct from the broader American Muslim culture, wherein they share similar Islamic cultural practices, customs, language[2], and representations. As a result, cultural artifacts from the AA Muslim cultural identity highlight a unique American Muslim cultural experience, influenced by social intersections of religion, race, gender, and national origin. The SMLT expounded upon in this article outlines a standard trope in AA Muslim romance reflective of American religious romances (i.e. Evangelical, Puritanical, etc.), demonstrating literary connections between novels written by authors of varying religions who weave faith with human love.

African American Muslim Cultural Identity

Dominant culture tends to assume Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the Middle East or South Asia (MESA). Like many other social spheres in the United States, AA and Black Muslims encounter erasure of their identities resulting from intersections of race and religion via the promotion of a “foreign” MESA Muslim archetype. [End Page 3] Consequently, publishers, agents, etc. feed into the creation of an “ideal type” of American Muslim, and reinforce it, restricting ventures of the inclusion of Muslims to members of those two finite demographics. AA Muslim authors experience professional erasure which limits markets for and appreciation of their literary work. Since having an opportunity to highlight their distinctive—and distinctively American—identities matters to them, they must self-publish and create small presses.

I coined the term Native-born American (NbA)[3] Muslims to highlight social groups whose members have an extended American heritage and merge intersections of the country’s social intersections[4] with Islam. I elaborated on some distinctions existing in the culture when I created the NbA Muslims online platform:

The dynamics of the native-born American Muslims [NbA Muslims] hybrid culture are complex. There are a variety of socio-cultural topics that warrant in-depth academic investigation. For example, many NbA Muslims belong to multi-religious families. Consequently, there are various familial situations such as family reactions to conversion as well as interacting with the family while maintaining an Islamic ethic. Additionally, there are social concerns such as interfaith communal dialogue, gender relations and roles, community involvement, racism, contact with the immigrant Muslim population, and artistic expression (NbA Muslims).

The NbA Muslim cultural identity hybridizes Islamic and American conventions to produce unique social groups which implement components from each. The NbA African American[5] Muslim cultural identity includes the social intersection of race, influenced by the country’s historical and modern racial systems. Thus, literary productions of NbA AA Muslims reflect how the group redefines social intersections of race, gender, and nation for themselves.

The adoption of the Islamic faith by native-born Americans generates an additional cultural divergence in the American Muslim subculture. Unlike immigrant Muslim populations, the Islamic experiences of native-born African-Americans[6] primarily consist of conversion and adoption of Islam as a new faith.[7] Converts comprise ninety-one percent of native-born American Muslims (Pew Research). Therefore, Islam is new for the majority of native-born American Muslims, who must construct interpretations and observances for their new religion.

AA Muslims also maintain ownership of their Americanness, stemming from heritages extending from ancestral enslavement, recognized citizenship after emancipation, and continual assertion of their socio-political capital. They resist the reductive national narrative that Muslims are perpetually foreign.

NbA AA Muslims also encounter racism and anti-Blackness within Muslim spheres, which augment systemic racism from the broader society. Examining experiences of racism and racial micro-aggressions perpetrated by White and non-Black[8] Muslims reveals social clashes among adherents in the United States. The predominance of said racism means that many AA Muslims encounter a paradox, wherein the egalitarian ideals contained in their religion are superseded by the racial objectification inflicted on them (Karim 37). [End Page 4]

NbA African American Muslim Romance

African American Muslim authors represent the largest subset of writers in the NbA Muslim hybrid culture.[9] My research uncovered over thirty Muslim fiction[10] titles written by AA Muslims. A consequence of the continued lack of diversity the publishing industry, the majority of authors self-publish or become indie publishers.[11] Most AA Muslim authors are not full-time novelists. Consequently, publishing remains inconsistent, with no stable annual book releases[12] save a few professional authors like Umm Zakiyyah, Sa’id Saleem, and Umm Juwayriyah.

Of these thirty texts, I chose six to critically examine.[13] Some tropes shared by these works across genres diverged from those used by American Muslim authors who are not African American.[14]

  1. Many titles include conversion experiences and interactions between main characters and non-Muslim characters with whom they share familial (i.e. parent, sibling, relative, etc.) ties, as well as intimate friendships and/or relationships.[15]
  2. Plots tend to center the Islamic faith, and many characters are motivated by or recognize the significance with their relationship to Allah (swt).
  3. There is a connection to the tradition of AA novelists seeking to utilize fiction to articulate their cultural experiences, raise social consciousness, and affect social change—known as the Black Literary Tradition.[16]

Through an extensive African American heritage, AA Muslim authors tap into a rich literary tradition spanning centuries with some steady messaging, and infuse it with culturally-specific Islamic observances and interpretations reflective of members merging faith and race. Also, when centering the Islamic faith and characters’ fictional relationships with Allah (swt), AA Muslim romance authors often produce recurrent themes in Muslim fiction novels that highlight a triangular desire similar to those contained in Christian romance, but with a few marked differences, which will be noted later.

Faith-based Romance

Romantic distinctions stemming from religious and belief structures offer a subtle but significant divergent perspective differing from secular norms exclusively centering the heroine and hero. In romance fiction, the central (and occasionally the only) focus of the plot is on the love relationship and courtship process of the two main characters (Ramsdell 4; Regis 14). Characters and elements exterior to the couple serve to facilitate or foil the developing relationship, resulting in their lifetime joining either through marriage or committed partnership.[17] However, romance critics Lynn S. Neal and Valerie Weaver-Zercher present romance formulas wherein God maintains omnipotent influence over protagonists in Christian love stories. Neal explains in Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction how belief or lack of belief plays a pivotal role in the protagonists’ ability to unite in Evangelical romance (Neal 6): “Evangelical romances place one’s relationship with God before all other relationships [and the characters are] transformed [End Page 5] and brought together through the power of God’s love” (5). In Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels, Weaver-Zercher posits a comparable objective for Amish fiction: to encourage readers to cherish and prioritize the sacred love of God (127). Both Neal and Weaver-Zercher seem to agree that “God is the ultimate lover who pursues them and will always be there for them” (Neal 159). However, numerous approaches to faith, love and romance makes it necessary to appreciate nuances beyond one construct. Since multifaceted representations of God as the ultimate lover across Christian denominations requires distinct analyses, so too should literary criticisms of works from authors of different faiths.

Similar to Christian romance models, romances written by AA Muslim authors prioritize Allah (swt) in the development of the romantic plot, barrier to the protagonists’ union, and ultimate objective in the love story. Although not an “ultimate lover” pursuing the protagonists—something I will unpack further later—the deity remains at the pinnacle of the Stable Muslim Love Triangle prevalent in AA romance fiction, whereby at least one of the protagonists’ commitment to Allah (swt), as opposed to attraction to the object of desire, serves as a lynchpin to the union.

The Love Triangle

The love triangle is a frequent feature of romance novels. In The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel, Jennifer McKnight-Trontz outlines ways in which married protagonists encounter challenges to their happily ever after (HEA) via “the heartache of matrimonial trouble by way of adulterous affairs, love triangles, and divorce” (35). However, romance love triangles are not limited to causing disruption in a marriage. David Shumway states that modern “popular novels or stories are much less likely to make love triangles explicitly adulterous [but] the love triangle remains fundamental to popular fiction of the turn of the century” (45). Love triangles are one manifestation of the “triadic structure”[18] of relationships, wherein one subject is excluded (Shumway 14-15). Love triangles present an opportunity to provide “the barrier” to the protagonists’ union, an essential romance element.

Pamela Regis describes the barrier in romance fiction as a series of scattered scenes containing external (outside the protagonists’ minds) or internal (inside of at least one of the protagonists’ minds) conflicts that establish reasons for the inability for the lovers to unite (32). In a romance containing at least one love triangle, an individual often serves as an external barrier to the lovers. However, a common theme in religious romance involves a protagonist’s internal conflict between a commitment to God and human love for another character, generating a love triangle jeopardizing both relationships. René Girard’s theory of triangular desire serves as a base to reveal how AA Muslim romance authors consistently place Allah (swt) at the apex of romantic structures, maintaining principle authority in determining the viability of love between characters.

René Girard’s Triangular Desire

The love triangle involving Allah (swt) as the ultimate arbiter of the feasibility of a union between the protagonists is a constant in African American romance. African [End Page 6] American authors often include an internal barrier where one or more characters use(s) Islamic parameters to decide whether to initiate or continue a romantic relationship. In Areebah’s Dilemma, the titular character Areebah chose not to pursue a relationship with her love interest, non-Muslim Frankie. Although Areebah was in love with Frankie, the character decided, “no matter how much she cared about him, she loved Allah [swt] the most” (134-135). Areebah’s decision indicates the level of dedication to her faith as well as Allah’s (swt) role as the “mediator of desire” (Girard 2) in a love triangle comprising the novel’s protagonists and God. Girard describes the “mediator of desire” as the “model” with which the “subject” pursues objects of desire (2). Girard uses the triangle as a “spatial metaphor” that expresses the triple relationship, wherein, “The mediator is there…radiating toward both the subject and the object” (Girard 2). The mediator of desire dominates all of the connections in the love triangle, and the subject forsakes personal desires and aspirations for the mediator’s criteria.

A triangle with the text "Girard's Triangular Desire" in the middle and "Mediator" "Subject" and "Object" at the top, left, and right points respectively.

A subject surrendering desire to a mediator is present in various forms of literature. Girard uses Don Quixote as an example of the “subject/disciple” surrendering to a mediator (in this case, Amadis and chivalry), allowing it to supersede his desires (2). Others have extended Girard’s mediator of desire love triangle for specific cultural applications. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick states, “The triangle is useful as a figure by which the ‘commonsense’ of our intellectual tradition schematizes erotic relations, and because it allows us to condense in a juxtaposition with that folk-perception several somewhat different streams of recent thought” (597). Sedgwick utilizes Girard’s literary love triangle as a vehicle to convey homosocial bonds between the subject and the mediator (598), demonstrating the pliability of Girard’s model.

Lisa M. Gordis outlines two Christian triangular love structures, both of which maintain a rivalry between a supernatural God and human lovers. In Puritan texts, the human lover—typically the husband—becomes a rival with God for the affection of the love interest—usually the wife. In these works, God is a “full partner” and “active presence” as in most Christian romances, but He presents a superior lover to the wife in particular and an adversary to the husband’s affections (Gordis 324). Portrayals include God as “jealous” supreme being in the love triangle who punishes spouses for having too much love for their [End Page 7] corporeal love interest (325). The structure is triadic, with God vying predominantly with the husband for the affection of the wife, demanding priority in her heart through punishment and death.[19]

Evangelical romances reinforce the superiority of divine over human love, but through less grave content. Gordis asserts that the demand to uphold the genre’s happily-ever-after convention results in God being, “less a jealous God than a matchmaking deity, sending his beloved children earthly comfort” (331). Consequently, the humans must “learn to balance their triangulated relationship,” and God, while consistently victorious, continues to compete with the lovers for amorous supremacy (333).

AA Muslim romances differ from both of these Christian models in their placement of Allah (swt) in the love triangle. The distinctions among and between Christian and Muslim triangular models of desire[20] deserve sustained critical attention beyond the scope of this article. I will focus here on one significant difference regarding the position of Allah (swt) in the Muslim love triangle as well as His roles as competitor, intermediary, and arbitrator for the human couple and stabilizer of the triangular desire when the relationship dynamics between the lovers change.

Instead of positioning Allah (swt) as a victorious competitor—either through pain/death or enlightenment—for love between human subjects, AA Muslim romance authors continually recognize the immediate superior status of the deity in the love triangle. One or both human subjects pursue His affection and approval to the point of deferring to His protocols when determining the suitability of the object of desire. Amina Wadud posits that any relationships between any two people or two groups and Allah (swt) are essentially one of horizontal reciprocity, explaining, “Each of the two persons are sustained on the horizontal axis because the highest moral point is always occupied metaphysically by Allah [swt]” (850). Wadud’s horizontal placement of humans at the base of the triangle structure not only stabilizes Allah (swt) at the pinnacle, it infers and reinforces Islamic teachings regarding the deity’s independence as well as His appreciation for love between humans without the need to compete with it.[21]

AA Muslim fiction presents an additional departure from the Christian romance rivalry between God and the couple worshiping him, in that authors regularly emphasize the individual relationships each character maintains with the deity. Aysha A. Hidayatullah expands on Wadud’s horizontal reciprocity and explains that humans simultaneously occupy “horizontally equivalent” spaces under Allah (swt) while each also maintaining separate “vertical” relations to Allah (swt) (168), which they ideally prioritize. Habeeb Akande includes individual characteristics, stressing worship and love of Allah (swt) as premier attributes in a love interest. Akande highlights “taqwa” (god-consciousness) for men and “righteousness” for women as desirable qualities in potential partners (205, 240).[22] Writers of American Boy, Khadijah’s Life in Motion, Areebah’s Dilemma, and His Other Wife include pressures on love triangles stemming from characters’ embodiment of or challenges with belief or exhibiting righteous behaviors. Main characters must consequently navigate barriers to attaining a happily-ever-after because love interests either do not satisfy expectations of “righteousness” or do, but are not the immediate characters to whom the main characters are attached. The primacy of the vertical relationships existing between Allah (swt) and human subjects highlighted in AA Muslim romance situates Allah (swt) as the exalted arbitrator in the horizontal relationships between them. Furthermore, the authoritative role of Allah (swt) remains stable, whether plots include the deity as a [End Page 8] matchmaker like in some Evangelical texts, wherein he sends “his beloved children earthly comfort rather than deferring their happiness to the heavenly plain” (Gordis 331), or a barrier resulting from issues of faith or lack thereof in the object of desire.

In Muslim romances, Allah (swt) is the mediator of desire, and the Muslim protagonists submit to His dictates and protocols to determine whether to pursue the “object.” The level of commitment each Muslim subject has to Allah (swt) as mediator of desire varies, and Girard posits that simpler characters do not utilize a mediator (2).[23] However, Allah’s (swt) mediator status remains and generates a Stable Muslim Love Triangle at the foundations of AA Muslim Romance, even with the presence of subsidiary love triangles.

Numerous AA romance novels contain standard love triangles involving three characters. In American Boy by Zara J, main character Celine struggles to keep the father of her child Umar with her and away from her rival Tara. In Khadijah’s Life in Motion by Jatasha Sharif, Tyrone returns from prison to find out that his live-in lover Pamela converted to Islam and had a beau in the form of Muslim police officer Ibrahim. Deanna conspires to keep her husband Jacob and best friend Aliyyah apart in His Other Wife by Umm Zakiyyah. However, in addition to the external barriers presented by love triangles between characters, AA romance habitually contain internal barriers emanating from a SMLT, where Allah (swt) is the mediator of desire at the apex. The AA romance novels Areebah’s Dilemma: Love or Deen, American Boy, Khadijah’s Life in Motion, and His Other Wife reveal how Islamic ideals emphasizing love of Allah (swt) produce a SMLT comprising of the deity, heroine, and hero, the specifics of which vary depending on religious identity and adherence.

In a small research study I conducted, all of the self-identified AA Muslim novelists indicated that they intentionally wrote to 1) convey NbA Muslim experience, 2) as a means of da’wah and social commentary. Authors also informed the survey that they included Muslim characters as literary vehicles to highlight Islamic faith practices according to their interpretations (Abdullah-Poulos). In many instances, authors construct Stable Muslim Love Triangles, where faith serves as an internal barrier against as well as a catalyst for the union of romantic protagonists. Consequently, Allah (swt) influences the Muslim’s affection and the moral compass with which the believer determines how to interact with people, including a potential or current love interest. These authors consistently highlight marriage as the primary objective of romantic interactions in their works, and position Allah (swt) as establisher of the protocol with which the believer determines who is suitable. The parameters for an acceptable spouse set in the Quran include: 1) faith,[24] 2) marital status,[25] and 3) familial ties.[26] Observant Muslims should follow the dictates of the religion to assess the qualifications of a potential spouse.[27] Muhammad al-Jibaly describes marriage as “a bond held together by mutual rights and responsibilities,” and spouses should have certain characteristics that make them competent in what is ideally a fair partnership (1) according to divine dictates. Al-Jibaly uses revelation and prophetic guidance to focus on obligations between the spouses, extending the deity’s authority in the horizontal relationships between the spouses as well as horizontal ones directly with him.[28] Thus, Allah’s (swt) exalted status and dual prevailing influence stabilizes the triangle of desire. [End Page 9]

The Stable Muslim Love Triangle (SMLT)

African American romance authors often use the Stable Muslim Love Triangle to serve both as a barrier to and the catalyst for the protagonists’ ultimate union. Two static components of the SMLT are the heteronormative nature of the triangle and marriage. Beyond these fixed confines, the composition of the SMLT, as well as its presentation as a barrier or catalyst, shifts due to a number of factors. Two prominent factors affecting the status of a SMLT in AA romance are 1) observation of the faith, and 2) the religious identity of the object. The former of these two factors influences the SMLT concerning two Muslim characters, while the latter applies to love triangles involving a Muslim subject and non-Muslim object. AA romances containing one or both of these factors generate three distinctive love models, as noted above:

  1. Muslim subject and object;
  2. Muslim woman and non-Muslim man;
  3. Muslim man and non-Muslim woman.

Exploring each of these love models reveals the SMLT’s role in fostering and impeding connections between protagonists.[29]

A triangle with the text "Stable Muslim Love Triangle" in the middle and "Allah" "Subject Muslim" and "Object Muslim/nonMuslim" at the top, left, and right points respectively.

Muslim Subject and Object

Novels include romance triangles with two Muslim protagonists. However, characters’ daily religious application and characteristics frequently differ. Consequently, African American romance contains unions with two Muslim characters strengthened by the Stable Muslim Love Triangle, as well as those weakened resulting from a shift in the mediation of desire dictated by Allah/the mediator. One protagonist in romance upholds an idealized Muslim archetype of a practicing Muslim who prays, fasts, and prioritizes their relationship with Allah (swt) in their daily interactions and interpersonal connections. In His [End Page 10] Other Wife, protagonists Jacob and Aliyyah both fulfill the idealized Muslim archetype. The novel contains scenes of hero Jacob performing Qiyaam al-Layl, a special late-night prayer to seek guidance from Allah (swt) about his marriage to Deanna and love for Aliyyah (182). Similarly, many of the scenes in His Other Wife show Aliyyah offering Qiyaam al-Layl as well as Fajr (early morning) prayer and reading Quran (46, 63-64, 111-112). The praying of Qiyaam al-Layl and Fajr denote a level of devotional excellence in Muslim culture, and Zakiyyah frames the protagonists as idealized Muslim archetypes. Satisfying the idealized Muslim archetype solidifies the viability of the Jacob and Aliyyah’s union and reinforces a positive SMLT between them. However, Jacob pursues Aliyyah while married to Deanna, whose behavior diminishes her ability to exhibit an idealized Muslim archetype and, we will later see, eventually jeopardizes the couple’s marriage.

Unlike the characters engendering Muslim devotional traits, an insufficient exhibition of religious excellence or an error made in the story line disqualifies a flawed Muslim character from obtaining idealized status. There are numerous major character defects contained in the examined novels that may make a character ineligible for idealized Muslim status. Umar in American Boy is a devoted Muslim but flawed by engaging in illicit sex through a one-night stand with his non-Muslim co-worker Celine. Tyrone’s sexual violence via his attempted rape of Pamela/Khadijah in Khadijah’s Life in Motion similarly disqualifies him as an idealized Muslim archetype despite his regular offering of prayers and attending Islamic classes at the masjid. Umar’s brother Khalid in American Boy drinks and gambles; Ahmed in Her Justice is extremely violent. These character flaws prevent them from being ideal Muslims. Whether a character is an idealized or flawed Muslim, their relationships follow a common pattern: if both partners in a relationship apply religion to their lives, their relationship solidifies; if one of them fails to do so, it fractures. Ultimately, characters who observe the Islamic faith to any significant degree defer to Allah’s mediation of desire, which delineates faith as the primary characteristic for a spouse in a Muslim marriage.

In the studied texts, novelists largely prioritize faith and piety at the pinnacle of desirable characteristics for a Muslim subject in AA romance, and when a Muslim object falls short of satisfying the expectations of the subject, there is a breakdown in the relationship. Observant Muslims tend to place religious dedication as their top preference when searching for a spouse. In His Other Wife, Jacob’s relationship with his first wife Deanna begins to deteriorate as his distaste for her perceived un-Islamic behavior increases. In one scene, Jacob and Deanna are driving home and she slaps him (63-64), which introduces readers to her abuse and violation of Islamic protocol regarding slapping (Muslim 6321). Jacob initially tolerates Deanna’s “slaps, hits, punches, or kicks” (63-64) as a part of their marriage, but when layered with more perceivably un-Islamic behavior, such as lying, harassment, and appearing on television with “her hijab pushed back displaying half her hair” and “her lips in a pout, shiny with red lipstick” (184-185), Jacob ultimately dissolves the marriage. Leaving Deanna is not easy for Jacob; she had a firm grasp on him through marriage and sexual control. In one scene, Deanna approaches Jacob during their separation and offers herself for sex. Jacob, torn by his emotions, “yearned for Deanna in a maddening way, and he hated himself for it” (132). Jacob eventually sees Deanna’s proposition for “halal intimacy” as “physical and psychological manipulation” (132). Jacob prays to Allah (swt), “O Allah, give me strength,” spurs Deanna’s advances, and walks away. Jacob’s distaste for his wife’s un-Islamic behavior supersedes the hero’s desires, and Jacob appeals to Allah/Mediator to intercede. Despite being Muslim, Deanna is unable to secure idealized Muslim archetype [End Page 11] status. The combination of Deanna’s physical abuse, immodesty, and aggressive sexual behavior transforms the SMLT she shares with Jacob from a catalyst of their union into a barrier, and ultimately, they divorce.[30]

In AA romance, the Muslim subject concedes to Allah/Mediator and the mediation of desire to initiate and maintain an amorous relationship. The Muslim subject will seek and dispose of a Muslim object love interest based upon the former’s conforming of resistance to the mediation of desire via adherence to the Islamic faith. As demonstrated in His Other Wife, the object’s failure to comply with the subject’s mediation of desire jeopardizes the SMLT.[31] The surveyed stories also convey a theme among AA romance authors that once the SMLT destabilizes, the subject rejects the flawed character, and there are no apparent means of redemption for the object. I have not yet found a novel with a plot structure diverging from this model.

Muslim Woman and Non-Muslim Man

African American Muslim romances with a Muslim subject and non-Muslim object play out differently depending on participants’ gender. Islamic law differentiates between potentially permissible relationships between a Muslim man and a non-Muslim woman and always forbidden relationships between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man. As a result, Muslim women choosing to marry non-Muslim men often meet cultural and religious resistance. AA Muslim romance authors address the gender distinction when Muslim characters explore relationships with non-Muslims, and the Stable Muslim Love Triangle functions as catalyst (when the relationship is permissible) or barrier (when it is forbidden).

Unlike the more common romance trope between a Muslim man and a woman outside of the faith, AA romance authors infrequently pair a Muslim woman with a non-Muslim man. One clear example, Areebah’s Dilemma, demonstrates the effects on the SMLT of a Muslim woman desiring a non-Muslim man and their potential union. Realizing that a romantic relationship with Muslim Areebah was impossible, non-Muslim Frankie begins to explore Islam as a faith option. In Areebah’s Dilemma, Frankie accepts Islam, develops his spiritual connection with Allah (swt), and marries Areebah. However, before Frankie’s conversion, Areebah is perplexed and wavers back and forth between avoiding and pursuing him.

Areebah is clearly smitten with Frankie. She loses sleep thinking about him and even considers being his second wife (137).[32] She takes the opportunity to arrange an “accidental” meeting with Frankie at the hospital when he visits his dying mother. Grayson writes, “When she saw Frankie…exit the elevator, she almost jumped into his arms” (112). However, Areebah is aware that Frankie is married and eventually meets his wife, Felicia. Consequently, Areebah and Frankie face an external barrier presented as Frankie’s marriage to Felicia, as well as an internal barrier that manifests because Allah (swt) is Areebah’s mediator of desire, and Frankie’s non-Muslim status challenges their union.

Felicia dies in the novel, removing the couple’s external barrier. Areebah and Frankie engage in a series of text and Facebook direct messages, reigniting their love for each other. However, the SMLT remains an obstacle, and hero and heroine remain distant. Consequently, instead of acting on her carnal desire for Frankie, Areebah appeals to her mediator, Allah (swt), to make Frankie interested in conversion and make him a suitable beau. Because of Allah’s (swt) supremacy over Areebah’s desire, Frankie becomes an object “emptied of its [End Page 12] concrete value and enclosed in an aura of metaphysical virtue” (Dee 391). In other words, Areebah wants an idealized Frankie that simultaneously embodies her temporal desires and the necessary spiritual markers by becoming a possession of the Mediator/Allah (swt). Once Frankie converts, Areebah experiences a fusion of her desire for Frankie and the need for her as a Muslim to adhere to the mediation of desire constructed by the Mediator/Allah (swt) in Islamic marital protocols.

Allah (swt) also becomes Frankie’s mediator of desire when he converts. Wanting to ensure that his conversion would be authentic and not because of his feelings for Areebah, Frankie distances himself from Areebah and begins to study Islam. Frankie did not want to “enter into a way of life for anyone except himself” (168). The character was “determined to learn more about Islam” regardless of whether or not he ultimately ended up with Areebah (168). Frankie’s fervor to study Islam reflects a common theme in AA romance and culture, where non-Muslims develop an interest in the religion because of a Muslim love interest. The shift that takes place in Frankie reflects the malleability of the SMLT, which is constant but not stagnant. Girard mentions that love triangles may change in shape and size without destroying the “identity of the figure” (2). Therefore, the Allah/mediator, Areebah/Muslim Subject, Frankie/non-Muslim object triangle transitions into an Allah/mediator, Areebah/Muslim Subject, Frankie/Muslim object triangle, which reflects Girard’s assertion that the stability of the love triangle emanates from the mediator and subject, while the object “changes with each adventure” (2). The changeable nature of the object – in this case, Frankie – promotes diversity in the SMLT without dissolving the structure.

The relationship between Areebah and Frankie shows a significant pitfall that a Muslim woman encounters when the object of her affection is a non-Muslim male. In practice, Muslims globally do not always observe limitations on Muslim women’s marriage to non-Muslim men. There are instances of Muslim women entering interfaith marriages (Abbas), and there are examples of Muslim imams who perform such ceremonies. However, they face considerable pushback from those strictly adhering to the faith’s traditional restriction. Riad Fataar, a senior leader of South Africa’s Muslim Judicial Council, asserts, “Everybody knows that such a marriage is not permissible in Islam. It is ridiculous to think otherwise” (Moftah). Therefore, Grayson’s portrayal reflects a circumstance resulting from a Muslim woman’s fundamental observation of Islamic law, which frequently occurs in orthodox Muslim cultures.

The lack of a valid marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men simplifies the SMLT between such characters in AA romance. However, when the lovers are a Muslim male and non-Muslim female, the triangle’s nature increases in complexity. AA authors offer prolific storylines comprised of variable relationships between Muslim heroes and non-Muslim women.

Muslim Man and non-Muslim Woman

Compared to Muslim women, the Islamic faith affords more latitude to Muslim men regarding amorous relationships. Although non-physical courtship and heteronormative marital sex apply to Muslim men, the religious status of the inamorata is not as stringent. Islamic law, based on interpretation of a Qur’anic verse (Al-Quran, 5:5), traditionally allows Muslim men to marry certain non-Muslim women, specifically Jews and Christians. Similar to a relationship between a Muslim female protagonist exhibiting interest in a non-Muslim [End Page 13] man, African American authors predominantly respect the Islamic parameters interpreted by the culture for amorous plots involving a male adherent and woman who falls outside of these allowed groups. The majority of the novels include self-identified Christian women and Muslim men.

Muslim male characters in AA romance typically do not desire to sacrifice the idealized Muslim archetype to preserve their relationships with non-Muslim women. In some novels, Muslim male characters attempt to coerce their non-Muslim lovers—with whom they frequently have an existing or past sexual relationship— to convert, insisting that failure to do so will jeopardize the union. In American Boy, Umar refuses to marry Christian heroine Celine, whom he has impregnated, unless she converts. Umar is determined to have a Muslim family; he explains to Celine, “Growing up, my mother always talked about having a good Muslim wife and marrying the ideal woman. It was embedded in us” (180). Umar’s desire for a Muslim wife dually satisfies his desire as well as his obedience to his perception of what Allah/the Mediator arbitrates for him, which further impresses the urgency of the provision of Celine’s conversion before their nuptials. Umar’s ultimatum threatens more than their relationship. Celine’s pregnancy means that if she and Umar remain unmarried when she gives birth, their child will be born illegitimate.

Legitimacy among American Muslims is extremely important; illegitimate children are subject to numerous legal issues. For example, if Umar’s child is born out of wedlock, Islamic law dictates that he or she will have Celine’s last name and the child will not be able to inherit from Umar. Both Umar and his family may be unaware of Islamic law. However, the author presents them as a traditional Muslim family observing Islamic protocols, so it is doubtful. Umar and his family prioritize the main character having a wife who satisfies the idealized Muslim archetype over the interests of the unborn child. The fact that Umar’s “ideal” Muslim wife is available in the form of Tara makes it easier for him to court her and overlook how his decision to marry her instead of Celine will affect his baby. For Umar, standards about a Muslim wife from his upbringing supersede the reality of the need for him to marry a woman, who is an acceptable candidate for marriage under Islamic law, to protect the legitimacy of his child, which is arguably the priority. Consequently, the novel contains two love triangles. The Allah/mediator à Umar/subject à Celine/object presents a barrier love triangle and the Allah/mediator à Umar/subject à Tara/object a catalyst love triangle.

Ultimately, Umar commits to the SMLT with Tara at the detriment of his child, which was acceptable for the novel’s Muslim characters. Umar abandons Celine and their baby because of her non-Muslim status and marries Tara. However, by the novel’s end, Umar eventually takes his newborn child from Celine to raise with his new bride. He leaves the mother of his child alone and showing obvious signs of post-partum depression. The love triangle between Umar, Celine, and Tara excludes Celine, not because of anything she does but because she is a nonbeliever in the Islamic faith. Like Frankie in Areebah’s Dilemma, the main character flaw is being non-Muslim and aggravating the SMLT in each romance plot via their unsuitability according to Allah (swt) as the mediator of desire.

AA romance characters exemplify many issues that exist in AA culture. The romantic connections depicted in their love models involve either 1) two Muslims or 2a) a Muslim woman desiring a non-Muslim man or 2b) a Muslim man seeking to develop or maintain a relationship with a non-Muslim woman. These represent multifaceted applications of the SMLT, which firmly places Allah (swt) at the pinnacle governing the decisions a Muslim character makes about an object of desire. [End Page 14]

The SMLT is a consistent trope in AA romance. It is comprised of Allah (swt) as the mediator in a mediation of desire and one Muslim subject acquiescing to his dictates when determining whether to pursue or maintain a relationship with an object of desire. Variations of the SMLT appear along the lines of religious identity. In novels containing plots with a Muslim subject desiring a Muslim object, a character’s lack of piety and the inability for the object to satisfy the idealized Muslim archetype expectations destabilize the SMLT and disrupt the relationship. When the subject is a Muslim woman, and the object is a non-Muslim man, Islamic marital prohibitions, established by the mediator Allah, disqualify the union. Muslim men may marry Christian and Jewish women in addition to Muslim women. Consequently, when the object of desire for a Muslim male subject is a non-Muslim woman who self-identifies as either, conversion to transform the object and satisfy the idealized Muslim archetype creates the primary barrier to the union. The SMLT demonstrates culturally-specific usage of triangular structural relationships prevalent in romance literature by AA romance authors.

AA Muslim romances demonstrate the existence of a distinctive AA Muslim hybrid culture, resisting stereotypes of American Muslim culture as inherently foreign. Moreover, they offer sharers of the depicted experiences—AA Muslims—opportunities to negotiate tensions stemming from simultaneously belonging to AA, American, and Muslim American communities as well as the global Ummah.[33] Authors also provide unique romantic structures indicative of their cultural experiences, generating SMLT tropes that place Allah (swt) at the pinnacle as an authority over and not a competitor to the viability of protagonists’ love connections.

[i] (swt) is an abbreviation for the English transliteration Subhana wa Ta’ala, meaning “Glory be to Him, the Highest.” It is customary among Islamic scholarship to include the phrase after writing Allah’s name in their works.

[1] It is important to note that the term “Islamic culture” encompasses an array of practices, customs, and representations, with ideally Quranic and prophetic underpinnings – the interpretations of which vary individually, ethnically, regionally, etc.

[2] While American Muslims speak a multitude of languages, including English, Arabic maintains a widespread influence because of the use of the language in religious practices.

[3] Native-born American in the scope of this study comprises African-Americans, Euro-Americans, and Latino-Americans. The premise here is that these three Muslim groups represent specific American experiences and heritages with significant historical influence in the development of the country’s socio-political dynamic.

[4] i.e. socio-political, racial, gendered, nationalistic, etc.

[5] The term “Black” is often interchangeably used by people who also self-identify as “African American”. However, the term “African American” more specifically indicates a cultural identity and heritage connected to the enslavement of Africans in the Americas, to which not all Americans of African descent identify.

[6] Conversion populations also include NbA Latinx, Euro-American, and Native American Muslims.

[7] It is important to note that while there is a large conversion population in the NbA African American Muslim cultural identity, the subculture also contains extensive generational Muslim families, with some having as many as five generations. [End Page 15]

[8] Non-Black in this context represents a cross-section of identities within Muslim communities, including Middle Eastern, South Asian, Asian, and Latinx. In addition, African American Muslims may encounter bias from African-immigrant Muslims, who often seek to disassociate from them—the complexities of which are beyond the scope of this article.

[9] Although there are works of fiction written by NbA Muslims identifying with other ethnicities (i.e. Euro-American, Latino-American, etc.), I did not find a sufficient number of novels to present a well-rounded representative sample of those hybrid subcultures.

[10] Muslim fiction is a budding genre in the United States, with authors from numerous backgrounds comprising American Muslim culture, and Muslim authors and publishers still need to solidify a stable definition. However, there is a current consensus that Muslim fiction is 1) authored by self-identified Muslim authors and 2) contains Muslim characters. I have pushed back on those reductive parameters in conversations with authors and publishers because they tend to alienate certain Muslim author-produced texts.

[11] A few examples of indie publishing presses launched by AA Muslim authors include Mindworks Publishing and University Publications.

[12] The last observable AA Muslim romance, Her Justice, was published in 2016.

[13] Ironically, I informed at least two authors (Umm Zakiyyah and Nasheed Jaxson) that their texts could be considered romances. The author categorized them outside of the genre. Umm Zakiyyah’s text His Other Wife remains so, but Nasheed Jaxson’s text Her Justice is now categorized with romance titles.

[14] Presently, most American Muslim fiction authors write mainly YA and children’s books. I discovered few romance titles by Muslims centering Muslim love interests and the faith—AA Muslim romance authors being the primary exception. There are Muslim authors like Sa’id Saleem writing general romance, but most titles do not fit within current parameters of Muslim fiction, which raises questions about them that makes further exploration by scholars, authors, and the industry necessary.

[15] Intimate relationships serve as a barrier catalyst in some AA Muslim romances, which will be explored later.

[16] Novels written by African Americans often serve as more than sources of entertainment. These literary works frequently reflect historical and social conditions of the African American experience as well as serve as “weapons for social change” within the culture (Carby 95). I explored this aspect of AA Muslim authorship in my thesis and think delving deeper into how authors tap into this tradition is important to understanding complex cultural connections contained in the subculture.

[17] The emergence of diverse romance plots that include polyamorous relationships push against the boundaries of heteronormative monogamous tropes, which makes them worthy for deeper exploration beyond the scope of this article.

[18] According to Shumway, triadic structures in narratives are not exclusively comprised of love interests and may include “father/daughter, king/court” as well as other examples. Triadic structure relationships are “intersubjective because all three subjects of the narrative are represented as both desiring and desirable” (15; emphasis in original).

[19] In her analyses of The Autobiography and The Parable of the Ten Virgins by Thomas Shepard as well as A Christale Glasse for Christian Women by Phillip Stubbes, Gordis provides examples of Puritan female characters who endure suffering and end up on their death beds resulting from an imbalance of their male love interest’s (husband’s) love for her or his inability to handle the stronger pull of God on his bride (325-330). [End Page 16]

[20] American Muslims are hardly monolithic or stagnant in their interpretations and implementation of the faith. The AA Muslim authors and works examined highlight a cultural sampling of a specific experience, which contain additional facets not revealed through textual analysis, which encourages further examinations and expansion.

[21] Quran and hadith both contain references to Allah’s (swt) supremacy and self-sufficiency without needing or desiring worship or love from His creation. In the Quran, Allah (swt) says, “O mankind, you are those in need of Allah [swt], while Allah [swt] is the Free of need, the Praiseworthy” (35:15). Therefore, unlike the Puritan and Evangelical texts, God is not a competitor for or jealous of love or affection between humans, nor does he punish humans for loving each other too much in an Islamic context.

[22] Although, Akande quotes specific ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) as well as scholarship in a way that categorizes them as gender-specific, Quranic teachings encourage adherents of both genders strive to attain taqwa and righteousness. Human subjects in AA Muslim triangular romance will ideally seek said qualities in the love interest.

[23] In Areebah’s Dilemma: Love or Deen, Areebah’s son Baqir has a non-Muslim girlfriend. However, as a minor character, the absence of Allah as mediator of desire is not relevant to the novel’s plot.

[24] Abdul A’La Madudi explains that the prohibition against marrying a “mushrik” (Al-Baqarah, 2:221) secures a believer from being influenced by a non-believing spouse and corrupting the faith in the home (volume 1, 162). He asserts, “One who sincerely believers in Islam can never take such a risk merely for the sake of the gratification of his lust” (volume 1, 162). Madudi’s default use of “his” indicates how androcentric Quranic exegesis from men can be, which influences the broader culture and reinforce misconceptions that Muslim women do not have inclinations towards non-Muslim men—mushrik or otherwise. Except for Karimah Grayson, the majority of Muslim novelists surveyed reinforced this generalization. Grayson’s Areebah’s Dilemma features a Muslim woman torn between her faith and the non-Muslim man she loves, something not uncommon in African American Muslim culture despite efforts to ignore it.

[25] Madudi also expounds on the allowance for Muslim men to marry chaste women from the “People of the Book”—generally accepted to mean Christian and Jews (Al-Maidah, 5:5). He mentions that the sanction contains a caveat requiring the women be “chaste” (volume 3, 20), something insufficiently addressed in AA Muslim romances. While there is yet to be a plot with a Jewish love interest, the chastity of Christian ones is not addressed, and is, in fact, often clearly nonexistent, which will be examined later. Muslim male protagonists in Khadijah’s Life in Motion and American Boy contain love triangles with apparent sexual history between the subject and object of desire.

[26] Prohibitions against certain women one may marry are mostly self-explanatory lists and infer the male gender by default: “Also (prohibited are) women already married…” (An-Nisaa, 4:22-24). Madudi does clarify that maternal and sibling marital injunctions extend to step- and foster parents and siblings (volume 2, 110). AA Muslim authors have yet to include any type of risqué plots involving incestuous desire.

[27] Additional sources that codify acceptable spouses for Muslims exist. There are ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that provide further description for Muslims deciding upon a candidate for marriage, but the mentioned Quranic passages serve as the foundation. [End Page 17]

[28] For example, al-Jibaly asserts, “A woman’s obedience to her husband is an obedience to Allah (swt) in the first place, because he ordered it (73). al-Jibaly’s obtuse treatment of the term “obedience” disturbingly reinforces spiritually-coercive gender oppression by inferring that male domination over women is by divine mandate, but his argument does exemplify the simultaneous vertical and horizontal sovereignty Allah (swt) retains as well as negates notions that the deity is jealous; rather, He directs interactions between the spouses.

[29] NB: I’ve concluded that the repetitive use of the terms “Muslim man,” “Muslim woman,” Non-Muslim man,” and “non-Muslim woman” necessary to highlight the defined heteronormative parameters to which the surveyed authors adhere as well as leave an “open door” for extension of the present frame to include love models that may not neatly fit into the current one. For example, I do not want to erase the possibility that there may be, now or in the future, an AA Muslim author who includes LGBTQ love interests, which would require new analyses.

[30] Deanna also experiences a mental breakdown and hospitalization as further punishment for her un-Islamic behaviors. Although the author reveals that she is a child sexual assault survivor, Deanna suffers a series of humiliations that justify Jacob’s leaving her and marrying Aliyyah, making her the other woman despite being married to the hero.

[31] The Muslim subject and Muslim object are gender-neutral terms. There is an opportunity for portrayals a woman who defers to Allah (swt) as mediator of desire and a man who jeopardizes the SMLT through un-Islamic behavior. Interestingly, I did not discover an example of an African American romance author writing this dynamic in a plot.

[32] Polygyny is never a viable option in the novel. Frankie remains an ineligible suitor for Areebah until after his wife Felicia dies and he converts. Interestingly, the majority of African American Muslim authors surveyed “toy” around with notions of polygyny in their works, and never present it as a functional marital option despite its practice in many AA Muslim communities. Examining portrayals of polygyny is beyond the scope of this article, but it does warrant further exploration.

[33] Ummah is a broadly-used term in Muslim cultures to denote the larger Muslim fellowship. [End Page 18]

Works Cited

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Gordis, Lisa M. “Jesus Loves Your Girl More Than You Do: Marriage as Triangle in Evangelical Romance and Puritan Narratives.” Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love As the Practice of Freedom?, edited by William A Gleason and Eric M. Selinger, Ashgate, 2017, pp. 323-346.

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[End Page 19]

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[End Page 20]


♪ Le punk français rêve-t-il en rose ?
Does French punk dream “en rose?”
by Luc Robène and Solveig Serre

[End Page 1] « Mon speed c’est l’amour » chante en 1979 le groupe punk français Starshooter. Gageure ? Provocation ? Si la chanson des Lyonnais mérite précisément que l’on s’y arrête, c’est que le punk ne semble pas constituer a priori le terreau artistique le plus favorable au développement du thème amoureux. Inscrit dans la désespérance des jours et s’adossant à l’absence auto-proclamée de projection dans le futur (No Future), le punk incarne la rupture assumée avec tout ce qui renvoie aux codes de l’Establishment (Hebdige, (1979) 2008 ; McNeil, McCain, 2004) et rejette la contre-culture des aînés engluée dans un vain Peace and Love. Dans cette perspective, que peut-il bien rester à chanter de l’amour, à la fois thème rebattu par l’art institué et figure rhétorique établie de la culture rock désormais conspuée ?

Difficile pourtant d’extraire la sphère amoureuse du répertoire punk tant celle-ci s’impose d’emblée, massivement et charnellement, dans la revendication assumée et provocante des plaisirs autrefois tabous : « Sex and drugs and rock and roll », chante en 1977 Ian Dury. Certes, le sexe, même s’il ne représente qu’un prisme spécifique de la relation amoureuse, est une donnée consubstantielle au rock. Mais il devient brutalement et très visiblement autant l’une des thématiques quasi obsessionnelles du punk qu’un motif répétitif et jouissif de subversion et de provocation largement prisé et utilisé comme étendard par les acteurs du mouvement.

En Grande-Bretagne, les Sex Pistols (« Les bites ») jouent largement sur cette ambiguïté qui s’articule avec un imaginaire empruntant aux codes du bondage. Le groupe phare du punk britannique doit en grande partie son nom au duo Vivienne Westwood / Malcolm McLaren qui, au plus fort de son activité commerciale dans le domaine de la mode, vend dans sa boutique londonienne Sex, située au 430 Kings Road, des vêtements de la vie quotidienne inspirés par les accessoires et les codes du sadomasochisme et du fétichisme (Hebdige, (1979) 2008). Les Buzzcocks (« Les queues vibrantes ») se complaisent quant à eux dans des morceaux qui jettent une lumière crue sur les tabous de la vieille Angleterre. Leur titre de 1977 « Orgasm Addict », interdit d’antenne à la BBC, évoque l’obsession d’un adolescent pour des plaisirs sexuels qui passent par la masturbation : il se cache pour lire des revues interdites alors que sa mère s’interroge sur les mystérieuses taches sur ses jeans. Le thème sera repris un an plus tard de manière plus édulcorée par les Undertones dans « Teenage Kicks ». En France, le groupe Reich Orgasm, issu de la scène punk orléanaise en 1978, joue sur l’ambiguïté du nom qui évoque à la fois « l’empire de l’orgasme » et la mémoire de Wilhelm Reich, psychanalyste de la première moitié du XIXe siècle dont le travail porte sur la fonction libératrice de l’orgasme[1]. Si le sexe s’impose largement comme une épure de la transgression au cœur d’une scène très agitée, les textes du groupe ouvrent sur une vision tranchante et provocante des sentiments. La noirceur assumée du texte « Salope », en 1983, intègre une entreprise de dénonciation de l’ordre patriarcal et du cadre de domination auquel conduit le rapport amoureux appréhendé comme un masque autorisant la réification de l’autre : « L’amour c’est jamais que l’infini / Mis à la portée de tous les caprices / Animal je serai dans ton sexe / Je vomirai mon sperme et ma honte ». Ce thème de la chair, fût-il traversé par la mise en scène de la violence, s’arrime lui-même à d’autres focales amoureuses, en apparence – et en apparence seulement – plus conventionnelles, à commencer par la drague et les diverses péripéties de la relation amoureuse, quitte à renverser les rôles et à détourner le cours établi de l’amour pour mieux susciter un trouble dans l’ordre des relations et des conventions. Dès 1977, le groupe Bijou, originaire de la banlieue sud de Paris, ouvre son premier album Danse avec moi par le morceau « Garçon facile ». Le texte narre les exploits d’un jeune homme aux mœurs légères qui vit dans les affres d’un opprobre dévolu habituellement aux filles de petite vertu : « On m’appelle garçon facile / Et l’on me traite comme un chien / Mais je suis un mec habile / Et je saurai te faire du bien ». Même si le statut dominant de l’homme hétérosexuel n’est finalement que peu remis en cause, ce jeu avec les codes, qui est l’une des marques de fabrique du punk, montre également que l’amour constitue en réalité une matière riche dans laquelle le mouvement va puiser pour tenter de subvertir la société. En revendiquant un être au monde spécifique, caractérisé par des postures de rejet, de provocation et de détournement, le punk questionne et tord le fait amoureux. L’invention d’une rhétorique amoureuse singulière constitue dès lors à la fois un objet en tant que tel, entre subversion des sentiments et subversion par les sentiments, mais également un analyseur pertinent pour éclairer le fonctionnement des grands idéaux et des récits collectifs qui façonnent les imaginaires, et questionner le fonctionnement des sociétés modernes à travers leur capacité à s’émouvoir.

La question n’est donc tant celle de l’existence de « fragments d’un discours amoureux » (Barthes, 1977) dans les morceaux de musique punk que celle du « comment parle-t-on d’amour ? » et « de quoi parle-t-on lorsqu’on parle d’amour ? ». Le travail empirique autour d’un corpus qui embrasse les diverses facettes du fait amoureux, du premier baiser au sexe, en passant par la rencontre et la rupture, l’attirance pour le vice ou la violence, voire le viol, devient ici essentiel. L’analyse du discours amené à devenir tantôt choquant sur le fond, tantôt provoquant sur la forme, permet d’éclairer les transformations du monde tel qu’il se donne à voir, non plus à partir d’un point central, consensuel, conventionnel, mais à partir d’un regard construit aux marges, et dont la vocation à subvertir l’ordre établi renvoie en creux l’image d’une société à réinventer. C’est donc à partir d’un double constat, celui d’un mouvement confronté aux paradoxes de l’existentiel amoureux en contexte de désespérance et celui de l’amour comme terreau de l’expression punk, que nous avancerons dans cet article en proposant une analyse construite sur un corpus (celui de la scène punk en France[2]) dont le périmètre prend en compte la longue durée (quarante ans).

1. Des amours adolescentes aux liaisons dangereuses (1976-1980)

Dans la France du président centriste Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981) où bruissent encore les échos du gaullisme finissant et de mai 1968, l’explosion punk, marquée dès l’été 1976 par le premier festival punk au monde organisé à Mont-de-Marsan (Landes), prend à revers la morosité ambiante liée à la crise économique et à la forte hausse du chômage, et clame son refus de l’ennui[3]. Cette posture provocante traduit l’état d’esprit d’une jeunesse plus que jamais animée par le sentiment confus d’une urgence, d’une liberté à réinventer dans un monde trompeur et trompé. Le Peace and Love des aînés (Sirinelli, 2003), devenu au mieux une caricature, au pire une anesthésie globale de la révolte, a montré ses limites. Alors que la contre-culture des années 1960 a tenté de s’opposer aux formes répressives et conservatrices de la société traditionnelle (Robert, 2013), le punk suggère, à [End Page 3] la fin des années 1970, que cet idéal de liberté a été récupéré par un nouveau régime de domination bien plus dangereux, pervers et séduisant en ce qu’il porte le masque trompeur de l’hédonisme. La contre-culture hippie avait certes ouvert des espaces de permissivité en termes de mœurs et d’amour. Mais le punk, conscient de l’inanité d’une posture béate désormais débordée par les enjeux d’une société qui sécrète efficacement les illusions d’un avenir à bon marché inscrit dans le consumérisme et les rêves enchantées du petit écran, tord ces espoirs vers lui-même et les transforme. La violence et l’ironie mordante des textes portés par une musique simple, efficace, urgente et sans concession alimentent cette posture de défiance. Arborées comme des vêtements de tous les jours, les tenues relèvent d’une provocation assumée inscrite dans l’esthétique fétichiste. Les codes du bondage et du sadomasochisme (chaînes, colliers de chiens, cuir, latex) tournent en dérision l’amour libre en construisant une image provocante, sexuelle en apparence, mais subversive en substance. Car il s’agit bien en réalité d’un découpage quasi chirurgical des relations de pouvoir qui sont masquées par l’impression de liberté.

Dans ce contexte de dynamitage des codes, l’amour pose un double problème : s’il est à la fois l’impulsion vitale irrépressible qui anime une jeunesse libérée des carcans du vieux monde, il suggère en même temps que cette aspiration légitime aux sentiments et à l’intime peut être un piège, ouvrant dès lors sur une critique plus corrosive des états de domination, d’aveuglement et d’égarement auxquels conduit l’état amoureux (Gioia, 2015). D’une certaine manière, le punk réinvente alors la force d’un discours critique sur l’amour. Sans se confondre avec la position des moralistes du XVIIe siècle, des naturalistes du XIXe siècle ou même des féministes du XXe siècle, qui s’accordaient à voir dans l’amour tantôt une illusion, une expression de la vanité humaine, tantôt une ruse de la nature et surtout un moyen d’assujettir les femmes, le punk interroge au prisme d’une nouvelle raison cette passion qui traverse le monde et meut les êtres les uns vers les autres. C’est l’absence même de perspectives qui pose le No Future non seulement comme la condition du « jeune punk moderne » (Hebdige (1979), 2008), mais également comme une posture qui doit permettre l’examen de conscience d’une génération en révolte dans un monde en décomposition sociale avancée. Lorsque les Pistols chantent « There is no future in England’s dreaming », c’est exactement cette question du rêve humaniste, solidaire, social, et par extension celle du « rêve en rose » et du filtre amoureux, qui se pose. Le scepticisme qui en résulte est parfaitement légitime, dans la mesure où sont mis en balance, au moins dans un premier temps, les bénéfices et les coûts de la relation amoureuse. En 1977, le punk s’impose donc comme l’un des segments fondamentaux de la critique du conservatisme, et c’est au prisme de cette critique que l’amour devient l’objet de lectures en forme d’introspection qui articulent, parfois dans un même ensemble textuel ou dans un même album, les facettes jouissives des émois juvéniles et les pièges directement attachés aux emprises amoureuses.

À l’heure de la rupture punk, trois orientations majeures sont repérables dans notre corpus. Le premier discours se réapproprie l’incendie allumé par le « rock and roll » (expression imagée utilisée à l’origine comme une allusion pudique à la pratique du sexe) à la fin des années 1950, et aborde l’amour comme une force irrépressible avec laquelle garçons et filles doivent inévitablement composer : une expérience heureuse ou malheureuse. Les relations amoureuses, essentiellement hétérosexuelles, représentent un thème inégalement investi par les groupes mais néanmoins fréquent, qui émerge à partir de configurations encore classiques au sein de la culture rock. Ces textes interrogent les expériences amoureuses presque exclusivement du point de vue des garçons. La division [End Page 4] sociale du travail artistique qui organise la scène punk place les garçons, au moins dans un premier temps, en position de maîtriser le discours de l’amour. En effet, même si un changement s’annonce précisément avec le punk, ce sont bien les garçons qui s’expriment en premier, ce sont eux qui composent, montent sur scène, jouent de la guitare et chantent (Shepherd, 1987 ; Clawson, 1999) devant un public mixte mais néanmoins largement féminisé. Le groupe parisien Stinky Toys, emmené par une femme – Elie Medeiros –, constitue une exception notable ; et il n’est d’ailleurs pas fortuit qu’un morceau comme « Lonely Lovers » (album Stinky Toys, 1977) appréhende le thème de l’amour sous l’angle de la romance, quitte à jouer sur les apparences et les faux-semblants : « Come on man! / Tell me you love me / Even if we know you’re lying! ».

Derrière ce récit encore conventionnel qui ne s’éloigne guère des représentations et des stéréotypes de genre, ou qui ne remet guère en cause les modèles hégémoniques de masculinité et de féminité, sourd cependant ponctuellement un discours plus abrasif qui permet d’entrevoir précisément le brouillage que le punk commence à distiller. Ainsi le groupe bordelais Strychnine, dans « La leçon » (album Jeux cruels, 1978) imagine un renversement dans lequel le rapport amoureux devient l’occasion d’un apprentissage qui assujettit le désir du garçon au bon vouloir d’une compagne plus âgée ou plus expérimentée. Placé en position de novice, le garçon n’a d’autre choix que d’avouer sa candeur et d’implorer sa partenaire afin d’acquérir les clés du bonheur : « Tu connais l’affaire dans ses moindres détails/ Moi je suis au début et je n’ai pas d’instinct ». Si la plénitude amoureuse s’inscrit ici dans la jouissance et les plaisirs de la chair sous l’angle de la « première fois », c’est bien dans cette initiation orchestrée par une femme qui détient le savoir et le pouvoir que se niche la dimension subversive du texte : « Dans ta forêt je suis perdu / Toi. Apprends-moi, apprends-moi ! ». En ce sens, Strychnine prend à contrepied la figure de l’homme viril qui mène la relation à sa guise et impose sa toute-puissance amoureuse, une représentation détournée à l’envi par nombre de groupes punk. The Boys, par exemple, jouissent d’un réel succès en Grande Bretagne et en France avec « First time », un titre qui parodie les codes de la boom adolescente et des premières amours dominées par l’impétuosité du désir masculin : « Oh, oh oh oh, it’s my first time ! / Oh, oh oh oh, please be kind ! / Oh, oh oh oh, don’t hurt me ! ». Mais quoique sulfureux, l’amour punk de « La leçon » se contente de reproduire une forme finalement bien connue des relations amoureuses, dans lesquelles la femme experte n’est autre que la putain chargée de déniaiser le jeune homme de bonne famille. En revanche, dans le cas des Lou’s, groupe lyonnais exclusivement féminin, la provocation rompt plus nettement avec les figures établies. Si, en prônant la débrouille et le Do It Yourself (DIY) le punk en France permet de révéler à partir de 1976 l’existence et la vitalité d’une scène rock impatiente qui ne s’embarrasse pas de savoir s’il convient de maîtriser plus de trois accords, il donne aussi l’occasion aux filles de s’exprimer. Avec « Take a ride », chanson qui figure dans le film La Brune et moi (Philippe Puicouyoul, sorti en salle en avril 1981), les Lou’s accompagnent la mise en scène d’une figure radicalement nouvelle : une jeune punkette émancipée, bondissante, engagée, qui séduit un producteur et l’enjoint littéralement de faire d’elle une « punk star ». Au-delà des mots, les attitudes provocantes et sexuellement explicites du groupe féminin permettent de donner un sens aux ambitions punk : l’amour est ici une arme et les filles punk ont désormais tout loisir d’en user pour déstabiliser l’ancien monde et subvertir l’ordre patriarcal.

En contrepoint des jeux de l’amour, un deuxième ensemble, au discours plus contrasté et moins conventionnel, se distingue. Il se fissure rapidement sur la question du [End Page 5] bonheur amoureux et laisse apparaître des figures beaucoup plus noires. L’amour y est appréhendé comme un piège, voire comme une emprise ouvrant sur différents mal-êtres. Les textes, sombres, explorent la partie la plus secrète et plus taboue des relations amoureuses. L’amour constitue un lieu de tensions dans lequel s’expriment différentes formes de frustrations. Ainsi Strychnine, dans « Obsession » (album Je veux, 1981) revient fréquemment sur ce côté obscur dans des compositions qui abordent la jalousie et l’envie ou expriment la frustration des amours à jamais perdues : « Il ne faut pas chercher, au rayon des intouchables […] / J’aurais bien voulu me placer, mais l’autre y était déjà […] / Obsession, obsession, tu as touché le fond / Obsession, obsession, excitation ». La dureté du quotidien constitue par ailleurs l’une des dimensions à laquelle s’arrime la question de l’amour, soit parce que la violence des jours est directement intégrée à cette problématique des misérables et des mal-aimés, soit parce que les rapports de force (domination, perversions, dérives ou exploitations de l’autre) impriment à la relation amoureuse une violence qui tord la raison même des sentiments. À ce titre, l’exemple le plus marquant reste sans doute le cas de la prostitution. Gazoline, le groupe punk d’Alain Kan, s’approprie immédiatement ce thème et l’intègre à l’univers interlope des nuits parisiennes, associant désir, déchéance et noirceur du temps, expression d’une vie étroite, exploitée et sans espoir. Leur morceau « Sally » (45 tours Sally / Electric Injection, 1977), est à cet égard particulièrement éloquent : « Sally petite fille du trottoir est une blonde aux racines noires / Elle est vraiment jolie le cul moulé dans son slip léopard […] / Sally petite fille de la rue est du genre dépression / Souvent elle a voulu se trancher les poignets en deux morceaux ». Le punk ouvre par ailleurs une brèche franche dans le silence qui entoure la prostitution masculine. Aux États-Unis, dès 1975, les Ramones avaient franchi le pas avec une composition de Dee Dee Ramone largement autobiographique (« 53rd&3rd »). En France, Strychnine s’empare du thème avec « Pas besoin d’être un homme » (album Jeux cruels, 1978) osant la mise en abyme des bonne et mauvaise consciences : « Tu as vu le jeune garçon qui attend là-bas / Le jean est serré et les traits sont purs / Ton portefeuille est épais et les temps sont durs, durs / Pas besoin d’être un homme pour gagner de l’argent ». L’album des Bordelais regorge du reste de textes dans lesquels la domination, voire la perversité des relations amoureuses, constituent le cœur de l’argument artistique. « Jeux cruels » n’envisage guère la relation amoureuse autrement que comme une épreuve de force, dans laquelle l’un des partenaires est forcément le bourreau, l’autre la victime : « Je suis le gardien de son corps, je détruis sa vie / Je suis un bourreau, rien qu’un bourreau ». Le thème est repris sous l’angle de l’emprise possessive, sans qu’il soit possible de dire, au-delà de l’interprétation masculine, qui de l’homme ou de la femme se trouve pris dans les mailles du filet, à l’instar de « Lâche-moi » : « Tu crois que tout t’appartient, tu crois que je suis ton bien / […] Lâche-moi, je ne veux pas de toi ». L’ensemble préfigure la raréfaction du thème des aventures joyeuses de l’adolescence amoureuse ainsi que la densification des figures sombres de l’amour et des frustrations qu’il peut engendrer, ouvrant sur la mort et le suicide, deux thèmes qui prendront toute leur dimension dans les générations suivantes.

Un dernier segment du discours amoureux est celui qui compose une trame serrée entre amour et addictions. L’amour de la défonce et de l’alcool vient ainsi nourrir le registre punk pour pallier les vides d’une vie sans amour et pour accompagner la lente perdition d’un monde sans substance, un univers dans lequel privés d’une force qui les meut et les transcende, les êtres ne semblent exister que pour mieux se détruire. Les textes du groupe parisien Asphalt Jungle (45 tours Déconnection / Asphalt Jungle, 1977), emmené par Patrick [End Page 6] Eudeline, sont à cet égard emblématiques : « À l’aube tu descends bien saccagé / Le cœur en lambeaux qui ne bat pour personne ». Dans un style qui demeure très personnel, tout en empruntant tantôt à Burroughs, tantôt à Lester Bangs, Eudeline tisse des textes en forme de poésies désespérées. « Love lane » 45 tours Poly Magoo / Love Lane, 1978) est une complainte erratique qui prône l’amour de la dope, car le chemin de l’amour n’est en réalité que celui du besoin sans cesse renouvelé des états éthérés : « Babe, babe, babe babe blue/ C’est la loi du love lane / C’est la loi de la vie […] / C’est Love Lane où je m’éveille chaque matin […] / Too much junkie business ». Au milieu de la ville tentaculaire et anonyme, les héros du punk parisien ne sont que des pauvres hères perdus dans leurs rêves, pendant que leur cœur se dissout dans l’alcool et l’ennui, comme dans « Planté comme un privé » (45 tours Planté comme un privé / Purple Heart, 1977) : « Planté comme un privé au fond de la ville / Encore un dernier cocktail, comptoir anonyme […] / Planté comme un privé au fond de la ville / Tous ces gens mauvais acteurs et moi encore seul ». Le mythe du « grand amour », celui du Peace and Love des aînés, se trouve ainsi désossé, démantibulé et alcoolisé. Passé au crible de la grande « Déconnection » (45 tours Déconnection / Asphalt Jungle, 1977), il devient un repoussoir, tandis que le hippie, figure archaïque reniée par les punk de la première heure, incarne l’échec d’une idéologie débordée par les violences du quotidien : « Hey, toi dans la rue, tout près des crachats de voiture / Tu fais la chasse aux hippies le dimanche après-midi quand ta télé est cassée / […] La ville qui dort t’attend / Tu vas casser les distributeurs, braquer les pharmacies et boire de la bière ».

Par conséquent, dans cette explosion punk, l’amour écorché n’est encore que cet émoi ou cette absence dont il convient de scruter les incidences en termes d’émotions. Le punk tente d’exprimer simultanément le plaisir et la méfiance à l’égard d’une dépendance amoureuse qui peut constituer un piège ou a contrario relever de cette douleur lancinante animant des vies condamnées à scruter un horizon sans avenir ni amour, replié sur lui-même. Le discours est ici largement auto-référencé en ce qu’il reste essentiellement tourné vers les acteurs et n’exprime que la propre finalité des rapports interpersonnels, aussi glauques soient-ils. Avec l’émergence d’une seconde génération au-delà des années 1980, beaucoup plus politisée, le discours tend à changer de nature et le prisme amoureux de fonction : de la plainte ou la complainte émerge une posture critique, un miroir déformant tendu au monde destiné à mieux en saisir les convulsions et les contradictions.

2. Toute la misère du monde (1980-2000)

Dans le contexte des années 1980, marqué par la crise économique et le retour au pouvoir des conservateurs (Reagan et Bush aux USA, Thatcher en Grande-Bretagne) une nouvelle vague punk, davantage politisée, émerge, portée par Black Flag ou les Dead Kennedys aux USA, et par Crass en Angleterre. En France, bien que les « forces de progrès » soient arrivées au pouvoir en 1981, le tournant de la rigueur amorcé par la gauche mitterrandienne dès 1983, la montée du chômage et l’essor sensible de l’extrême droite, les mouvements sociaux et antiracistes dynamisent les discours de résistance et la réinvention du punk : la dimension engagée des textes s’affirme. L’émergence d’une scène indépendante, qui commence à se structurer autour de labels efficaces (Bondage, Boucherie Productions), de réseaux de bars et de lieux de spectacle autonomes, le soubassement idéologique ancré [End Page 7] dans une revendication anarchiste et libertaire plus nette (Gosling, 2004), mais également la relative homogénéisation qui marque les compositions, le son et les productions artistiques du punk sont autant de facteurs qui concourent à délimiter un courant musical, artistique et politique – l’anarcho-punk –  beaucoup plus visible, repérable et stratégique dans ses luttes et ses mots d’ordre. « La jeunesse emmerde le Front national », slogan issu du morceau « Porcherie » (album Concerto pour détraqués, 1985) de Bérurier Noir illustre ces prises de positions. La transition s’opère dans un temps relativement ramassé, au creux des années 1981-1983, lorsque des groupes dont l’histoire s’enracine dans la matrice punk originelle comme Camera Silens (Bordeaux), La Souris Déglinguée (Paris), Bérurier Noir (Paris), Oberkampf (Paris), commencent à acquérir une visibilité nationale et à fédérer un public autour de nouveaux combats (condamnation des extrêmes politiques, du racisme, des violences policières, défense de la jeunesse ou des exclus). Dynamisé par l’apport du punk britannique engagé sur le versant des luttes sociales et ouvrières (Angelic Upstart, Cockney Rejects), ce deuxième souffle punk délimite de nouveaux territoires et de nouvelles focales.

Dans ce contexte, le thème de l’amour est traité différemment. Petit à petit, un basculement s’opère, de l’amour comme sentiment à l’amour comme miroir du désarroi quotidien et des violences sociales, économiques, politiques. Les groupes s’engouffrent dans une voie entrouverte par Métal Urbain dans la période précédente ; la violence dérangeante d’un morceau comme « Crève Salope » (33 tours Les hommes morts sont dangereux, 1981) montre de quelle manière le discours amoureux dans le punk devient progressivement un thème qui permet, par effet de miroir tendu à la société, de dénoncer toute la misère du monde : « Du sang plein le con / Tu pues tu chies tu râles / Fout ma bite dans ton cul / Je te déchire je t’égorge / Ta vie vaut pas cent balles / Sale putain dégueulasse ».

Avec « Suicide » (album Réalité, 1985), Camera Silens approche l’amour par la solitude, l’absence de perspectives et le jeu d’une séduction macabre qui trouve sa propre fin dans le désespoir « quatre-vingt-dix étages plus bas ». Car c’est bien la grande faucheuse qui est ici décrite comme l’amante, et le jeu des mots se plaît à confondre l’amour et la mort : « Je n’sais pas si elle voudra de moi […] / Je la vois en bas, elle est là, elle est ma mort ». Très rapidement, Bérurier Noir, dont l’audience va croissant durant les années 1980, s’emploie à dénoncer la violence quotidienne, en particulier celle vécue par les femmes, les étrangers, les populations vulnérables et tous ceux qui n’entrent guère dans le moule de la société des gagnants. Le thème de l’amour n’est alors plus l’occasion de disserter sur les seuls sentiments amoureux, mais renvoie à une lecture particulièrement crue de la comédie humaine. Les textes se font directs, incisifs ; plus d’allusions, plus d’implicite, juste l’implacable réalité d’un monde en perdition. Ainsi, « Elsa je t’aime » (album Macadam Massacre, 1984) évoque la mort de l’autre que l’on tue pour le posséder : « Tu es douce comme la mort / Tu es douce donne-moi ton corps / Tu es douce j’en veux encore/ Mais tu es morte, je t’ai tué/ Mais tu es morte, pour te garder / Mais tu es morte, peux-tu m’oublier ? / Je t’aime Elsa ». « Hélène et le sang » (album Concerto pour détraqués, 1985) évoque même frontalement le thème du viol, questionnant ainsi une société en perte de repères, en mal de solidarité, une société en décomposition sociale avancée, territoire de nouveaux prédateurs : « Tu retrouveras les salopards/ […] Qui t’ont violée dans un bar / Des marques sur ta peau/ Sous la gorge un couteau/ Quatre salopards/ Une nuit de cauchemar/ Tu n’as plus rien à perdre/ Il te reste la haine ».  Pour Oberkampf, « Linda » (45 tours Linda, 1983) incarne ce « mime pervers de la vie », amour ravagé par la drogue et la prostitution : « Mais qu’as-tu fait de ta vie Linda/ Et [End Page 8] cette putain d’aiguille dans ton bras/ Qui te suce qui te suce qui te sucera /Jusqu’au trépas/ […] Mais Linda tu es morte maintenant / Bonne nuit Linda ».

Dans les décennies 1980-90, la noirceur envahit donc les thèmes des chansons punk de manière plus crue, détournant la fonction initiale du discours amoureux centré sur la relation elle-même et ses affres, pour projeter sur le monde une lumière vive et sans concession. Les thèmes sombres et violents, plus régulièrement privilégiés, deviennent la marque de fabrique de la « chanson d’amour punk » qui embrasse le suicide, l’exploitation de l’autre, le racisme, l’intolérance, la haine et la violence, l’exclusion, le sexe sans amour et le viol. Dans cette dynamique, l’une des particularités du punk est bien de se situer dans une forme de réinvention permanente qui subvertit les codes établis pour recomposer ses cadres d’action. Un bon exemple est fourni par « Adolf mon amour », morceau hautement subversif de Gogol Ier (album Vite avant la saisie, 1982), qui met en scène un coït passionnel et cru impliquant Hitler saisi dans des postures équivoques, participant pleinement à déconstruire l’image de toute puissance du Führer, et à dénoncer violemment le nazisme : « Adolf mon amour,  je t’en prie mon dieu, prends ma chatte oh je t’en prie, donne-moi ta liqueur oh oui, glisse ta petite quéquette dans ma chatte, ah mets-toi à quatre pattes, Adolf je t’en prie, Adolf pour la vieeeee ». La violence sociale appelle également un contre-discours susceptible de retourner la haine pour en faire une arme de résistance, comme l’avait suggéré en son temps Clash dans « Hate and War » (album The Clash, 1977). Ce que nous pourrions appeler de manière provocante la « chanson de haine », véritable invention punk, est en réalité une dénonciation et surtout une manière provocante d’inciter à l’amour. Dans « Rock’n’Roll Vengeance » (album La Souris Déglinguée, 1981), les Parisiens de La Souris Déglinguée retournent à leur façon le discours du racisme engagé et déclarent leur haine aux ennemis de l’humanisme et de l’amour : « Est-ce que tu le sais, pourquoi je te hais / Pourquoi je me bats toujours contre toi / Je cherche à détruire tous tes préjugés / Je cherche à détruire toutes tes croix gammées ».

3. Un monde sans espoir (2000-)

Dans la décennie suivante, l’amour conserve dans les textes punk ce rôle de miroir « sale » des réalités du temps. La chanson d’amour, si tant est que l’on puisse lui conserver ce nom, devient un exutoire pour cracher la haine d’un monde violent où règne la loi des plus forts, de ceux qui écrasent et contraignent leurs semblables. Cette critique réitérée du punk à l’égard des faillites sociales du monde moderne trouve à s’exprimer frontalement avec Les Sales Majestés dans « Y a pas d’amour » (album éponyme, 2000). Le morceau, construit selon une progression tragique, décrit le processus implacable de reproduction de la violence qui s’inscrit, précisément, dans la violence des jours et les vides d’une vie sans amour : la loi des plus forts, l’absence de rédemption et de pardon, et le jusqu’au-boutisme de ceux qui ont tout perdu, trop longtemps, et que même l’amour hypothétique ne peut plus sauver de la violence. Le refrain, implacable, est éloquent : « Y’a pas d’amour, y’a pas d’amour/ Y’a que de la haine et des vautours / Y’a pas d’espoir, y’a pas d’espoir / Y’a que du sang c’est un cauchemar ». De manière assez similaire, Tagada Jones, dans « La Raison » (album Descente aux enfers, 2011), interroge la ligne de partage entre égoïsme, individualisme, dureté de la vie, amour et entraide. L’amour n’a de sens que dans le partage d’une vie meilleure, et c’est exactement [End Page 9] dans ce contraste entre refuge et partage que s’inscrit la dimension politique du texte : « Et elle me dit toujours, qu’il nous reste l’amour / Qu’on a qu’à tout laisser couler / Partir ensemble et s’évader / Et elle me dit toujours, qu’il nous reste l’amour/ Que les hommes se trompent tout le temps / Aveuglés par la puissance et l’argent ! ».  C’est précisément bien de partage qu’il est question dans « Camarades », supplique des Sales Majestés (album No Problemo, 1997) : « Aimer son prochain ne rapporte rien / C’est toute la tragédie du genre humain / Et si le monde ne ressemble plus à rien / C’est parce qu’on oublie souvent son voisin […] Quels que soient ton pays, ta couleur (camarade) / On a partout sur terre droit au bonheur (camarade) ». L’entraide, la coopération, le respect de l’autre ne sont en réalité que les facettes d’un humanisme à réinventer dans une société qui ne saurait renoncer à l’amour.

La complexité et la richesse du corpus des textes punk de cette « troisième génération » permettent également de poser la question du bonheur retrouvé : n’y aurait-il d’amour que l’absence d’amour ? Le caractère résolument original du groupe breton du punk celtique Les Ramoneurs de Menhir (dans lequel on retrouve Loran, ancien membre de Bérurier Noir), lié à leur fort attachement au folklore traditionnel qu’ils revisitent en amoureux de la Bretagne et défenseurs des cultures régionales, invite sans doute à relativiser cette question. Mais en se réappropriant les figures traditionnelles de l’homme et de sa belle, dans la Blanche Hermine (Gilles Servat) le punk des Bretons n’évite pas de réinscrire l’amour dans une configuration de genre pourtant largement critiquée par ailleurs : celle d’un ordre immuable, qui structure les rapports sociaux de sexe et les relations hommes / femmes : pendant que l’homme part à la guerre défendre ses terres et sa culture, sa belle l’attend sur le pas de la porte. De même, Tagada Jones, dans le morceau « Karim et Juliette » (album Dissident, 2014) qui peut se lire comme un détournement de l’œuvre shakespearienne, prend le parti de tordre les conventions et les représentations sociales pour livrer un message d’espoir sur fond de mixité sociale et de transcendance amoureuse : « N’en déplaise à ces gens / Qui votent plus foncé que blanc / Ils vécurent heureux / Et eurent beaucoup d’enfants / Pas de petits noirs ni de petits blancs ». Si l’amour acquiert dès lors une forme de légitimité dans la sphère punk, c’est en prenant à contre-pied le discours plus traditionnel de l’amour idéalisé qui se suffit à lui-même. La chanson d’amour devient en quelque sorte un analyseur de la société, une grille de lecture des rapports de force et de la violence. Elle sert de révélateur à la noirceur du temps et permet d’amplifier et de mieux détourer, dans ce contraste saisissant, les figures de la misère du monde : exclus, paumés, junkies, caïds des cités obsédés par leur « teub », racistes, filles perdues, prostitué(s), violeurs et violé(e)s, meurtriers et taulards. Il s’agit bien d’un dynamitage en règle du discours amoureux par le bas, un « fondu au noir » dont les limites restent d’autant plus imprécises que la société redéfinit au fil du temps ses propres frontières en matière de violence, de provocation, de tolérable et d’intolérable. On peut ainsi questionner les mutations de la provocation dans un contexte très contemporain, au travers des polémiques qui ont accompagné la naissance du groupe de punk nantais Viol (interdit de concert à Paris en 2015) et la publication de ses chansons, en particulier la chanson « Viol » (2009), qui donnent le sentiment – et tout est dans cette question de la représentation – d’une normalisation de la violence, voire d’un appel au viol : « Dans la rue tu m’as provoqué / Petite pute à souliers ! / Tu pensais te faire sauter par ton mec / Mais dans une poubelle je vais te prendre à sec ! ». La subversion et la dénonciation de la misère du monde par la subversion doivent-elles et peuvent-elles s’accorder sur des limites ? Considérer le punk comme le prisme au travers duquel se lisent [End Page 10] les transformations sociales invite à questionner ces ambiguïtés. Un travail d’envergure sur ce thème essentiel reste encore à produire.

Enfin, le punk emprunte aux œuvres désormais établies des musiques populaires pour les retourner, se les réapproprier et y inscrire sa marque. À l’appui des thématiques de fond et de leurs transformations dans le temps, ce jeu subtil s’applique également aux formes. Toute l’originalité du prisme amoureux revisité par cette troisième génération punk réside précisément dans la reformulation très personnelle de thèmes conventionnels. Ce qui crée la rupture n’est donc pas systématiquement le changement d’objet à l’intérieur du territoire amoureux, mais le filtre technique qui lui est appliqué et qui, par un décalage subtil, rend singulièrement insolente une situation amoureuse tombée dans la banalité des usages sociaux, voire dans l’ordinaire du rock and roll et de ses figures imposées. Dans la lignée d’Oberkampf, qui s’était saisi de la figure mythique de la poupée dans « Poupée de cire » (45 tours Couleurs sur Paris, 1981) pour la détourner et la transformer irrespectueusement en « salope », dans un hommage impertinent que n’a jamais désavoué Gainsbourg, les Sales Majestés, dans « Love Story » (album Y a pas d’amour, 2000) s’emparent de la poésie gainsbarienne pour proposer leur lecture revue et corrigée du mythe amoureux, poétique, à l’aune de l’individualisme et de la consommation de l’autre : « Je sais peut-être que tu y as cru / Mais c’était qu’une histoire de cul / Je suis venu te dire que tu t’en vas / Je n’y peux rien désolé c’est comme ça / Je suis venu te dire qu’il faut partir / Rentrer chez toi pour ne plus revenir ». Il est vrai que Gainsbourg, qui avait déjà travaillé avec Bijou à la fin des années 1970 (« Les papillons noirs », album OK Carole, 1978), n’avait pas hésité à pervertir le genre de la chanson d’amour, privilégiant à la romance la dimension hyper sexualisée des rapports amoureux.

Le punk français rêve-t-il donc en rose ? Si la chanson d’amour punk emprunte dans un premier temps la voie des amours adolescentes, entre appropriation libertaire et révolte, parfois poussées à l’extrême tant du côté des fantasmes et de la perversion que des formes d’addiction supposées combler les vides de vies pensées sans avenir ni amour, cette construction évolue au fil des générations musicales, en dynamitant les codes de la chanson amoureuse, en détournant les figures mythiques du « peace and love », de l’amour mainstream et des formes poétiques, mais surtout en s’évadant du simple jeu amoureux pour venir refléter par effet de contraste sidérant ce que l’amour absent ou dénaturé peut révéler de la noirceur du monde. Ce faisant, chaque groupe, à sa manière, réinvente amoureusement sa critique, son credo et sa morale de l’histoire, invitant ainsi à réfléchir, au fil des morceaux, à ces manques et à ces marques de la violence dans une vie que personne ne songe réellement pouvoir vivre sans amour.

Ajoutons que si la critique du paradis de l’amour n’est pas l’apanage du punk, une part non négligeable de la production artistique populaire s’en est largement inspirée. La création musicale s’insère en effet avec un certain bonheur dans une forme de désenchantement tangentiel à la poétique punk. Cette vague génère une lecture subversive des rapports amoureux dont s’inspirent des artistes qui pour certains sont directement issus de la scène punk – « Les histoires d’amour finissent mal en général » (Rita Mitsouko) –, qui flirtent avec elle – « L’amour c’est du pipeau, c’est bon pour les gogos » (Fontaine) –  ou encore qui sont en recherche de nouvelles figures pour prolonger un style qu’ils ont eux-mêmes largement façonné depuis les années 1960 – « C’est l’Hymne à l’amour (moi l’nœud) » (Dutronc, Gainsbourg). La littérature, avec des auteurs comme Michel Houellebecq ou Virginie Despentes, n’est pas en reste, reprenant peu ou prou cet héritage critique punk dans les [End Page 11] années 1980-1990, alors que, symétriquement une large partie des philosophes contemporains (Badiou, Ferry) abandonne ce terrain pour développer un discours d’éloge et de magnification qui réinstalle la relation amoureuse dans ses carcans conservateurs et puritains.

[1] Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) est un psychiatre, psychanalyste et critique de la société autrichienne. Celui qui fut le plus jeune collaborateur de Freud est connu pour ses contributions à la sexologie et à la thérapie psychanalytique et son engagement en faveur de l’émancipation de la satisfaction sexuelle (la « fonction de l’orgasme »). Il est notamment l’auteur de La fonction de l’orgasme, Paris, l’Arche, 1957 [1927].

[2] Notre corpus comprend des groupes qui se désignent comme punk ou qui sont désignés comme tels par les institutions, les médias, les acteurs du monde de la musique, etc. Pour davantage de détails sur ces processus de désignation et d’auto-désignation, voir Robène/Serre 2016 et Robène/Serre 2017.

[3] Contrairement à une idée encore trop souvent répandue (à la fois dans le champ académique – voir Briggs, 2015 – et dans la sphère médiatique – Eudeline, Tandy, etc.) qui voudrait que le punk en France se réduise à un épiphénomène (parisien, dandy, etc) et ne soit qu’une pâle transposition des modèles anglo-américains, notre projet de recherche PIND a pour objectif de dépasser le spectre d’un phénomène réduit à l’évidence culturelle anglo-américaine. [End Page 12]


Barthes, Roland, Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Paris, Seuil, 1977.

Briggs, Jonathyne, Sounds French, Globalization, Cultural Communities and Pop Music in France, 1958-1980, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Clawson, Mary Ann, « When women play the bass : Instrument specialization and Gender interpretation in Alternative Rock Music », Gender and Society, 13/2, 1999, p. 193-210.

Gioia, Ted, Love songs : the hidden history, New York, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Gosling, Tim, « ‘Not for sale’ : the underground network of anarchopunk », dans Music scenes. Local, translocal and virtual, sous la direction d’Andy Bennett et de Richard A. Peterson, Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 2004, p. 168-183.

Hebdige, Dick, Sous-culture. Le sens du style, Paris, Zones / La découverte, (1979) 2008.

McNeil Legs, McCain Gillian, Please kill me. L’histoire non censurée du punk racontée par ses acteurs, Paris, Allia, 2006.

Robène, Luc et Serre, Solveig, « À l’heure du punk. Quand la presse musicale française s’emparait de la nouveauté (1976-1978) » , dans Raisons politiques, 2016, p. 62, p. 83-99.

Robène, Luc et Serre, Solveig (dir.), Volumes, numéro spécial « La scène punk en France (1976-2016) », 13/1, Guichen, Mélanie Seteun, 2016.

Robène, Luc et Serre, Solveig, « Le punk est mort. Vive le punk ! La construction médiatique de l’âge d’or du punk dans la presse musicale spécialisée en France », dans Le temps des médias, 27, 2017, p. 124-138.

Robert, Frédéric, « Vers une contre-culture américaine des sixties », dans, Contre-cultures sous la direction de Christophe Bourseiller and Olivier Penot-Lacassage, Paris, CNRS éditions, 2013, p. 123-135.

Shepherd, John, « Music and male hegemony », dans Music and Society. The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception, Richard Leppert, Susan McClary,  Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 151-172.

Sirinelli, Jean-François, Les Baby-boomers. Une génération 1945-1969, Paris, Fayard, 2003.

[End Page 13]


♪ Par-delà l’ « amour importun » : voix et figures de l’amour chez Eiffel
Beyond “unwelcome love”: voices and images of love in the music of Eiffel
by Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud

[End Page 1]

Introduction : chansons trouées

Dans un chapitre de son ouvrage De la culture rock qu’il dédie aux « interstices » et dont le point d’orgue est un « appel à la déviance » (260) comme offrant « des possibilités de vie nouvelles, des rapports au monde inédits » (244), Claude Chastagner écrit :

[…] l’essentiel de ce que nous définissons comme acte de résistance consiste à occuper un espace individuel, à inventer une relation personnelle au monde. […] Elle (la résistance) est une action individuelle, l’acquisition pour soi-même de temps et d’espace, symboliques ou physiques, même si ces espaces demeurent interstitiels. […] Cet acte de résistance individuel est une opération souple, élastique, une stratégie de contournement qui refuse l’opposition frontale. Elle s’élabore à partir de tentatives individuelles d’affranchissement, de petits actes modestes qui échappent au contrôle et font naître de nouveaux espaces pour nous permettre de croire au monde, monde dont nous avons été et serons toujours dépossédés. (Chastagner 258-259)

C’est dans ces « espaces interstitiels », lieux du questionnement, de l’incertitude, de l’instabilité, de la quête, acte d’amour avec le monde perpétuellement recommencé, que paraît se loger la démarche du groupe Eiffel. Cette démarche est illustrée de manière particulièrement éloquente par l’un des titres les plus récents du groupe, « Chanson trouée » (de l’album Foule Monstre, sorti en 2012). Dans ce morceau – le plus long de l’album avec 7 minutes, très largement excédées en concert –, la ligne mélodique toute en errances et en bifurcations, la montée en puissance instrumentale et vocale se conjuguent à un texte où les « trous » évoqués sont autant d’espaces de respiration, d’aspirations à un infini de l’élan vital, érotique et créateur. Ces aspirations à ré-enchanter le monde par un souffle de vie retrouvé (« Tripons aux vents maboules ») s’y trouvent matérialisées par le flot des images qui s’engouffrent et s’entrechoquent dans un texte semblant spiraler, à l’instar des « carrousels » de l’imaginaire invités à se mettre en marche au début de la chanson (« Tournoyez / Carrousels ») :

Et si nos voix sont cabossées
Que la chanson est trouée… Au moins
Il y souffle encore des mystères

[End Page 2]

Tu peux m’embrasser
Nous, rois de rien, princes de nulle part
Si l’on est pieds et poings liés… Au moins
Dans la chanson trouée, dare-dare
On peut encore s’aimer
(« Chanson trouée »)

L’amour, l’élan créateur qu’il génère pour les « Nous, rois de rien, princes de nulle part » – la valeur référentielle de « nous » étant elle aussi « trouée », ouverte à l’infini – s’affichent comme valeur de résistance à tout ce qui entrave : au temps et à la mort, à l’adversité, au figement des attitudes et des croyances, à l’immobilisme mental. Cette invitation à battre en brèche ces obstacles pour permettre le déploiement de la vie et de l’imaginaire est amplifiée par les « Venez, circulez » et autres « Allez, inventez » qui jalonnent la chanson, culminant à travers le pouvoir performatif du tout dernier mot de la chanson, « s’échapper ». La fin du morceau n’est d’ailleurs pas sans évoquer, par ses glissements harmoniques multipliés, sa montée en puissance instrumentale sur fond d’ostinato vocal invitant à une forme de résistance, certaines pièces emblématiques de David Bowie, telles que « Rock n Roll Suicide » et surtout « Cygnet Committee », ou des Beatles, telles que « Hey Jude » ou « A Day in the Life ». Cette dernière peut d’ailleurs apparaître comme la « chanson trouée » par excellence en raison notamment de ses décrochages rythmiques et mélodiques allant jusqu’à la cacophonie, de l’assemblage des « trous » digne de la pataphysique qui y est évoqué (« how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall », ainsi que de l’échappée onirique qu’elle déploie (« I went into a dream »). Quant à « Cygnet Committee » de Bowie, l’auditeur ne peut qu’avoir en mémoire ses derniers couplets où, dans les envolées d’une ligne musicale tourbillonnante, les dernières paroles font entendre un appel pressant surgi du flot lyrique d’un texte dont l’image ultime n’est autre qu’une « trouée » (« shining through »), un souffle perpétué par les élans conjugués de la guitare et de la voix :

And I want to believe
In the madness that calls ‘Now’
And I want to believe
That a light’s shining through

 And I want to believe
And you want to believe
And we want to believe
And we want to live

De manière peu surprenante, « A Day in the Life » a fait l’objet d’une superbe reprise de la part d’Eiffel,[1] la chanson étant partie prenante – au même titre que d’autres morceaux des Beatles ou de Bowie – de l’imaginaire artistique et des influences musicales déclarées de Romain Humeau et de son groupe.

Valeur de résistance, convergence de l’amour et du ré-enchantement du monde : l’idée en elle-même n’est certainement pas nouvelle, mais la forme, ou plutôt les formes musicales et textuelles sont bel et bien inédites, ayant permis à un véritable « style Eiffel » [End Page 3] de s’affirmer et de s’incarner à travers de nombreux ajouts et renouvellements esthétiques au fil des années. À ce cisèlement stylistique s’ajoutent, comme autant de « trous », de brèches dans ce qui ne serait sans cela que linéarité et homogénéité, les variations spectaculaires du grain de la voix de Romain Humeau, voix étonnamment plastique se faisant tour à tour lyrique, enjouée, grave, enragée, comme le montrent avec éclat des performances live marquées par une théâtralisation croissante : on peut notamment citer les multiples interprétations de la chanson « Hype » (de l’album Abricotine), envahies au fil des concerts d’idiomes, d’onomatopées, de voix et de fragments de discours divers au gré de la fantaisie créatrice de l’interprète.[2]

Cartes du Tendre

Né à la fin des années 1990, le groupe bordelais, constitué dans sa forme actuelle par Romain et Estelle Humeau, Nicolas Courret et Nicolas Bonnière, est nourri de diverses influences allant de la pop et du rock anglo-américains (Beatles, Pixies, Bowie, Stooges, entre autres) à la chanson française (Brel, Vian, Ferré). Romain Humeau, auteur-compositeur, chanteur et multi-instrumentiste, arrangeur de morceaux pour d’autres artistes ou groupes tels que « Des visages des figures » de Noir Désir où cordes et hautbois emportent dans d’étranges élans harmoniques et une série de crescendos l’envoûtante chanson-titre de l’album de 2001, se montre tout aussi adepte des recherches sonores les plus élaborées que d’un travail d’orfèvre sur une langue française qu’il vénère. S’abreuvant à plusieurs sources artistiques (littérature, peinture, genres musicaux variés, du baroque au rap en passant par l’électro et le lyrisme d’un Brel), fort d’un enseignement musical rigoureux et d’un éveil musical précoce à la musique ancienne et baroque, à la chanson française et au rock, il est également rompu aux tangages du langage et de la littérature, via notamment sa pratique des excentriques influencés par le surréalisme tels que Boris Vian et sa fréquentation des textes anciens. Ainsi, à l’instar de la célèbre « Ballade des Pendus » revisitée par Ferré, la chanson « Mort j’appelle », de l’album A tout moment (2009), met à l’honneur la poésie de Villon, la musique y jouant de divers procédés symboliques, tels qu’un ostinato au clavier et les timbres d’instruments anciens, pour évoquer la perte de la femme aimée. Le même album donne également des lettres de noblesse très contemporaines à l’imagerie amoureuse de la Renaissance via l’allusion à la pavane lachrymae du poète et compositeur élisabéthain John Dowland dans « Minouche [3]», figurant la solitude et la peine de l’héroïne de la chanson, laissée pour compte d’un monde où les individus sont traités « à la rafle à la gifle », dénonciation qui clôt de manière significative son état des lieux par un résolument humaniste « Rien de toi ne m’est étranger ». Cette dernière formule témoigne de l’accent mis sur l’intégralité d’une « humaine condition » dont l’histoire, les remous et les travers laissent par ailleurs des traces très palpables dans les chansons où métaphores, double entendre et autres fulgurances langagières constituent l’une des signatures stylistiques de l’auteur. Il en est ainsi de ces « mots passants du Horla juste à côté de moi » [« Ma part d’ombre »], ou de cette « Foule monstre / Qui vire et volte à tout bout de chants » [« Foule Monstre »] où la métaphore du monstre reprend de sa vigueur en s’associant aux variations orthographiques et à l’homophonie convoquant les voix discordantes pour faire surgir une vision carnavalesque d’un autre temps (« vire et volte ») se frayant soudain un chemin dans le [End Page 4] nôtre. Romain Humeau a en effet affirmé à maintes reprises son goût pour les « paysages oniriques », pour les mélanges sensoriels insolites, pour « le fait de rêver d’un endroit (sonore et un tant soit peu poétique, en l’occurrence) et de rendre ce ‘lieu fictif’ totalement réel et audible [4] » ou, en d’autres termes, accessible à une « compréhension émotionnelle » qu’il oppose, dans la mouvance de David Lynch, à une « compréhension intellectuelle [5] », en réponse à l’évocation du caractère parfois obscur de ses textes.

Le résultat de ce chatoiement artistique d’influences et de stratégies expressives est le déploiement de toute une palette instrumentale, vocale et rhétorique qui permet de donner corps, au fil des six albums du groupe (dont un live), aux observations et aux émotions les plus diversifiées. Se faisant, selon une formule fréquemment répétée au cours des interviews, « colporteurs d’impressions »,[6] le groupe de Romain Humeau cisèle au fil de ses créations une série de vignettes-instantanés, observations et tentatives de saisie d’un univers en mutation marqué par l’instabilité des valeurs et des repères. Hantés par la mort, la perte, le déclin, les albums successifs peuvent être perçus, au-delà de ces constats sombres – pour reprendre l’adjectif qui donne son titre à une des chansons emblématiques d’Eiffel –, comme une célébration de l’élan vital et créateur, de l’éros dans son acception la plus englobante, sur des modes faisant alterner lyrisme, ironie, compassion, regard surplombant ou intimisme. L’amour s’y décline sous les formes diverses du rapport à l’autre, être aimé vivant ou disparu, figure entraperçue, instance singulière ou collective, mais aussi d’un rêve de fusion où domine l’appel d’une création rédemptrice. Dans tous les cas, l’amour offre le visage d’une force salvatrice qui, via la variété des textes, des arrangements, des emprunts, des jeux langagiers, se déploie dans sa multiplicité. Cette cartographie de l’amour s’inscrit dans le paysage de la chanson d’amour rock d’une manière particulièrement inventive et stimulante, contribuant, comme on le devine à travers les quelques incursions déjà faites, à redéfinir les contours et les spécificités du genre par son franchissement toujours enthousiaste, souvent ludique et toujours savamment orchestré, de nombreuses frontières.

Invitations au voyage

Cette notion même de frontière introduit un constat, découlant de la diversité énumérée précédemment : comme on a pu en avoir un premier aperçu, chez Eiffel, la chanson que l’on pourrait qualifier « d’amour » déborde largement de son format habituel, occupant un territoire musical et textuel mouvant et très difficilement « bornable ». Ce débordement, cet estompage des frontières tendent à s’accentuer au fil des albums, la figure de l’être aimé y étant toujours plus protéiforme, toujours plus chargée de nuances et de résonances. Dans les premiers albums (Abricotine et Le Quart d’heure des ahuris), certains morceaux dessinent une sorte de carte du Tendre d’amours adolescentes, de « Douce adolescence » à « Te revoir » en passant par « Inverse-moi », titres dont la capacité d’accroche réside non seulement dans l’inventivité mélodique – omniprésente chez Eiffel – mais aussi dans la dualité du décor qui y est planté. Loin de ne dévoiler qu’un vert paradis d’innocence et d’illusion, ce paysage fait d’emblée la part belle à l’ombre de la mort et de la perte : [End Page 5]

Je suis prisonnier du sort
Je reste en vie ou alors
Inverse le cours du temps
Inverse-le pour que nous restions beaux amants
(« Inverse-moi »)
Te revoir en chair et en os
Te revoir même s’il ne reste que les os
Il y a si longtemps et je ne me souviens plus
Si c’était toi, si c’était moi, si c’était lui
Et pendant que l’amour ressemblait légèrement à la mort ça chantait Sea, Sex and Sun (« Te revoir »)

Ainsi, dans la chanson « Douce adolescence », le refrain sucré aux allures mélodiques de comptine et les onomatopées ludiques voisinent avec un texte chargé d’allusions à la mort, à l’immobilité, combattues par la rage grandissante d’un « I can not forget you » inlassablement répété (en anglais, idiome auquel Romain Humeau a fréquemment recours dans son écriture en raison de ses composantes mélodiques et rythmiques et des réminiscences pop et rock dont il est chargé). Cette répétition se fait particulièrement insistante et rageuse dans la version de l’album live Les Yeux fermés où elle sature complètement la fin du morceau jusqu’à y devenir une sorte de mantra et de formule propitiatoire, « you » y désignant tout aussi bien l’être aimé que tout l’agencement qu’il incarne et fait miroiter : l’élan vers un ailleurs, la capacité de découverte et d’ouverture des possibles [« Être adolescent jusqu’au dernier jour » (« Douce adolescence »)].

C’est ce même appel à la perpétuation d’un élan vital menacé qui résonne à travers la chanson « Sombre » déjà mentionnée. Au verdict de l’amour devenu « importun », qui a fui un monde sclérosé par la virtualité et l’absence de rapports humains authentiques, succède un refrain où l’amour s’incarne à travers la figure emblématique de Shéhérazade, détentrice d’une histoire sans fin repoussant les limites de l’univers carcéral évoqué :

Prends ma main si tu les aimes un peu froides
À travers les silhouettes on voit les ombres
Je te prendrai en Shéhérazade
Si tu es la vie et qu’il y fait moins sombre
(« Sombre »)

L’atmosphère orientalisante créée par les rapides montées et descentes chromatiques d’un hautbois lors d’une tournée « Cordes et vents » restée célèbre (consignée dans l’album live Les Yeux fermés) est particulièrement évocatrice de l’invitation au voyage tout à la fois sensuel et existentiel suggéré par ce morceau qui s’est rapidement imposé au fil des dix dernières années comme emblématique d’une échappée rédemptrice. Au fil des textes et des inventions musicales, la magie de la figure féminine, dispensatrice de cet essor « quand les gouffres appellent » (« Ma Blonde »), est réensemencée par la force et l’iridescence de l’allégorie. Elle devient ainsi tour à tour « perverse marquise » détentrice d’une promesse de vie renouvelée à travers ses jeux érotiques, Vénus distillant lentement ses secrets (« Vénus [End Page 6] from Passiflore »), créature chargée de mystère, d’ambivalence et de sensualité aussi trouble qu’irrésistible (« boca abrasadora ») qui « se prélasse », gardienne d’un au-delà enfoui (« Puerta del Angel ») aux allures de petite mort vers laquelle converge le désir (« Eres la luz de cada día para mi alma »). Loin d’un réalisme étriqué et réducteur, ces arabesques du fantasme dessinent un de ces paysages oniriques tout en tangages rythmiques, en bifurcations sémantiques, linguistiques et harmoniques dont le groupe est coutumier, donnant libre cours à un imaginaire largement teinté de surréalisme.

 À tout moment le rêve

Au combat contre la mort et l’érosion du temps, invariant dans la poésie d’Eiffel, seuls l’art et l’essor de l’imaginaire peuvent donner un sens, ouvrir un espace, comme l’attestent l’appel vibrant lancé au Phoenix via les « fêlures crâniennes » qui « logent un rayon de lune » dans « Sous ton aile » (A tout moment) mais aussi la myriade d’images naissant de la convocation d’un être cher disparu dans la chanson au titre éloquent « Milliardaire » (Foule monstre). L’amour confronté au deuil y jaillit en salves métaphoriques et sensorielles, mêlant touches de couleurs et d’humour dérisoire dans cet inventaire de la corne d’abondance de la mémoire ; l’ensemble se fait ainsi tableau, tombeau de l’absent – au sens bien sûr musical du terme –, d’une vie féconde entre « folies en cohorte », « rotondités océanes » et autres « vacarmes » qui ne cessent de faire saillie sur le mur lisse de l’absence et du silence :

Athènes se diamante de poussière
Que mes yeux peignent en natures mortes
Toi, le sang, la nuit blanche, folies en cohorte
Dont je reste milliardaire
(« Milliardaire »)

Comme on l’a déjà suggéré, l’ouverture de cet espace, l’enthousiasme créateur se marquent aussi par l’élargissement à l’universel perceptible dans de nombreuses chansons qui, traversées par les multiples observations de la réalité, se font chambres d’échos via une voix centralisatrice déversant le flot de son imaginaire. Dans la chanson-titre de l’album Foule monstre, où le groupe a eu recours à nombre de « gadgets sonores » pour accroître l’expressivité d’ensemble et contrer parfois la gravité du propos au moyen du dérisoire[7], l’intrusion de la réalité extérieure dans la subjectivité se manifeste volontiers par des fragments de bruits concrets samplés (sirènes de pompiers et autres) tandis que la musique procède par amplification progressive. Ostinato électronique allié au basson installant une trame continue, paronomases (« D’années en apnées ») et anaphores (« Foule monstre ») disent la fascination de la voix poétique pour le déferlement des facettes contrastées d’une humanité à laquelle elle se mêle via un « nous » implicite et la notation finale sur fond de point d’orgue éloquent, « Je m’y sens / Des milliers » :

Foule monstre
Sur tes chemins de fortune
Hurleurs d’acier et rois fainéants

[End Page 7]

D’années en apnées
Tu fredonnes un air saturé
Sommes tous de mèche, sur le côté
(« Foule monstre »)

Repoussant les « frontières du partage émotionnel », signant « l’avènement de l’auditeur en interlocuteur » (July 303), la chanson se fait, chez Eiffel, volontiers créatrice d’un fort courant de solidarité lyrique invitant au dépassement des limites, du figement et de la soumission. À l’instar de la « Chanson trouée » déjà évoquée, « A tout moment la rue » se donne ainsi comme un hymne fédérateur où aux impressions véhiculées se mêle une exhortation via un « Nous » unificateur renforcé par la basse obstinée des percussions :

Non comme un oui
Aux arbres chevelus
À tout ce qui nous lie
Quand la nuit remue
Aux astres et aux Déesses
Qui peuplent nos rêves
Et quand le peuple rêve
À tout moment la rue peut aussi dire…
(« À tout moment la rue »)

Cette dimension dialogique est par ailleurs renforcée par la superposition des deux voix de Romain Humeau et de Bertrand Cantat mais aussi par le tuilage de ces voix sur le « non » qui ponctue le refrain avec une insistance et une densité vocalique croissantes. Ce mot de l’intime et de l’enfoui, prolongé de manière spectaculaire à la fin du morceau et se muant en cri lors de certains concerts, fait ici sensiblement résonner « la voix articulée et modifiée par le jeu du larynx, des organes buccaux et des fosses nasales » (Lamy 111), voix émancipatrice, voix excavatrice, creusant le verbal en autant d’échappées vers le rêve et l’ « inédit, c’est-à-dire ce qui n’a pas été dit ou conçu » (Toudoire-Surlapierre 56), bien au-delà du simple refus ou de la simple démission. L’ouverture vers cet « inédit », vers ce chaos créateur, l’appel lancé à l’élan vital et à sa force de résistance empruntent ici la voie d’une forte corporalisation du texte, corporalisation d’autant plus perceptible en live que ce « non », aux antipodes du nihilisme et du négativisme, est rituellement scandé par le public à la fin du morceau, le partage émotionnel et l’envol imaginaire qui en résultent étant ainsi largement palpables.


« Chanson trouée », « brèches dans les murs », « fêlures crâniennes » laissant autant de « marge[s] pour l’imaginaire [8]» : les figures d’ouverture, chez Eiffel, ne cessent de se mêler à celles d’une affectivité vibrante pour signifier l’accueil de l’inconnu, l’émerveillement, l’étonnement, le combat contre le vide et l’anéantissement, le figement, combat pour la création de vie, d’art, d’amour sous toutes ses formes. Eros y prend les visages les plus divers, des figures oniriques multiples jusqu’aux résurgences du passé célébrant la [End Page 8] continuité d’un rêve humain et illustrant le principe selon lequel l’art « consiste à libérer la vie que l’homme a emprisonnée » (Deleuze, 2014). Hymne à la mobilité, au questionnement, exaltation des sens, de la conscience et de l’imaginaire, passion pour le déchiffrement de l’humain à travers le renouvellement des formes et des postures, l’art d’Eiffel semble pleinement s’inscrire dans un seul credo : celui de l’amour important. Un credo que Romain Humeau, lorsqu’il fait cavalier seul, réaffirme avec force à travers la quête effrénée d’intensité, aux multiples accents baudelairiens, de L’éternité de l’instant, ou le martèlement obstiné et inquiet de l’ultime questionnement : « Quel est ton nom, […] Amour ? ».[9]



[3] « Minouche / L’âme et le dos courbés / Pavane Lachrymae / Face aux temps qui reculent / Pour mieux sauter / Minouche ».






[9] Extrait des paroles de la chanson « Amour » de l’album Mousquetaire #1 (2016). [End Page 9]



Eiffel. Abricotine. Labels, Virgin Music, 2001.

Eiffel. Le Quart d’heure des ahuris. Labels, EMI, 2002.

Eiffel. Les Yeux fermés. Labels, EMI, 2004.

Eiffel, Tandoori. Labels, 2007.

Eiffel. À tout moment. PIAS, 2009.

Eiffel. Foule Monstre. PIAS, 2012.

Romain Humeau. L’Éternité de l’instant. Labels, EMI, 2005.

Romain Humeau. Mousquetaire #1. PIAS, 2016.

Noir Désir. Des visages des figures. Barclay, 2001.



Chastagner, Claude, De la culture rock, Paris,Presses Universitaires de France, 2011.

Deleuze, Gilles, « R comme Résistance », dans L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze, 21 juin 2014, Consulté le 3 septembre 2015.

« Eiffel – A Day In The Life (reprise de The Beatles) en Mouv’Session ». dailymotion, Consulté le 3 septembre 2015.

« Eiffel–Hype ». YouTube, 16 janv. 2007, Consulté le 3 septembre 2015.

« Eiffel “Hype” – avec paroles – live@La Citrouille ». Youtube, 19 oct. 2012, Consulté le 3 septembre 2015.

« Eiffel, l’interview : Francofolies 2012 ». RTBF, 9 août 2012, Consulté le 3 septembre 2015.

« Eiffel : “Nous sommes des colporteurs d’impressions” ».  Entretien réalisé par Victor Hache. L’Humanité, 31 Août, 2012, Consulté le 3 septembre 2015.

« Eiffel : “On a toujours été dingo de pop” . Interview de Marc Uytterhaeghe. L’Avenir, 3 sept. 2012, Consulté le 3 septembre 2015.

« Interview de Romain Humeau par CLUBS & CONCERTS, magazine de Bordeaux »., n.d.,,interview-de-romain-humeau,69.html. Consulté le 3 septembre 2015.

July, Joël, « Chanson mayonnaise : comment la chanson par sa performance ré-enchante le populaire », dans La Chanson populittéraire, Ed. Gilles Bonnet, Paris, Kimé, 2013, p. 293-308.

Lamy, Jean-Claude, Éloge du non, Paris, Le Rocher, 2012.

Toudoire-Surlapierre, Frédérique, Oui/Non, Paris, Minuit, 2013.

[End Page 10]


♪ Madrid, « école de chaleur[1] » : l’amour pop-rock dans le Madrid de la Movida
Madrid “school of heat”: pop-rock love in Movida-era Madrid
by Magali Dumousseau Lesquer

[End Page 1] Le rock and roll arrive à Madrid dans les années cinquante grâce aux soldats nord-américains en poste dans les bases militaires implantées près de la capitale à partir de 1953. Il s’agit de chansons en langue étrangère empreintes de nouveaux codes musicaux et culturels qui diffèrent du folklore et des chansons populaires type verbenas, coplas et flamenco mis en avant sous le régime franquiste. Cette proximité favorise, avec le développement du tourisme dès les années soixante, l’émergence d’une musique moderne nourrie d’influences extérieures, une « chanson légère » qui sera célébrée lors du Festival Espagnol de la Chanson de Benidorm à partir de 1959 où se produiront notamment Rafael et Julio Iglesias. Le panorama musical de la péninsule est dominé dans les années soixante-dix par la Catalogne à l’origine de chansons sentimentales (calquées sur la musique yéyé diffusée de l’autre côté des Pyrénées, elle-même copiée sur les hits nord-américains), critiques (celle des cantautores aux textes politiques engagés contre le régime) ou à revendication identitaire (la Onda Layetana[2]). Madrid cherche alors davantage son inspiration musicale du côté du rock anglo-saxon, notamment du glam rock et du punk qui se développe dans la capitale peu de temps après la fin de la dictature, simultanément à son émergence à Londres. Après la mort du général Franco, le 20 novembre 1975, débute une période de transition politique, économique, sociale et culturelle qui accompagne l’instauration de la démocratie dans le pays et donc l’accès à des libertés dont l’Espagne a été privée pendant près de quarante ans. Alors que la censure est abolie à partir de 1977, les générations élevées selon les règles strictes de la morale imposée par le franquisme, voient leurs enfants séduits par la folie de la Movida[3] et les excès du Sólo se vive una vez (On ne vit qu’une fois). Cette version hédoniste madrilène du No Future punk londonien, les invite à profiter des plaisirs de la vie dans une capitale où tout semble désormais permis, au rythme des nouveautés musicales qu’ils découvrent dans les nouvelles discothèques implantées au cœur des quartiers centraux du Rastro ou de Malasaña.

Cet article propose ainsi, à travers l’analyse des textes des chansons les plus célèbres du moment, de s’intéresser plus particulièrement au discours amoureux et à la représentation de l’amour dans les chansons produites pendant la Movida madrilène, c’est-à-dire dans un contexte de libération sexuelle et d’émancipation des femmes. Il se base sur l’étude de 108 chansons espagnoles ayant l’amour comme principale thématique et figurant, pour certaines, sur les listes des « meilleures » chansons de la Movida ou de la Transition[4] publiées[5] à posteriori. La reconnaissance de la popularité de ces chansons est à prendre en compte car, tout en se faisant le témoignage des changements de mœurs de l’époque, elles [End Page 2] ont pu, grâce à une large diffusion, encourager elles aussi des modifications de comportements chez toute une génération de jeunes Espagnols.

I Des chansons qui révèlent et redonnent à la femme une fonction d’actrice au sein des jeux amoureux

L’ensemble des chansons pop rock de la Transition se situent dans un état d’in-souci[6] en faisant preuve d’un apolitisme confortable qui répond au « pacte de silence » informel construit sur la loi d’amnistie promulguée en 1977, et adopté de façon consensuelle au niveau politique par les gouvernements de la Transition. Alors que tout invite à oublier les horreurs de la Guerre Civile (1936-39) et la répression subie sous la dictature (1939-1975), les valeurs héritées du franquisme s’effritent également. Madrid connait un état de crise provoqué par la rupture de la stabilité d’un régime clos et le déclin des discours du franquisme qui ont verrouillé et orienté la culture et l’éducation pendant près de quarante ans. Ainsi, l’éducation sentimentale et sexuelle des jeunes Espagnols était strictement encadrée par les valeurs de la morale prônée par le franquisme, fondées selon Rafael Torres sur la répression : « L’amour a été persécuté sous Franco plus que toute autre chose (…) Se sachant impopulaire, mal aimé, (le régime) a agi de façon acharnée contre toute expression de liberté et l’amour, le sexe, la sensualité, le plaisir, l’érotisme et l’amitié entre les sexes ont été, en tant qu’expression importante de la spontanéité du libre arbitre, proscrits de la vie sociale et même de la vie personnelle et intime[7] ». Le régime avait en effet aboli le divorce (sauf pour les hommes), renoncé à la mixité dans l’éducation, les piscines et même sur les plages, interdit toute expression de sentiment dans les espaces publics (les couples ne pouvaient plus s’embrasser ni même se tenir par la main dans les rues et les femmes devaient veiller à ne point trop découvrir leur corps y compris sur les plages où elles étaient obligées, contrairement aux touristes en bikinis, de revêtir un peignoir) et encadré les effusions dans la sphère privée, limitant les relations sexuelles au seul but de la procréation. Dans une volonté d’oubli du passé mais surtout de jouissance du futur, les chansons de la Movida ne reviennent pas sur cette période d’inhibition forcée tout en soulignant, cependant, la persistance de certains tabous :

Tu disais : « pour toujours » en me prenant les mains; le monde n’existait plus et toi et moi nous nous sommes aimés… Je sentais ton corps entre mes bras, ta peau me caressait, c’étaient des choses que personne ne m’apprenait au collège. Mais je dois te quitter, car les adultes me le disent et parce que ces messieurs l’exigent… Pendant l’adolescence, on ne t’autorise qu’à étudier et on t’interdit de jouer à être adulte. (…) Mais va-t’en désormais, je ne comprends pas ce monde… Los Pecos « Concert pour adolescents » (« Concierto para adolescentes », 1978)

Tu crois que je ne t’aime pas parce que je ne veux pas me marier, mais tu sais bien que les dimanches sont faits pour aller danser. (…) Ne sois pas triste chérie, tu sais que tu es mon amour. On va se moquer du monde comme quand je te fais l’amour. Burning, « Bouge tes hanches » (« Mueve tus caderas », 1979) [End Page 3]

Monsieur, pardonnez mon audace (…). Ecoutez-moi Monsieur, cela ne durera qu’un instant, Monsieur, votre fille est tout pour moi (…). S’il-vous-plaît, Monsieur, ne nous séparez-pas. Même si c’est votre fille, c’est sa vie et elle m’aime… Souvenez-vous d’hier, lorsque vous étiez plus jeune et que vous aussi vous cherchiez des recoins pour parler d’amour en cachette. Vous fuyiez, vous aussi, un Monsieur. Et vous devez comprendre que l’histoire se répète, et que votre femme, hier, avait aussi un père qui a su comprendre. Los Pecos « Monsieur » (« Señor », 1980)

Je sais que je ne suis pas … le meilleur, mais je suis un des rares à te faire vibrer. Je sais que parfois tu as envie de tout arrêter à cause de ce qu’on te dit sur le bien et le mal. J’espère que tu n’écoutes pas ces bêtises car tu sais qu’il nous reste beaucoup de choses à faire. Coz, « Deux dans la lumière » (« Dos en la luz », 1981)

Avec la fin de la censure en 1977, les textes des chansons d’amour deviennent révélations : les jeunes auteurs s’empressent de profiter de la liberté retrouvée pour sortir du non-dit et exprimer les désirs de leur génération en cédant parfois à la provocation d’une liberté sans limite, outrageante pour la culture dominante qui porte encore les stigmates des années de franquisme. Ainsi, dès 1978, alors que les groupes Parálisis Permanente et Tequila chantent l’acte sexuel, La Bandera Trapera raconte l’histoire d’une jeune femme qui, après avoir eu ses premières règles, tombe enceinte. Ce titre, censuré sur plusieurs radios, constitue une vraie provocation notamment par sa mise en scène lors des concerts, à base de tomates et de farine :

Maman, j’ai peur, il y a du sang. Les règles, c’est l’histoire d’une fille qui ressent quelque chose de bizarre dans son corps, elle va avoir ses règles, ce n’est plus une enfant. (…) Et un jour, la fille a dit à sa mère : je ne suis plus vierge. La Banda Trapera del Río, « Les règles » (« La regla », 1978)

Je me réveille avec cette obsession; mon ambition est de te posséder, je ne prétends pas entendre ta voix mais seulement passer à l’acte. Parálisis Permanente « L’acte » (« El acto », 1978)

Ne me regarde pas, ne réfléchis pas, ne pose pas de questions ; je ne veux pas parler. Ne te retiens pas, cela te plaira, il vaut mieux te laisser aller. C’est un frôlement, un gémissement, des convulsions et tes cris. Je parcours lentement ta peau et tes mains s’agrippent à moi, je sens alors ton corps battre, en sueur, tout près de moi. Parálisis Permanente, « Cela te plaira » (« Te gustará », 1978)

Viens, donne-moi la main, personne ne nous dérange, aujourd’hui il n’y a personne à la maison et je suis très en forme. Laisse-moi te déshabiller, n’éteins pas la lumière. Je veux t’embrasser, je veux t’embrasser… Tequila, « Je veux t’embrasser » (« Quiero besarte », 1979) [End Page 4]

Cependant, la présence dans le panel de bluettes sentimentales suppose la permanence de l’amour romantique qui s’exprime à travers des thèmes associés à l’imaginaire passionnel du grand amour (fidélité, jalousie, déception) et par un discours amoureux traditionnel conforme à celui analysé par Roland Barthes[8] : les textes convoquent en effet la quête, l’énamoration, la capture, l’abîme (le fait de succomber), le manque, la mort narcissique de l’amoureux, l’ascèse (la punition/la culpabilité), le désamour, le délabrement (la souffrance)… Autant de thèmes qui traduisent le sentiment déraisonnable d’amour absolu et définitif propre aux adolescents auxquels sont destinées en priorité ces chansons.

(La quête) J’écris chaque jour une lettre d’amour, amour imaginaire, amour innocent, quelques feuilles de pois de senteur, un parfum Dior, de beaux timbres variés de différentes couleurs. Des lettres d’amour sans destinataire, des lettres d’amour sans adresse, quelle aberration (…) mais que ferais-je si tu y répondais ?. Vainica Doble « Lettres d’amour » (« Cartas de amor », 1981)

(L’énamoration) Sur une vitre mouillée j’ai écrit son nom sans m’en rendre compte et mes yeux sont devenus telle cette vitre en pensant à elle. Les tableaux n’ont plus de couleurs, les roses ne ressemblent plus à des fleurs, il n’y a plus d’oiseaux le matin. Los Secretos « Sur une vitre mouillée » (« Sobre un vidrio mojado », 1981)

(La mort narcissique de l’amoureux) Si tu m’emmènes avec toi, je promets d’être léger comme la brise et de te dire à l’oreille des secrets qui te feront sourire. J’ai une pensée vagabonde, je vais suivre tes pas à travers le monde, même si tu n’es plus là, je te sentirai grâce à la matière qui me relie à toi. Radio Futura « Graine noire » (« Semilla negra », 1984)

(Le délabrement) Aujourd’hui j’aimerais passer te chercher et sortir avec toi n’importe où, marcher tout l’après-midi dans le parc, enlacés… comme avant. Je ne sais, peut-être m’as-tu déjà oublié. Pourquoi est-ce arrivé ? Bébé, pourquoi m’as-tu laissé ? J’ai attendu…et tu ne m’as jamais rappelé. Et je n’ai plus jamais eu de tes nouvelles, plus jamais. Tu as été le premier amour de ma vie. Tequila « Aujourd’hui j’aimerais être à tes côtés » (« Hoy, quisiera estar a tu lado », 1979)

Et en effet, ces textes où le sublime prédomine sur le sexuel indiquent que, malgré les changements de comportements amoureux intrinsèques au contexte de fin de dictature et au déclin des discours du franquisme, l’Espagne de la Transition qui découvre la société de consommation s’affiche comme une société postmoderne où, malgré tout, « les mythologies du cœur ne sont pas épuisées[9] ». D’où ce paradoxe qui voit se mélanger au sein du panorama musical moderne de l’époque des titres sentimentaux très fleur bleue avec d’autres, très nombreux, beaucoup plus crus dans lesquels sont déconstruits les modèles traditionnels. C’est en quelque sorte comme si ces groupes souhaitaient, à travers la provocation de leurs chansons d’amour, affirmer l’entrée du pays dans l’ère de la modernité dont les discours, selon Roland Barthes, censurent l’amour-passion qui, ridicule, inavouable [End Page 5] et obscène, devient une abjection. Car l’Espagne entre alors dans une période de libération sexuelle portée, comme le souligne le personnage de Luci[10] dans le premier long-métrage de Pedro Almodóvar, par « la vague d’érotisme qui nous envahit » : une expression supposément attribuée au général Franco[11], qui fait de la libération des mœurs une menace pour le pays sous le franquisme et même, selon certains, durant la Transition[12]. Les chansons d’amour du moment, que l’on peut précisément qualifier de postmodernes parce que nées d’un état de crise politique, culturelle et économique, vont donner une représentation de cet « après » qui suppose l’avènement de l’aléatoire, du questionnement, du discontinu. La remise en question de l’amour unique et éternel et des valeurs héritées du franquisme est permanente dans l’espace de liberté d’expression qu’offre la chanson moderna pop-rock, à travers notamment les références à la multiplication des expériences sexuelles tenant davantage de l’expérimentation que du sentiment amoureux :

Je n’ai pas pu résister, je me suis approché de toi sans parler d’amour, nous avons passé la nuit ensemble. Tes cadeaux enveloppés de parfum de femme ont disparu avant le lever du jour. Je ne te reverrai peut-être pas. Elle est partie comme elle est venue. C’est peut-être ça l’amour. Los Secretos « Elle est partie comme elle est venue » (« Se fue como llegó », 1981)

Cette chanson de Roxy a déclenché notre grand amour qui a duré jusqu’au matin et ensuite, tout s’est terminé. On a décidé de ne pas poser de question, aucun nom, aucun sexe, aucun âge. Cette chanson de Roxy a été le signal. La Mode « Cette chanson de Roxy » (« Aquella canción de Roxy », 1982).

« Pour toi », du groupe Paraíso, est considéré comme l’un des titres cultes de la Movida. Composée par Fernando Márquez El Zurdo à partir d’une expérience vécue lors de vacances à Benidorm, cette chanson nostalgique, tout en cédant au cliché pop des amours adolescentes, aborde le thème de la découverte de l’amour par un garçon de quinze ans pratiquant parfois la prostitution :

Pour toi qui découvres les secrets de ton corps, (…) qui es un apprenti séducteur, (…) pour toi qui te grattes la tête en réfléchissant, qui calcules un plaisir rémunéré (…) pour toi, nous avons cherché le paradis ensemble, (…) nous avons oublié les critiques séniles, (…) pour toi qui as tout juste quinze ans, pour toi qui es né en des temps assassins, pour toi qui vas voir les filles des rues, pour toi dont le plaisir est encore ambigu… Paraíso « Pour toi » (« Para ti », 1980)

Dans le même esprit, « Ecole de chaleur » (« Escuela de calor ») de Radio Futura relate, en 1984, les échanges qui se produisent entre les nouvelles tribus urbaines à la tombée du jour au bord d’un fleuve. Une école d’apprentissages nouveaux qui nécessite un certain « courage », celui de la découverte, face à des comportements en totale rupture avec l’époque franquisme où primait le contrôle des désirs, voire l’abstinence. La multiplication des expériences s’oppose ainsi à l’amour unique et éternel lié au mariage de raison recommandé sous le franquisme, et répond également à la notion de choix individuel qui s’impose au niveau des relations amoureuses dans les sociétés postmodernes. Cette possibilité de choix, [End Page 6] qui va favoriser une peur de l’engagement, participerait à la recherche de l’adéquation émotionnelle qui, selon Eva Illouz[13], serait la version postmoderne de l’adéquation sociale recherchée précédemment.

La remise en question des modèles enseignés sous le franquisme concerne également l’évolution de la situation des femmes dans la société et au sein du foyer dont elles se sont émancipées. Le groupe Burning s’interroge dès 1978 dans le titre « Que fait une fille comme toi dans un tel lieu ? » sur le changement de mœurs de jeunes filles dont les nouveaux comportements, calqués sur les modèles masculins, reconsidèrent la passivité associée aux femmes dans les relations amoureuses sous le franquisme, au moment même où apparait à Madrid la figure du pasota liée à La Movida, ce jeune homme je-m’en-foutiste, rejetant l’effort et quelque peu looser :

Que fait une jeune fille comme toi dans un tel lieu ? Quel style d’aventures es-tu venue chercher ? Ton âge te trahit, Bébé, tu n’as rien à faire ici. Tu es à la chasse ? Qui penses-tu attraper ? Ne joue pas avec moi. (…) N’essaie pas de m’attraper, j’ai déjà appris à voler. Burning, « Que fait une fille comme toi dans un tel lieu ? » (« ¿Qué hace una chica como tú en un sitio como éste ? », 1978)

Les chansons d’amour de la Movida traduisent ainsi les changements de comportements amoureux et sexuels des jeunes femmes qui sont présentées, ou qui se représentent elles-mêmes, comme des femmes à la sexualité assumée, libérées, et entreprenantes, qui vont « à la chasse » ou « à la pêche » aux hommes, qui les traquent et les capturent :

Les filles ont quelque chose de spécial, les filles sont des guerrières, jouer avec elles, c’est comme manier de la nitroglycérine, elles ont plus de watts qu’une centrale nucléaire, mais elles ne sont pas aussi néfastes et la plus piquante peut avoir un goût de mandarine. Blondes, brunes, châtains, peu importe, elles sont toutes divines. (…) Elles ont l’habitude de diriger et elles mettent ton cœur en pièce. Coz « Les filles sont des guerrières » (« Las chicas son guerreras », 1978)

Va-t’en désormais de ma vie, fiche moi la paix, tes yeux éperdus m’empêchent de dormir. On m’avait prévenu et je n’ai pas voulu écouter, maintenant je suis attrapé, je ne sais pas comment m’échapper. Chaque fois que j’essaie, tes yeux éperdus se remettent à briller et à nouveau ils me traquent (cazan), à nouveau ils me traquent (cazan). Los Secretos « Des yeux éperdus » (« Ojos de perdida », 1981)

Attention, tu sais que je t’espionne tout le temps, si tu te retournes rapidement, je suis déjà cachée. Je sais que cette fille avec qui tu as l’habitude de sortir n’est pas ta sœur, et après, tu t’étonnes que je me sente trompée. Attention, tu sais que je t’espionne tout le temps. Las Chinas « Je t’espionne » (« Te espio », 1982)

Je sais que tu me suis, quelqu’un me l’a dit, je ne m’intéresserai jamais à toi, tu envoies des lettres sans les signer, des poèmes que je dois déchiffrer (…) Tu [End Page 7] remues ciel, terre et mer pour pouvoir me contrôler, je suis ton principal objet, ton principal objet. Pistones « Fleurs condamnées » (« Flores condenadas », 1983)

Arponneuse, je veux être arponneuse et pêcher tes sentiments. Je ferai de la contrebande, je ferai du trafic de tabac et d’or pour toi. Souvent, la nuit, on me verra à la frontière de Gibraltar. Esclarecidos « Harponneuse » (« Arponera », 1985)

Eloïse, douleur dans tes caresses et tes histoires à dormir debout, je serai toujours ton chien fidèle ; mon Eloïse, aimer vite, aimer debout, je ne sais pourquoi tu me caches quelque chose, je courrai ton double risque, je me perdrai. (…) Eloïse, je te maudirai autant de nuits que je t’ai désirée. J’ai été attrapé à ma propre toile, comme une araignée captive, je ne pourrai plus m’échapper. Tino Casal « Eloïse » (« Eloise », 1988)

II Des chansons qui verbalisent les difficultés amoureuses à l’heure de la postmodernité

Suite à l’émergence de ces nouveaux modèles féminins, les hommes apparaissent quelque peu désemparés, voire perturbés, par un jeu dont ils ne sont plus les seuls à maitriser les règles et auquel ils se laissent parfois volontairement piéger :

Actuellement je suis désespéré, ce qui me rend fou c’est ta façon de faire, tu es complètement folle mais c’est comme ça que je t’aime. La vérité, c’est que je ne sais que penser…Tequila « Je suis en train de décrocher » (« Desabrochando », 1977)

Tu as besoin de me voir triste pour être heureuse, tu as besoin que ton honneur soit sauf, tu as besoin qu’on te dise la vérité, tu as besoin de tant de choses… Oh, oh, oh, que puis-je faire moi ? Los Secretos « Que puis-je faire moi ? » (« Qué puedo hacer yo », 1981)

Tu dis que tu m’aimes et que tu m’aimes avec passion, ce sont de très belles paroles, la nuit, sous l’effet de l’alcool, et ensuite le matin, au réveil et de mauvaise humeur, tu me jettes à la rue, qui peut te comprendre ? Dis-le-moi ! (…) Chaque fois que tu le désires, tu me fais l’amour, dans la cuisine, dans l’ascenseur ou sur la table du salon. C’est toi, celle qui commande et qui décide à ma place. D’abord cela a été mon père, après mon patron, et maintenant, je me soumets à toi… Tequila « Bébé » (« Nena »,1981)

Laisse-moi entrer dans ton jeu, la ville est un damier, la partie se joue presque toujours de nuit. (…) Et nous savons tous quelle en est la récompense, nous [End Page 8] savons tous que la récompense, c’est toi, oui toi, le prix c’est toi. La Mode « Le seul jeu dans la ville » (« El único juego en la ciudad », 1982).

Les auteurs expriment alors tout leur désir pour ces corps attirants que la démocratie permet enfin de dévoiler et qu’ils souhaitent voir correspondre aux nouvelles normes érotiques diffusées par la société de consommation qui privilégie l’attrait physique aux sentiments amoureux :

Plus sexy, Poupée, mets des talons, plus sexy, fais-moi un clin d’œil pour commencer, plus sexy. Essaie une taille en dessous, plus sexy. N’oublie pas d’être sexy à la piscine, au commissariat, au bureau, sois sexy toute la journée. (…) Et si tu veux monter sur ma moto, sexy, dégrafe un autre bouton. Coz « Plus sexy » (« Más sexy », 1980)

Tu n’es que des os, réunis par très peu de peau. Des os, des os ! Mince comme le vent, fine comme un rasoir. Comment vais-je t’embrasser ? Car c’est ce que je voulais faire. Et par où vais-je te tenir quand nous irons nous balader ? Los Burros « Des os » (« Huesos », 1983)

Ainsi, les titres expriment majoritairement des rêves d’amour masculins et on relèvera certaines mises en garde contre un amour incontrôlable, féroce, de la part d’un amoureux « dévorant » son aimée :

Ne pas te toucher car sinon je pourrais te dévorer. Grimpe à un arbre, déchire tes bas, pleure dans un coin, je ne vais pas te toucher, c’est mieux ainsi. Radio Futura « Ne pas te toucher » (« No tocarte », 1984)

Cette nuit, j’ai peur d’embrasser ton doux cou sans pouvoir m’arrêter, de te tenir dans mes bras et de te voir défaillir, en attendant que tu reviennes, oui, avant l’aube. Écoute-moi et va-t’en, le vampire reviendra te voir, va-t’en dans un lieu où tu trouveras le soleil. N’aie pas confiance en ton ami, Bébé, ne passe pas la nuit avec ton ami, Bébé, le vampire est tout près de toi. Nacha Pop « Avant que le soleil se lève » (« Antes que salga el sol », 1980)

Bonjour mon amour, je suis le loup, je veux que tu sois près de moi pour mieux te voir, si seulement tu voulais bien m’enlacer avec tes griffes, si seulement tu voulais bien m’embrasser avec tes dents. (…) Ce que je veux, c’est ton superbe corps, ce que j’adore, c’est ta force animale (…). Je veux juste une nuit sans fin où nous pourrions nous dévorer tous les deux. La Orquesta Mondragón « Petit Chaperon Rouge féroce » (« Caperucita feroz », 1980)

Les textes étudiés, écrits et interprétés majoritairement par des hommes (98 titres sur les 108 retenus) encouragent la libération des corps et l’émancipation des femmes. Cependant, ils révèlent aussi des hommes déstabilisés souvent présentés comme les victimes de femmes pouvant se montrer elles aussi féroces, voire guerrières, mais davantage, comme l’indiquent [End Page 9] les textes présentés ci-dessous, parce qu’elles veulent se venger d’un amour trahi ou rejeter un amant trop entreprenant, ce qui place l’homme à l’origine de la crise. L’homme se présente ainsi dans ces textes comme la victime d’une passion qu’il ne sait pas contrôler, victime d’un manque ou victime de l’instauration d’un nouveau type de relations dans lesquelles la femme assume un rôle réel. Ce sont ainsi de véritables rapports de forces qui semblent se révéler à travers ces chansons d’amour :

Mes jambes tremblent quand tu entres dans cette chambre, ma voix se brise et mon discours devient incohérent. Car mon corps ne supporte pas ces rafales d’amour. Tu vas viser le centre de la cible que j’ai dans le cœur ! C’est dommage que tu vises si mal et que tu me loupes, je ne sais plus que faire ni que penser. Los Bólidos, « Des rafales » (« Ráfagas », 1980)

La chance était avec moi, nous avons marché jusqu’au porche, son regard m’a tué, finalement j’ai pu sauver mon corps. (…) Je la cherche depuis des mois, dis-le-lui si tu la vois. Finalement, la seule façon de survivre dans cette maudite ville, c’était tes regards assassins. (…) Désormais je ne peux plus revenir, son archange m’attaquera. Elle ne comprend pas que tu existes, que ce fut juste une fois. J’ai perdu, je le sais. Il y a la guerre dans ma chambre, si tu cherches, tu me trouveras. Los Burros « Conflit armé » (« Conflicto armado », 1983)

Comment as-tu pu me faire ça à moi ? Moi qui t’aurais aimé jusqu’à la fin. Je sais que tu t’en repentiras. La rue déserte, la nuit idéale, il n’a pas pu éviter une voiture sans phare, un coup précis et tout s’est terminé entre eux deux, soudain. Je ne regrette rien, je le referais s’il le fallait, c’est la jalousie. Alaska y Dinarama « Comment as-tu pu me faire ça à moi ? » (« ¿Cómo pudiste hacerme esto a mí ? », 1984)

Si dans un élan, je mets ma main sur son sein et que je fais comme si de rien n’était, elle me donne des coups de poêle, elle devient féroce, et c’est comme cela qu’elle est vraiment belle. Ce doit être de l’amour. Elle me donne des coups de poêle, elle m’ouvre la tête, ce doit être de l’amour. Elle devient gentille quand elle me frappe, ce doit être de l’amour. Loquillo y Trogloditas, « Amoureux de la vendeuse de la baraque à frites » (« Enamorado de la dependienta de la tienda de patatas fritas », 1984)

Il est intéressant ainsi de souligner la différence de comportements exprimée dans ces chansons, entre l’homme et la femme face à la déception amoureuse ou au harcèlement. En effet, alors que la chanteuse Alaska se dit prête à tuer celui qui l’a trompée, les hommes regrettent, supplient et parfois même fuient :

Reste avec moi, si tu veux bien m’écouter, je suis si désespéré que je vais te supplier… Ne me laisse pas seul. Tequila « Ne me laisse pas seul » (« No me dejes solo », 1981) [End Page 10]

Ne t’en fais plus pour moi. Je vais quitter cette ville et ne plus te poursuivre. (…) Je n’ai plus besoin de toi, tu ne peux plus me tromper. J’ai remplacé ton oreiller par une bouteille de champagne. Ramoncín « Béton, femmes et alcool » (« Hormigón, mujeres y alcohol », 1981)

Bébé, laisse-moi tranquille, je vais couper le fil de mon téléphone, tu es là à toute heure, je n’en peux plus de tant de « ring, ring, ring ». Tequila « Ring, ring » (« Ring, ring », 1980)

Il arrive cependant que ces femmes fortes et émancipées perdent au jeu de la modernité et qu’elles payent dans la douleur les excès du Sólo se vive una vez. Nombreux sont en effet les titres dans lesquels les interprètes tracent, désabusés, le portrait de leur aimée, perdue dans la drogue ou l’alcool :

Les hommes jouent à des jeux bizarres avec des seringues et les filles jouent à des jeux étranges et elles rient, et rient, et elles pleurent, et pleurent. Los Zombies « Des jeux étranges » (« Juegos extraños », 1980)

Tu es toujours à la limite de la cirrhose ou de l’overdose, Poupée, avec ta chemise sale et une espèce de moue à la place du sourire. Comment ne pas t’imaginer, comment ne pas se souvenir de toi, quand, il y a à peine deux ans, tu étais la Princesse à la bouche de fraise, quand tu avais encore cette façon de me faire mal. Désormais il est trop tard, Princesse, cherche-toi un autre chien qui aboie après toi, Princesse. Joaquín Sabina « Princesse » (« Princesa », 1985)

Princesse, tu t’es trompée, dans ton coin, quel pharmacien ennemi t’a perdue ? Je te vois aujourd’hui plus triste qu’hier. Tu n’as plus grand chose à perdre. Je ne vais pas t’embrasser, je ne suis qu’un déserteur. Je ne connais rien… aux mots d’amour. Parfois je te trouve si vulgaire, en train de boire toujours sec, sans soda. Tu ne sais même plus comment sourire. Los Ilegales « Princesse, tu t’es trompée » (« Princesa equivocada », 1986)

Ces titres se font ainsi l’écho des nouvelles libertés, notamment sexuelles, liées à l’évolution de la société espagnole qui entre alors dans le débat de la postmodernité posé notamment par le premier numéro de la revue La Luna de Madrid. Dans un article intitulé « Madrid 1984 : ‘La postmodernité ?’ », Borja Casani et José Tono Martínez annoncent la fin de la modernisation de l’Espagne : « Maintenant, que se passe-t-il ? La postmodernité ou ce qui viendra, quel que soit son nom, sera le modernisme authentique : l’approfondissement et la synthèse de tout ce que nous avons reçu en à peine deux lustres ». Ces nouvelles opportunités seraient donc subordonnées à « l’émergence du principe de plaisir qui fait du sujet social un ‘être de désir’ replié sur la sphère narcissique du moi[14] » propre aux sociétés postmodernes selon Marc Gontard. Ce sujet amoureux en crise, en proie à un narcissisme débordant, s’exprime à la première personne comme dans « Autosuffisance » (« Autosuficiencia », 1978) de Parálisis Permanente (« Je me regarde dans le miroir et je suis heureux et je ne pense à personne d’autre qu’à moi ») ou dans la reprise que le groupe punk [End Page 11] féminin Las Vulpes propose de « I Wanna Be Your Dog » des Stooges (« Je préfère me masturber toute seule dans mon lit que coucher avec quelqu’un qui me parlerait de futur »). Un sujet narcissique et hédoniste qui se réalise pleinement dans l’accomplissement d’une jouissance sans limite comme l’indique le caractère érotique et pornographique de nombreux titres. Cette récurrence peut être interprétée comme une réaction au puritanisme imposé par le régime franquiste pendant des années. Mais elle s’inscrit plus globalement, suite à l’avènement de la démocratie en Espagne, dans « l’explosion de la production et de la consommation pornographiques dont les années 1980 donnent le coup d’envoi », comme l’indique Gille Lipovetsky lorsqu’il revient sur « la jungle sexuelle[15] » dans laquelle « se trouvent plongées », alors, « les sociétés démocratiques livrées au culte des plaisirs charnels et de la liberté en amour » et que l’on doit à « la dissociation de la sexualité et de la morale, l’anarchie des règles morales et la chute des tabous ». Mais peut-on encore parler de chansons d’amour alors que Marc Gontard définit la pornographie comme « une pratique excessive (qui) a mis en évidence une nouvelle atomisation du sujet en déconnectant la recherche du plaisir de la contrainte sentimentale[16] » :

Il est parti dans une autre chambre, il est revenu habillé bizarrement, les cheveux plaqués, il avait un regard méchant. Tout de cuir vêtu, il a sorti un fouet, alors je me suis dit qu’il allait me donner tout ce que je méritais, que tout ceci m’arrivait parce que j’étais une sale pute ! Kaka de Luxe « La tentation » (« La tentación », 1978)

Maintenant tu dois te taire et tu vas savourer ce met exquis que je mets dans ta bouche (…) Mais Chérie, ne t’arrête-pas, continue et tais-toi, Dieu te le rendra car tu fais ça très bien et pendant que je me concentre, suce là plus profondément car je sens que le moment arrive et tu as très bien fait ça. Semen Up « Tu fais ça très bien » (« Lo estás haciendo muy bien », 1985)

Cependant, ces références pornographiques et sadomasochistes jouent sur la provocation avec beaucoup d’ironie soulignant le fait que les Espagnols ne sont pas alors, malgré les apparences, totalement déculpabilisés et affranchis de leur éducation autoritaire, même si nous pouvons voir dans ces chansons, à l’instar d’Erik Neveu, « la réplique du rock (…) qui ne se contente pas de lancer l’énergie des guitares électriques pour faire rimer amour avec toujours », mais qui constitue une réponse à la pression sociale, une réaction face « au mode de vie dominant[17] ». Ainsi, pour Cristina Tango, le titre « Amoureux de la mode des jeunes » de Radio Futura doit être considéré comme le premier thème qui participe au « déshabillage acoustique » d’une société espagnole qui commence à considérer la musique, face au désarmement des idéologies, comme un nouveau dispositif de pensée plus puissant que la politique pour modifier la réalité[18].

Ces titres sont tournés vers l’expression du narcissisme et de la jouissance personnelle mais ils convoquent également l’autre dont le corps, objet de fantasmes, apparait fragmenté, voire maltraité, dans quelques chansons qui convoquent, à travers le filtre ambigu de l’ironie, une violence domestique loin d’être anecdotique en Espagne. Ils illustrent le rapport de force souligné précédemment : [End Page 12]

J’aimerais te casser un bras, parfois, mon amour, t’offrir un coup de pied dans ton cul rebondi, j’aimerais te casser la figure ou te tuer en t’embrassant, j’aimerais te casser un os et te serrer dans mes bras. Loquillo y los Trogloditas « Chanson d’amour » (« Canción de amor », 1984)

Brise-moi les os et jette-moi par la fenêtre, casse-moi la tête en mille morceaux, je te le demande, s’il-te-plaît. N’essaie pas de m’être agréable, fais-moi souffrir, donne-moi des coups sur la nuque. Pas de douces caresses, non, pas de chauds baisers, non, ce que je veux c’est que tu me fasses souffrir, brise-moi les os avec un marteau, quelques orteils, allons dans un endroit calme et arrache-moi la peau. Los Burros « Fais-moi souffrir » (« Hazme sufrir »,1983)

Ma fiancée s’appelait Raymond, je suis triste, tout juste hier, ma fiancée est morte. Elle était si belle et un camion me l’a écrasée. Son beau corps s’est retrouvé aplati, son crâne a rebondi comme un ballon. Son nom est de ceux qu’on n’oublie pas, ma fiancée s’appelait Raymond. Nous sommes sortis tant d’années ensemble et quel argent j’ai pu dépenser avec elle ! Ma fiancée s’appelait Raymond, mais qu’est-ce que ça fait, c’était une fille très intelligente. Ses baisers, ses mots d’amour, resteront à jamais sur l’autoroute. Los Burros « Ma fiancée s’appelait Raymond » (« Mi novia se llamaba Ramón », 1983)

III Des chansons d’amour qui contextualisent, dans le Madrid de l’après-franquisme, une évolution propre aux années quatre-vingt

Il convient également de mentionner parmi les chansons d’amour de cette période, les nombreux titres adressés à la ville de Madrid, à la fois objet et actrice du renouveau. En 1978, plusieurs groupes lui consacrent des messages d’amour ambigus comme Leño qui après avoir affirmé que « Madrid est une merde » finit par avouer que « tout ceci n’est que mensonge » ou encore Burning qui, dans « Madrid » (1978), interpelle directement la capitale qu’il compare à une prostituée et qu’il aime tout autant qu’il la hait : « Hey, Madrid, je te hais mais que puis-je y faire ? Je ne peux pas te quitter et me retrouver sans femme… Il faut sentir les caresses de Madrid sur ta peau et écrire avec son sang Madrid, tu es ma femme ». Progressivement, les artistes Pygmalions et narcissiques de la Transition vont se réapproprier la ville et la moderniser en la façonnant à leur image tout en appliquant des influences importées de Londres ou New-York. Les emprunts aux cultures d’adoption qui nourrissent la Movida viennent de cette invitation lancée dès 1978 par Los Corazones Automáticos, « à créer de l’étranger depuis l’intérieur » : provocation du punk, irrévérence du glam, rythmes afros chez Radio Futura dont le style est qualifié par Cristina Tango de «rock-risomático » en empruntant à Deleuze. Ces influences étrangères sont cependant recontextualisées par de nombreuses références madrilènes. C’est ainsi que l’on relève dans ces chansons d’amour les lieux emblématiques de la capitale où se retrouve la jeunesse madrilène décomplexée pour faire de nouvelles rencontres comme la discothèque Le Pentagrama (quartier de Malasaña) ou la rue Hortaleza connue pour ses nombreux bars et sa vie nocturne : [End Page 13]

La lumière du matin entre dans la chambre, tes cheveux dorés ressemblent au soleil, puis le soir, au Penta, pour écouter des chansons qui vont faire que je vais t’aimer. Nacha Pop « Fille d’hier » (« Chica de ayer », 1980)

Vous savez, je travaille dans un bar de Hortaleza, je suis le serveur qui te sert ta bière. (…) Je l’inviterai à sortir, à parcourir la ville comme j’en ai rêvé quelque fois. Moris « Samedi soir » (« Sábado noche », 1978)

La culture des bars liée à la capitale est ainsi fortement représentée dans ces chansons qui associent régulièrement l’amour à l’alcool, comme « 4 roses » (1984) de Gabinete Caligari qui assimile les quatre roses du célèbre bourbon au bouquet symbole d’amour :

Les bars, il n’y a pas d’endroits plus agréables pour discuter. Il n’y a rien de mieux que la chaleur de l’amour dans un bar. Amour, bien qu’à cette heure je ne sois plus vraiment moi-même, le moment est enfin arrivé de le dire : je t’aime. Garçon, un autre petit pain, que je ne sois pas obligé de me lever ! Il n’y a rien de mieux que la chaleur de l’amour dans un bar. Gabinete Caligari « A la chaleur de l’amour dans un bar » (« Al calor del amor en un bar », 1986)

Un samedi plein de filles collantes comme des caramels pourris, des femmes montrent leurs fatals attraits, un orage est sur le point d’éclater, des cuba-libres avant de commencer. Je suis un ivrogne. Ilegales « Bonbons pourris » (« Caramelos podridos », 1983)

Passe derrière ou déshabille-toi, Bébé, ne provoque pas ma passion car j’ai un feu à l’intérieur de moi que je ne peux contenir. Une pluie d’alcool mouille ma tête en sortant de l’hôtel où nous l’avons fait, le jour où je t’ai rencontrée. (…) Des litres d’alcool coulent dans mes veines, Bébé, je n’ai pas de problèmes de cœur, ce qui se passe c’est que je suis fou de drague. Ramoncín « Béton, femmes et alcool » (« Hormigón, mujeres y alcohol », 1981)

Aujourd’hui est un jour différent, tu finiras mal la soirée à cause du rhum et de la bière. Bébé, viens avec moi, laisse-toi guider, aujourd’hui je te montrerai où se termine la mer et où iront les cent mouettes. Duncan Dhu « Cent mouettes » (« Cien gaviotas », 1986)

Dans le titre « Amoureux de la mode des jeunes » (« Enamorado de la moda juvenil »), le groupe Radio Futura réalise, en 1980, « en passant par la Puerta del Sol », que « le futur est bien là ». En 1988, le groupe Mecano, dans « Il n’y a pas d’ambiance à New-York » (« No hay marcha en Nueva-York »), regrette son expérience new-yorkaise et ne rêve que de revenir à Madrid. Déjà en 1983, le groupe consacrait un titre à la capitale, « Madrid », dans lequel il avouait son attachement à la ville : « Oh Madrid, une ville de goudron, de fer, de ciment et de verre (…) certains à Madrid, ne peuvent le supporter mais moi sans fumée, je ne peux respirer ». L’ensemble de ces messages semblent ainsi être la traduction du célèbre slogan de la Movida, « Madrid me tue » (Madrid me mata), l’expression d’un je-t’aime-moi non plus [End Page 14] adressé à une amante qui, en succombant aux appels de la postmodernité, a fini par vendre une fausse image d’elle-même empruntée à d’autres capitales, pour plaire au plus grand nombre et guérir du complexe lié à son image dont elle souffrait au sortir du franquisme.

Toutes les chansons étudiées pour cet article traduisent donc un changement, « l’après » de la dictature, le renouveau et l’ouverture à la postmodernité. Elles supposent la volonté d’en finir avec le « mutisme du franquisme » qui selon Anne-Gaëlle Regueillet a frappé l’éducation sexuelle en Espagne sous Franco, non pas sur la forme mais sur le fond, et qui consistait à « rester muet tout en parlant[19] » de sexe afin de ne pas exciter les esprits à éduquer. Révéler en chantant, en criant, en provoquant parfois, la réalité des relations amoureuses mais aussi leur évolution après la fin du franquisme, lorsque l’Espagne découvre enfin véritablement la société de consommation. Un désir de rupture avec le mutisme du passé poussé parfois à l’excès et qui vaudra notamment la séparation du groupe Las Vulpes après son interprétation polémique de « J’aime être une chienne » (« Me gusta ser una zorra », 1983) lors de l’émission de télévision La caja de ritmo le 23 avril 1983 à une heure d’écoute familiale.

La majorité des textes réunis dans le corpus étudié, qui ont été écrits et interprétés par des hommes, rendent ainsi compte de l’instauration de nouveaux rapports dans le jeu de la séduction et les relations amoureuses en Espagne, dès le début de la Transition. La récurrence de termes liés aux registres belliqueux (guerre, guerrière, chasser, espionner, rafales, viser, assassin, frapper, sauver, fuir…) et ludiques (jeux, jouer, perdre, récompense, damier, poupée…) confirme les tensions propres au jeu de la séduction et aux relations amoureuses qui certes ne sont pas nouvelles, la passion ayant toujours existé et inspiré des poèmes et des chants d’exaltation ou de souffrance. Toutefois, à la souffrance du discours amoureux traditionnel (passion inassouvie, manque, trahison…) s’ajoute dans ces textes écrits pendant la Transition espagnole, la révélation de la difficulté à gérer à la fois par les hommes et par les femmes, des relations modifiées par la reconnaissance, alors, du rôle actif de la femme au sein des rapports amoureux, une place dont les valeurs morales du franquisme l’avaient totalement privée. C’est ainsi qu’à travers ces chansons se dessinent des rapports de force instaurés à la fois par des hommes (qui frappent, dévorent…) et des femmes (qui harcèlent, chassent…) qui apparaissent tour à tour comme les victimes d’un jeu dont les règles viennent d’être modifiées : victimes d’une impossible satisfaction du désir, d’une tentative de domination affective ou d’un refus de l’engagement souvent lié à une trahison affective.

Témoins de l’évolution économique et sociale de l’Espagne de l’après-franquisme, ces textes vont progressivement laisser transparaitre un désenchantement, le desencanto également présent à la fin de la Transition au niveau politique et qui se traduira par un retour à des valeurs plus traditionnelles. Au milieu des années quatre-vingt, alors que la Movida arrive à son terme frappée par un sentiment de fatigue générale mais aussi par la longue liste des victimes des excès du Sólo se vive una vez, Ana Curra dresse un constat désenchanté des nouvelles libertés dans « Rien de rien » (« Rien de rien », 1987) en déclarant « Bien que l’Espagne soit à la mode, les matins ont toujours un gout de gueule de bois. (…) Et avec le sida, s’est achevée la Movida ». Dès 1984, la chanteuse Alaska revenait, lors de la présentation de l’album Désir charnel, sur les relations amoureuses débridées associées à la Movida dans un discours qui sonne le glas de l’insouciance du Sólo se vive una vez : « Je pense que le sexe pour le sexe, le fait de coucher avec n’importe qui sans se poser de questions, c’est dépassé. Il me semble qu’il faut revenir aux sentiments, à la souffrance, à la jalousie, aux [End Page 15] passions compliquées, au mélodrame. L’amour, sans tout ça, cela n’existe pas. (…) Le sexe, même s’il est pratiqué uniquement pour le sexe, comme un jeu, finit par générer les mêmes angoisses et passions que l’amour romantique[20] ». [End Page 16]


Listes de compilations de chansons de la Movida retenues pour cette étude :

  • La Edad de Ora del pop español, BMG Ariola S.A., Madrid, 1992.
  • A tu bola. La música de la Movida, Divucsa, Barcelona, 1998.
  • Los 80, qué vamos a hacer. Disky Communication, 1999.
  • Los tiempos están cambiando. La Movida. Un país de música. El País. Madrid, 2000.


Liste alphabétique des chansons d’amour retenues pour cette étude :

    1. « Agüita amarilla », Toreros Muertos (1987)
    2. « Ahora que estoy peor », Los Secretos (1982)
    3. « Al calor del amor en un bar », Gabinete Caligari (1986)
    4. « Alegría de vivir », Kaka de Luxe (1978)
    5. « Amor en frío », Las Chinas (1980)
    6. « Antes que salga el sol », Nacha Pop (1980)
    7. « Aquella canción de Roxy », La Mode (1982)
    8. « Arponera », Esclarecidos (1985)
    9. « Autosuficiencia », Parálisis Permanente (1981-83)
    10. « Cadillac solitario », Loquillo y Trogloditas (1982)
    11. « Canción de amor », Loquillo y Trogloditas (1984)
    12. « Canción para Pilar », Los Pecos (1979)
    13. « Caperucita feroz », La Orquesta Mondragón (1980)
    14. « Caramelos podridos », Ilegales (1983)
    15. « Cartas de amor », Vainica doble (1981)
    16. « Chica de ayer », Nacha Pop (1980)
    17. « Cien gaviotas », Duncan Dhu (1986)
    18. « ¿Cómo pudiste hacerme esto a mí? », Alaska y Dinarama (1984)
    19. « Concierto para adolescentes », Los Pecos (1978)
    20. « Conflicto armado », Los Burros (1983)
    21. « 4 rosas », Gabinete Caligari (1984)
    22. « Dame La oportunidad », Barón Rojo (1982)
    23. « Déjame », Los Secretos (1980)
    24. « Desabrochando », Tequila (1977)
    25. « Devuélveme a mi chica », Hombres G (1986)
    26. « Dime dónde », Rubi y los Casinos (1982)
    27. « Dime que me quieres », Tequila (1980)
    28. « Dos en la luz », Coz (1981)
    29. « El acto », Parálisis Permanente (1978)
    30. « Eloise », Tino Casal (1988)
    31. « El único juego en la ciudad », La Mode (1982)
    32. « Enamorado de la dependienta de la tienda de patatas fritas », Loquillo y Trogloditas (1984)
    33. « Enamorado de la moda juvenil », Radio Futura (1980)

[End Page 17]

    1. « Escuela de calor », Radio Futura (1984)
    2. « Este Madrid », Leño (1978)
    3. « Embrujada », Tino Casal (1983)
    4. « Flores condenadas », Pistones (1983)
    5. « Frio », Alarma (1985)
    6. « Fuertes emociones », Los Secretos (1981)
    7. « Groenlandia », Los Zombies (1980).
    8. « Hazme sufrir », Los Burros (1983)
    9. « Hormigón, mujeres y alcohol », Ramoncín (1981)
    10. « Hoy, quisiera estar a tu lado », Tequila (1979)
    11. « Huesos », Los Burros (1983)
    12. « Juegos extraños », Los Zombies (1980)
    13. « Lady del mañana », Coz (1981)
    14. « La regla », La Banda Trapera del Río (1978)
    15. « La chica de Plexiglás », Aviador Dro (1980)
    16. « La estatua del jardín botánico », Radio Futura (1982)
    17. « La tentación », Kaka de Luxe (1978)
    18. « Las chicas son guerreras », Coz (1978)
    19. « Lo estás haciendo muy bien », Semen Up (1985)
    20. « Madrid », Burning (1978)
    21. « Malos tiempos para la lírica », Golpes Bajos (1983)
    22. « Mari Pili », Ejecutivos Agresivos (1980)
    23. « Me aburro », Kaka de Luxe (1978)
    24. « Me aburro », Los Secretos (1981)
    25. « Me he enamorado de un fan », Rubi y los Casinos (1982)
    26. « Mentira para dos », Los Pecos (1979)
    27. « Me siento mejor », Los Secretos (1981)
    28. « Mi novia se llamaba Ramón », Los Burros (1983)
    29. « Mira esa chica », Tequila (1980)
    30. « Mueve tus caderas », Burning (1979)
    31. « Necesito un amor », Tequila (1980)
    32. « Nena », Tequila (1981)
    33. « Ni tu ni nadie », Alaska y Dinarama (1984)
    34. « No me dejes solo », Tequila (1981)
    35. « No me digas nada », Los Secretos (1981)
    36. « No me imagino », Los Secretos (1983)
    37. « No mires a los ojos de la gente », Golpes Bajos (1983)
    38. « No puedo más », Los Burros (1983)
    39. « No supe qué decir », Los Secretos (1981)
    40. « No tocarte », Radio Futura (1984)
    41. « Ojos de perdida », Los Secretos (1981)
    42. « Olvídeme señora », Los Pecos (1980)
    43. « Otra tarde », Los Secretos (1981)
    44. « Paraíso », Los Bólidos (1983)
    45. « Para ti », Paraíso (1980)
    46. « Princesa », Joaquín Sabina (1985)

[End Page 18]

  1. « Princesa equivocada », Los Ilegales (1986)
  2. « ¿Qué hace una chica como tú en un sitio como éste? » Burning (1978)
  3. « Qué puedo hacer yo », Los Secretos (1981)
  4. « Querida Milagros », El Último de la Fila (1985)
  5. « Quiero besarte », Tequila (1979)
  6. « Ráfagas », Los Bólidos (1980)
  7. « Recuerdos », Los Pecos (1979)
  8. « Ring, ring », Tequila (1980)
  9. « Sábado noche », Moris (1978)
  10. « Se fue como llegó », Los Secretos (1981)
  11. « Selector de frecuencias », Aviador Dro (1982)
  12. « Sentado al borde de ti », Nacha Pop (1985)
  13. « Semilla negra », Radio Futura (1984)
  14. « Señor », Los Pecos (1980)
  15. « Si me faltaras tú », Los Pecos (1980)
  16. « Sobre un vidrio mojado », Los Secretos (1981)
  17. « Susurrando », Peor Imposible (1984)
  18. « Tan lejos », Décima Víctima, (1982)
  19. « Te espio », Las Chinas, (1982)
  20. « Te gustará », Parálisis Permanente (1978)
  21. « Tengo un precio », Parálisis Permanente (1982)
  22. « Tiempo de amor », Danza Invisible (1983)
  23. « Trae en tu cara », Los Secretos (1982)
  24. « Tú juegas con mi corazón » Un pingüino en mi ascensor (1987)
  25. « Un hombre salvaje », Las Chinas (1980)
  26. « Veneno », Los Delincuentes (1977)
  27. « Vivir así es morir de amor », Camilo Sesto (1978)
  28. « Y te vas », Los Pecos (1979)
  29. « Yo tenía un novio », Rubi y los Casinos (1981)

[1] Radio Futura, « Escuela de calor », 1984, album La ley del desierto / La ley del mar.

[2] Courant musical qui se cristallise à Barcelone, au début des années soixante-dix, autour de la salle Zeleste et qui représente un métissage entre le rock progressif international et les musiques de racines méditerranéennes.

[3] Nom utilisé par la presse espagnole à partir de 1982 pour qualifier le phénomène socioculturel qui traduit le réveil culturel de la capitale espagnole à la fin du franquisme et qui se compose de trois phases successives : le Rrollo underground (d’influence punk, 1976-78), la Nueva Ola popera (New Wave pop, 1979-81) et la Movida (apogée commercial du phénomène, 1982-86). Cf. Magali Dumousseau Lesquer, La Movida, au nom du Père, des fils et du Todo Vale, Ed. Le Mot et le Reste, Marseille, 2012.

[4] Période correspondant à l’instauration de la démocratie en Espagne, qui débute en 1975 à la mort du général Franco et s’achève en 1986, lorsque l’Espagne intègre l’Union Européenne.

[5] Nous basons notre étude notamment sur les chansons d’amour sélectionnées dans : [End Page 19]

  • l’enquête réalisée par José Luis Gallero et publiée dans José Luis Gallero, Sólo se vive una vez. Esplendor y ruina de la movida madrileña, Ardora Ediciones, Madrid, 1991.
  • la liste « Les grands disques » publiée dans La edad de oro del pop español, ouvrage collectif coordonné par Santi Carrillo et Rafa Cervera, Luca Editorial, Madrid, 1992, p.106-111.
  • Formas y colores de la música, Diseño gráfico y música española a finales del siglo XX, ouvrage coordonné par María Carrillo, Comunidad de Madrid, 2009.
  • Jesús Ordovás, Los discos esenciales del Pop español, Lunwerg Ed., Madrid, 2010.
  • la liste des « 50 meilleurs disques de l’histoire du rock espagnol » publiée dans la revue Rolling Stone, le 9 mai 2012.
  • la « Liste des listes du pop-rock espagnol » publiée dans le journal El País en février 2014.
  • la liste des « 50 meilleurs musiciens espagnols. Récapitulatif des 50 plus grandes figures du pop-rock national et de leurs chansons emblématiques », publiée dans le journal El País, le 14 février 2014.
  • diverses compilations dont la liste est présentée en annexe de cet article.

[6] Paul Ricœur, La mémoire, l’histoire et l’oubli, Paris, Edition du Seuil, 2000, p.655.

[7] Rafael Torres Mulas, La vida amorosa en tiempos de Franco, Ediciones Temas de Hoy, Col. Historia, Madrid, 1996, p.11.

[8] Roland Barthes, Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Ed. Seuil, Paris, 1977.

[9] Gilles Lipovetsky, Le bonheur paradoxal, Folio essais, Gallimard, 2006, p. 333.

[10] Femme sadomasochiste d’un policier fasciste et groupie d’un groupe punk dans le film Pepi, Luci, Bom et autres filles du quartier, Pedro Almodóvar, 1980.

[11] Carlos Santos, 333 historias de la Transición, La Esfera de los Libros, 2015, Madrid.

[12] Francisco Umbral, « La Ola », El País, 23 septembre 1980.

[13] Eva Illouz, Pourquoi l’amour fait mal. L’expérience amoureuse dans la modernité, Paris, Seuil, 2012.

[14] Marc Gontard, Ecrire la crise, l’esthétique postmoderne, PUR, Rennes, 2013, p.65.

[15] Gilles Lipovetsky, op. cit. p. 273-274.

[16] Marc Gontard, op cit. p. 65.

[17] Erik Neveu, « Won’t get fooled again? Pop musique et idéologie de la génération abusée », dans Rock de l’Histoire au mythe, dirigé par Patrick Mignon et Antoine Hennion, Col. Vibrations, Anthropos, Paris, 1991, p. 50.

[18] Cristina Tango, La Transición y su doble, El rock y Radio Futura, Biblioteca Nueva, Madrid, 2006. p. 101.

[19] Anne-Gaëlle Regueillet, « La sexualité en Espagne pendant le premier franquisme (1939-1950) », Cahiers de civilisation espagnole contemporaine [En ligne], 3 | 2008, mis en ligne le 13 janvier 2009, consulté le 23 octobre 2015. URL :

[20] Francisco Umbral, « Entrevista: Las nuevas españolas. Olvido Gara ». El País, 14 janvier 1985.

[End Page 20]


♪ L’amour à l’espagnole dans les chansons du groupe Mecano (1981-1992) : entre post-Movida et mainstream
Spanish love in the songs of Mecano (1981-1992): between post-Movida and mainstream
by Emmanuel Le Vagueresse

[End Page 1]

[…] [L’]importance accordée à la représentation étalée au grand jour […] d’un corpus représentatif de chansons à succès ne se justifie pas seulement par des nécessités documentaires ou on ne sait quelle complaisance pour la « facilité » : elle part du constat que nos conduites sont incessamment modelées et remodelées par l’imagerie ambiante […] et qu’en dernière instance c’est toujours d’elle-même que s’occupe et se préoccupe la société.

Pascal Ory, L’histoire culturelle[1]

Un contexte particulier

Notre propos est de montrer que, tout au long de leurs six albums studio[2], le groupe espagnol Mecano, ensemble musical phare de la rock music, tendance pop, dans l’Espagne des années 80, a incarné pour la jeunesse espagnole, mais aussi pour la société médiatique ou populaire ibérique, une vision de l’amour débarrassée à la fois des diktats conservateurs du franquisme, mais aussi des excès ou provocations de la Movida, mouvement désordonné mais mythique de réveil créatif tous azimuts ayant suivi peu ou prou la mort du Général Franco et la disparition de sa longue dictature. Un mouvement qui, en 1981, date de l’apparition du groupe et de son tout premier single, vit, quant à lui, son apogée et tout ensemble ses derniers feux, en même temps qu’il est l’objet d’une récupération politico-[End Page 2]commerciale qui assagit fortement le mouvement. On peut alors considérer Mecano comme un groupe populaire pour jeunes gens, voire adolescents, mainstream[3], et absolument pas comme un groupe underground. Il est représentatif, en réalité, de cette post-movida dans sa forme la plus commerciale, ne serait-ce que par le nombre de disques vendus (cf. infra, note 2).

Sur fond d’un Madrid à la fois romantique et hyper-urbanisé, entre post-Movida (par exemple, la revendication d’un droit à l’amour lesbien dans « Mujer contra mujer » [« Femme contre femme [4] »], qui eut un impact sociétal de tolérance) et propositions d’amour mainstream (par exemple, la bluette consensuelle « Me cuesta tanto olvidarte » [« J’ai tant de mal à t’oublier »], qui conte les peines de cœur topiques de toute love story), le groupe propose une cartographie de l’amour entre passion et raison, coup de foudre et désamour. Cette cartographie est liée aux mutations de la société espagnole, progressivement européanisée, qui s’ouvre aussi – timidement, certes – à la post-modernité : d’où les clins d’œil aux clichés propres aux chansons d’amour et à leur hispanité supposée, comme, par exemple, les parodies d’espagnolades à la limite du kitsch, dans les tout derniers disques du groupe.

Précisons aussi que l’amour, sur un total de plus d’une centaine de chansons, apparaît dans une quarantaine de titres, ce qui est une proportion « normale » pour un groupe de rock/pop flirtant même avec la variété, et légitime, à notre avis, une étude des paroles qui seraient signifiantes d’une vision du monde qui veut être transmise à l’auditoire populaire de manière massive[5]. On dira aussi que l’amour est un thème plus central à partir du quatrième album, « Entre el cielo y el suelo », car on y sent l’empreinte de l’auteur-compositeur José María Cano, qui partage désormais la signature des chansons à égalité avec son frère Nacho (mais chacun de son côté), puis la reconnaissance du public, alors qu’auparavant c’était davantage ce dernier, le plus jeune, qui signait les chansons des albums[6].

On dira dès le départ que ce groupe a établi un lien très fort avec la société espagnole de l’époque, dont il fut aussi – dans une certaine mesure, bien entendu – un reflet, une société en pleine mutation un gros lustre après la mort de Franco (en 1975) et au lendemain de l’achèvement définitif, en 1981 ou en 1982, plus sûrement, de la Transition démocratique :

Ils [les membres du groupe] nous ont laissé des traces magistrales du désenchantement d’une génération qui, assurément, n’avait pas de raisons extérieures de se plaindre et qui pleurait sur ses propres contradictions. À un moment de prospérité économique, de croissance culturelle et de développement démocratique comme notre pays n’en avait pas connu auparavant, ils furent la voix discordante de ceux qui se sentaient sans lieu, sans idéaux pour lesquels lutter, ni société à transformer[7].

Même si le critique auteur de cette citation semble insister sur le côté « discordant » de la voix de Mecano[8], il est indubitable que ce « désenchantement » – ce « desencanto », en espagnol – qui fut un terme clef de la période en question, et même avant, pendant la Transition démocratique même, est présent dans les chansons du groupe comme dans la société espagnole : une société, pour nuancer également ce propos, qui avait dans le même temps, tout de même, quelques raisons, notamment économiques, de protester. En effet, le [End Page 3] chômage, notamment des jeunes, explosait… Mais si l’on en demeure au seul registre de l’amour, le désenchantement est là aussi dans les titres du groupe, comme on le verra.

On rappellera aussi, simplement, qu’en 1982 l’Espagne retrouve pour la première fois depuis 1936 et le Front Populaire un gouvernement socialiste avec l’arrivée au pouvoir de Felipe González, assurant définitivement, ainsi, l’assise démocratique que les politologues disent résider, entre autres, dans la première alternance politique que connaît une nation[9]. Souvenons-nous aussi qu’elle organise la même année le « Mundial » de football, et qu’elle fait son entrée dans l’Europe en 1986. Le pays connaît ainsi une spirale de succès et de reconnaissance à l’étranger, malgré des crises économiques à répétition, et la montée imparable du chômage. Mais on se remémore davantage, pour cette période, l’Espagne comme le pays de la Movida… période que les Français et les non Espagnols en général étirent d’ailleurs allègrement jusqu’aux années 90 incluses.

Pourtant, la « gueule de bois » – la « resaca », en espagnol – de la post-Movida originelle fut bien réelle[10], et l’espèce de seconde Movida, au sens large, si l’on veut, qui commence en 1981 ou 1982, correspond bien à l’apparition d’un groupe comme Mecano, version assagie de cette grande folie passée. Une « sagesse », en dépit d’une image (de marque ?) plus foutraque et juvénile du groupe, qui gagnera encore davantage en maturité à mesure que les années passeront, tout comme les fans du trio grandissent (et vieillissent) aussi.

Une évolution qui se fait d’ailleurs en parallèle avec les succès nationaux et internationaux et du groupe et du pays, malgré la persistance du chômage, l’explosion de la drogue et du SIDA, voire le terrorisme des indépendantistes basques de l’ETA, sujet, celui-ci, que le groupe n’évoquera jamais dans ses chansons. La période d’existence de Mecano s’achève, par coïncidence, en 1992 avec la quadruple apothéose, pour l’Espagne, de l’Exposition Internationale de Séville, des Jeux Olympiques de Barcelone, du Cinquième centenaire de la découverte de l’Amérique et (lot de consolation par rapport à Séville et Barcelone, dit-on), la désignation de Madrid comme Capitale culturelle de l’Europe : l’Espagne est bel et bien rentrée dans le rang mainstream, de par ses succès mêmes ![11]

La fin des années 80 sonne donc « la fin de mille nuits de décalage dans les grandes villes [espagnoles] comme Madrid, en raison du SIDA qui commençait à faire des ravages [12] », avec la disparition concomitante des groupes phares des années 80 et de la première Movida, qui voit les débuts du mouvement grunge, même si une chanteuse iconique de cette Movida, Alaska[13], revient sur le devant de la scène, mais désormais affublée de l’étiquette « culte », pour le meilleur et pour le pire de cette taxinomie.

L’amour mainstream

Si l’on se penche à présent sur les représentations de l’amour dans les chansons de Mecano, on notera d’abord qu’elles ne parlent pas beaucoup de sexe, étant donné que le groupe doit être écouté par des adolescents, d’abord (et leurs parents, ensuite ?), et ne cible pas la provocation à tous crins, ce qui était plutôt l’apanage des années immédiatement antérieures. L’amour chez Mecano est parfois physique, certes, mais dans une moindre proportion que sa déclinaison en tant que sentiment, et souvent de manière assez allusive, comme ces paroles le prouvent, précisément, dans l’un de leurs titres les plus connus : « […][End Page 4] [P]robé a ser respirado / por la que duerme a mi lado / sin entrar en pormenores / yo sé hacer cosas mejores[14]. […] [N]o me satisfizo la experiencia sexual […] [15] » (« Aire » [« Air »], 1984). La drogue y est, au passage – mais ce sera toujours le cas chez Mecano – condamnée, même comme un adjuvant au sexe[16].

Faire l’amour est une activité bien plus légère et désinvolte dans l’apostrophe du locuteur d’une autre célèbre chanson du groupe, « Hawaii-Bombay » (« Hawaï-Bombay », 1984) : « Hazme el amor / frente al ventilador [17] » : le titre tout entier baigne dans un érotisme bon marché totalement revendiqué, le(s) protagoniste(s) recréant une plage exotique dans une chambre surchauffée, à la lumière d’une simple lampe de bureau et grâce à la seule imagination. On peut aussi citer, côté évocation du sexe à venir, le challenge à réussir par le locuteur dans le plaisant « Las curvas de esa chica » (« Les courbes de cette fille », 1986), où ce dernier se demande, en pleine drague de boîte de nuit, comment faire monter la fille chez lui[18].

Un titre célèbre comme « El cine » (« Le cinéma ») n’élude pas non plus l’aspect charnel de l’attirance envers une jeune fille vue sur l’écran d’un cinéma, mais nous en reparlerons plus loin, tout comme du titre consacré au virus du SIDA, « El fallo positivo » (« La sentence positive »), qui lie sexe et amour sans moralisme, ou encore comme « Las cosas pares » (« Les choses paires »), « Tú » (« Toi »), ou « El lago artificial » (« Le lac artificiel »), chanson où la lassitude du plaisir charnel conduit à l’extinction de l’amour comme sentiment, le désamour étant au bout du chemin, de manière finalement classique.

En effet, l’amour – un amour mainstream – comme sentiment est souvent vu par notre groupe comme une source de chagrin, de manière somme toute topique, et les exemples sont légion chez Mecano, même si l’appel à passer à une autre histoire d’amour pour pallier ce problème est assez fréquent dans sa discographie. Par exemple, dans « Ay, qué pesado » (« Ah, quel raseur [19] »), sorti en 1986, le locuteur est sommé de ne pas ressasser ses insuccès et son pessimisme en général, ou ses anciennes peines de cœur, et à être raisonnable, réaliste et lucide, car l’échec est un constituant potentiel de toute relation amoureuse : « No debiste hacer planes / tú no decides el futuro / cuando se trata de dos [20]. » C’est le désamour qui touche toute relation sur la longueur, et d’abord la relation conjugale, qui préoccupe de pourtant jeunes artistes, à l’époque, même si le thème de la conjugalité sera, logiquement, encore plus développé les années passant[21].

On pense alors à « Cruz de navajas » (« Croix aux couteaux », 1986[22]), histoire d’un amour malheureux entre deux époux, la femme qui s’ennuie trompant le mari : la chanson se termine dans un bain de sang, la femme se révélant complice d’un crime passionnel, puisque son amant assassine le mari à coups de couteau[23]. On pense aussi à « El 7 de septiembre » (« Le 7 septembre », 1991, deuxième partie, apparemment, de « La fuerza del destino » [« La force du destin »], dont on reparlera).

Ce titre, « El 7 de septiembre », est celui « de la maturité », chanson douce-amère sur un anniversaire de mariage, où l’on se pose la question de s’embrasser sur les lèvres ou sur le visage. On pourrait citer également « El lago artificial » (1991), dans la même veine de désamour, de lassitude ou de non correspondance entre les deux amants[24] : « Como en cualquier amor / el primero fue el bueno / y de pronto, pronto desapareció el placer [25]. » La philosophie « mécanienne » sur le rôle du temps, ici rapidement délétère, est classique, mais assez étonnante pour un groupe si jeune, en accord peut-être avec le tout aussi rapide « desencanto » général de l’époque. [End Page 5]

Une nouvelle histoire d’amour, cette fois entre Ana – homonyme de la chanteuse du groupe, donc, ce qui crée un clin d’œil pour le fan – et son mari pêcheur, Miguel, se solde par la mort, pour des raisons de jalousie, cette fois de la mer envers Miguel, la mer étant, en espagnol, un terme essentiellement masculin (on dit « el mar »), sauf éventuellement en poésie. Il s’agit de « Naturaleza muerta » (« Nature morte », 1986), qui rappelle, par son côté légendaire et folklorique, « Hijo de la luna » (« Fils de la lune ») et dont on reparlera. Dans les deux cas, l’histoire se termine mal, et ici, c’est directement l’époux qui est tué par la mer, qui le noie, tandis qu’Ana l’attend éternellement sur la grève, transformée en une espèce de statue de sel, de corail ou de pierre. Donc, même si la jalousie n’est pas présente au sein du couple pour provoquer le drame, c’est la Nature elle-même qui fait sombrer l’histoire d’amour par sa propre jalousie.

On inclura dans cette série le célèbre tube « Hijo de la luna » (1986), aux échos évidents avec les récits immémoriaux des Gitans d’Andalousie et à la poésie du grand Federico García Lorca[26], même si, en 1986, manque encore l’ironie pour que « Hijo de la luna » soit totalement post-moderne. En réalité, ce qui nous intéresse ici, c’est que l’amour y est tragique, la jalousie jouant ici à nouveau à plein, et la Lune y gagnant un rôle, comme la mer dans la chanson précédente, qui montre encore une fois – mais cette chanson-ci est antérieure – la présence active et puissante de la Nature, comme chez Lorca et les Gitans, en effet.

On peut aussi citer « Me cuesta tanto olvidarte » (1986) – qui serait d’essence autobiographique de la part de l’auteur, José María Cano –, où le locuteur regrette d’avoir renvoyé la jeune femme avec qui il vivait, à cause de son caractère changeant à lui, regrettant donc son geste, qui semble en avoir fini, sans espoir de retour, avec une belle histoire (« y no habrá segunda parte » [« et il n’y aura pas de deuxième partie »]). La normalité semble, on l’a compris, être le malheur pour toute histoire d’amour, et l’abandon de la part de l’un des deux protagonistes : « Las cosas que te han pasado / son de lo más normal / tu novia te ha dejado / y se ha ido con un soldado muy formal [27] » (« No tienes nada que perder » [« Tu n’as rien à perdre »], 1986).

Mais l’idée d’amour malheureux est néanmoins prégnante dès le départ de la relation, quasi intrinsèquement, chez Mecano… comme dans tout bon artefact artistique, en fait. On pense à la petite amie qui rejette son amoureux dans « El balón » (« Le ballon », 1983), le traitant en effet comme un ballon, le frappant même, comme toutes les personnes qui entourent le locuteur de cette chanson au quotidien, symbole sans doute de l’adolescent incompris, même – d’abord – par celle qui est censée l’aimer et l’écouter : « Vas con tu amor / le dices tu opinión / pero tu novia te pega como a un balón. […] Vas a remar / tú la quieres besar / y de un codazo ella te manda a nadar [28] ».

En 1991, le SIDA est un fléau depuis longtemps, et l’Espagne est particulièrement touchée par le virus. Mecano se fend « enfin », a-t-on envie de dire eu égard à son poids chez les jeunes, d’une chanson sur le sujet, où un père de famille rejeté par sa famille finit par se suicider : « El fallo positivo [29] ». On notera essentiellement que le groupe ne fait aucunement la différence entre sexe et amour ou n’allègue de manière hypocrite ou puritaine de prétendus excès charnels et/ou déviants dans l’apparition du virus, précisant qu’il s’agit du « virus que navega en el amor [30] », ce qui n’empêche pas, une fois encore, que l’amour soit malheureux du fait de cette plaie mortelle, et à très grande échelle… Pour autant, il nous semble plus important ici de relever l’insistance mise par le groupe à préciser qu’il ne s’agit absolument pas d’un châtiment divin, idée répétée dans leurs interviews, à un moment où [End Page 6] l’Église Catholique, toujours puissante chez nos voisins, avait tendance à dire haut et fort tout le contraire.

L’une des exceptions à l’amour malheureux serait sûrement le précoce « Cenando en París » (« En dînant à Paris, » 1982[31]), avec ses clichés romantiques sur un amour qui naît dans la Ville Lumière, ville exotique de l’amour pour les Espagnols et l’humanité entière, ou peu s’en faut, ici sur les pentes de la butte Montmartre, bien entendu. On observera qu’il n’y a pas de distance ou de jeu sur les stéréotypes de la part du groupe, à cette date de sa production, mais il s’agit précisément d’un amour débutant, donc encore tout à fait viable.

Autre exception, la chanson « Quédate en Madrid » (« Reste à Madrid », 1988), qui ancre cette tendre demande dans la capitale espagnole, même si la suite ne parle pas de cette ville : on retient surtout que cette chanson évoque les premiers moments d’une relation amoureuse, où tout est possible, et le désir que l’être aimé reste « ici » pour vivre avec l’autre et débuter cette vie à deux. On peut citer éventuellement aussi « El mapa de tu corazón » (« Le plan de ton cœur, 1984), chanson légère sur la nécessité d’ouvrir son cœur à l’amour, en liberté comme un oiseau à ne pas mettre en cage, sans que le « message » soit beaucoup plus clair ou précis.

L’autre grande chanson optimiste sur l’amour serait « Me colé en una fiesta » (« Je me suis incrusté dans une fête », 1982), chanson festive, en accord avec l’ambiance des soirées de jeunes (Espagnols ?) des années 80, qui narre les exploits d’un jeune homme s’invitant à la fête donnée par une jeune fille qui l’attire : « La vi pasar y me escondí / […] Ella me vio y se acercó / el flechazo fue instantáneo / y cayó entre mis brazos [32] » : le bonheur est promis, mais l’on n’en est qu’au tout début de la rencontre quand la chanson s’achève, d’où cette possibilité de croire en l’amour à venir lorsqu’il naît, comme d’ordinaire avec Mecano[33].

Trois titres rendent compte, quant à eux, d’un amour fou, plus en accord peut-être avec l’idée que l’on se fait de la frénésie de la Movida espagnole : d’abord, « El amante de fuego » (« L’amoureux de feu », 1983[34]) ; mais l’intérêt ambigu du titre réside précisément dans cet excès de passion assez peu habituel chez Mecano, l’« amoureux de feu » représentant ici, métaphoriquement, un amour hyperbolique et déchaîné, dont l’image ignée embrase (« abrasa ») justement le locuteur, donc le détruit dans la douleur, à terme. Et ce, dans une image récurrente, ici quasiment pathologique, qui prouve la folie de cette passion exclusive et effrénée, de manière somme toute classique par rapport à ce qui est, aussi, une « souffrance » (du latin « patior », « souffrir, supporter, endurer ») : l’amour.

Puis, on trouvera la chanson « Esta es la historia de un amor » (« C’est l’histoire d’un amour [35] », 1986), là aussi chanson dédiée à un amour fou, sans plus de précision, cette fois, que le défaut de lucidité induit par ce type de passion (« Creo que perdí la razón / amor [36] ») et dont on peut dire, sans vouloir en juger a priori non plus, qu’elle n’est pas synonyme de bonheur durable, dans les titres et la philosophie amoureuse du groupe, précisément parce que le temps la met à l’épreuve.

La troisième chanson d’amour fou, selon nous, est, quant à elle, une profession de foi plus claire par rapport à l’idée de cet amour démesuré, mais assumé : « Tú » (1991) évoque une relation osmotique, qui n’exclut pas le corps, avec des références à la « peau » (« piel »), et même avec une sorte de violence sado-masochiste, certes métaphorique (« montura hostil [37] »), mais qui montre l’évolution, au passage, du groupe, à mesure que les années passent, vers des relations plus « adultes », comme son public. Pensons à cette phrase, en effet : « Yo lamo el arnés [38] », et concluons, malgré cette apparence d’un bonheur peut-être transitoire dans la fusion, sur l’aliénation du moi dans le tu, qui guette peut-être le couple [End Page 7] dans ses jeux essentiellement charnels – comme dans le film L’empire des sens de Nagisa Ôshima (1976) –, tels qu’évoqués discrètement par Mecano : « Tú, me has hecho dimitir / y hoy yo se dice así: / Tú [39] ».

Quant au fameux titre « El cine » (1988), il est paradoxal également, car s’y fait jour à la fois un bonheur d’amour explicite et sa temporaire frustration, le tout doublé d’une conception malgré tout fortement fictionnelle, voire illusoire, de l’amour. En effet, le locuteur de cette chanson fantasme son amour via ce qu’il voit sur l’écran noir (« El cuerpo de esa chica que empezó a temblar / cuando el protagonista la intentó besar / me hicieron (sic) sentir que yo estaba allí, que era feliz [40] ») ; mais une coupure inopinée le frustre un temps dans son « bonheur » (« La chica ya estaba desnuda / cuando se cortó [41] »), avant le rétablissement de l’image, ce qui lui fait conclure : « Durante una hora y media / pude ser feliz […] / sintiendo que era yo, / el que besaba a aquella actriz [42] », ce qui est tout de même une vision de l’amour – ou du désir, bien entendu – fétichisée, une vision « par procuration » qui rend ce sentiment apocryphe et limité, en tout cas fortement dépris du réel.

Dans ces évocations d’un amour doux-amer – car éphémère et, ici, artificiel – qui colore souvent ce sentiment chez Mecano, il nous faut faire aussi un sort au titre « La fuerza del destino » (1988[43]), chanson très connue qui donna même son nom à un ouvrage, sinon hagiographique, du moins « autorisé », consacré au groupe, et dont on dira qu’elle synthétise cette vision douce-amère qu’a le groupe sur les relations amoureuses, mais en faisant pencher in fine cette histoire d’un chassé-croisé amoureux sur fond de grande ville (Madrid, à cause du détail du « Bar del Oro », connu à l’époque), avec ses sorties entre jeunes, vers une relation durable sur la longueur, pour une fois.

Une chanson où tous les auditeurs peuvent espérer se reconnaître, ne serait-ce que dans l’apostrophe finale du locuteur à l’être aimé, riche d’un possible avenir : « Quiero estar junto a ti [44] » : ici, la conjugalité difficile n’est pas évoquée, puisque les amants ne font que se croiser, se laisser, se recroiser pour, peut-être (c’est ce qu’espère en tout cas le locuteur), vivre enfin « ensemble », puisque le « destin » en a décidé ainsi. C’est ce caractère virtuel, bien évidemment, qui semble rendre possible le bonheur, en dehors des contraintes du réel/du quotidien prosaïque, qui n’existe pas encore… mais qui empêcherait alors une vie à deux heureuse.

On ajoutera à ces deux titres un troisième qui développe la philosophie de l’amour « mécanienne », à savoir « Te busqué » (« Je t’ai cherchée », 1896), où le locuteur en quête de l’amour / la femme aimée énumère les lieux où il l’a cherché(e), entre vice (plaisir et ordinateur, drogues et alcool) et vertu (livres et temples) : la solution semble résider dans un moyen terme offert au regard de qui sait voir la simplicité et l’évidence, au quotidien (« Y allí estabas en tu rincón [45] »). Un amour également éloigné de ces extrêmes tous deux vains, dans une vision typique de l’époque de la post-Movida, désormais, et de la relative « tiédeur », dirons-nous, du groupe dans ses paroles de chanson, non sans un certain moralisme (cf. le plaisir placé du côté du vice). Et si, pour le groupe, le bonheur amoureux résidait dans la simplicité, à mille lieues des extravagances passées de la Movida initiale ? [End Page 8]

 Mainstream, mais pas trop…

On doit à présent se pencher sur les chansons qui expriment une vision de l’amour moins mainstream, quelle que soit l’essence de ce que l’on considère ici comme l’anti-mainstream, et que l’on précisera au fur et à mesure de la découverte desdites chansons. Précisons déjà que la moisson est peu abondante, on l’aura compris après la lecture des pages qui précèdent.

Citons d’abord « La máquina de vapor » (« La machine à vapeur », 1982) qui, tout en étant fantaisiste et légère, puisqu’il s’agit d’une pochade sur une histoire d’amour entre un homme, le locuteur, et une machine à vapeur – humanisée, tout de même –, fait de ce qui semble a priori être une pathologie chez cet homme excité par la machine, obsessionnel et fétichiste, une attirance in fine prônée comme acceptable, étant donné que « todo es posible en el amor [46] ». La chanson nous apostrophe même, nous auditeur, nous appelant à une ouverture « moderne », moralement parlant : « [N]o seas antiguo y déjate llevar [47] », juste avant la profession de foi précédemment citée. Derrière le rire et la fantaisie, on veut y voir une liberté revendiquée pour l’objet d’amour, donc de la sexualité, à cette époque.

De la même manière, l’apparemment anodin et fantaisiste « Sólo soy una persona » (« Je suis seulement une personne », 1982), phrase répétée à l’envi dans la chanson, a marqué les collectifs gays de l’époque, qui en ont même fait un manifeste queer[48] avant l’heure, forçant peut-être un peu le sens général de ce titre, en le décryptant comme un hymne à l’indéfinition de genre et/ou de sexe ou même de sexualité[49]. Et ce, même si une phrase (finale, de plus) comme « No soy ni hombre ni mujer / sólo soy una persona [50] » se prête effectivement sans trop de distorsion(s) à une telle lecture « dés-étiquetante », qui fait fi de toute classification réductrice, donc bel et bien queer.

Et, comme on l’a annoncé, il faudra attendre quelques années avant d’écouter en Espagne la chanson manifeste de l’amour homosexuel, en l’occurrence lesbien, avec le tube – en France aussi – « Mujer contra mujer » (« Femme contre femme », 1988[51]), qui fit beaucoup pour la reconnaissance de l’homosexualité en Espagne, pas spécialement féminine, d’ailleurs, quelques années après sa dépénalisation et bien des années avant le vote du mariage homosexuel (2005), dans un pays pourtant catholique. On la doit donc à Mecano.

Nous aimerions néanmoins signaler un point qui semble oublié par l’ensemble des critiques enthousiastes à propos de cette chanson : si ce tube s’éloigne du chant d’un amour mainstream, il reste, dans sa construction, l’histoire d’un locuteur masculin qui ressent le caractère inutile ou déplacé d’un jugement de sa part face à deux femmes qu’il surprend à   s’embrasser :

No estoy yo por la labor
de tirarles la primera piedra
si equivoco la ocasión
y las hallo labio a labio en el salón
ni siquiera me atrevería a toser
si no gusto ya sé qué hay que hacer
que con mis piedras hacen ellas su pared[52].

[End Page 9] On observera enfin que les deux amoureuses s’opposent elles-mêmes sur la stratégie à adopter pour vivre leur amour : caché ou en pleine lumière (« Una opina que aquello no está bien / la otra opina que qué se le va a hacer / y lo que opinen los demás está de más [53] ») ; on est donc encore bien loin du mariage pour tous et même de la visibilité (cf. le jugement moral, de haine de soi, de « l’une »), seulement de la tolérance… malgré les colombes de la chanson et du clip, les deux étant éminemment métaphoriques, et pas du tout « rentre-dedans », on en conviendra aisément[54].

Enfin, il nous faut parler des quelques (très rares) chansons d’amour que l’on pourrait qualifier de post-modernes, avec indulgence peut-être, et qui sont les plus récentes, datant du début des années 90. Le groupe, comme ses fans sans doute, a mûri, voire vieilli et les clins d’œil à l’art de faire des chansons d’amour, tout comme à l’hispanité de celles-ci, se font un peu plus nombreux. Une analyse d’autres thèmes dans les titres du groupe montrerait là aussi cette nuance de post-modernité, parfois, qui prouve que Mecano montre davantage de distance par rapport au genre « chanson pop » et joue de ces clins d’œil, de l’intertextualité et des clichés… jusqu’à un certain point.

On citera essentiellement deux chansons : « Bailando salsa » (« En dansant la salsa », 1991), une chanson quasi parodique sur la drague, sur fond d’« espagnolade » ou « latinade » – peut-être en pensant au marché international latino-américain –, où ne manque pas une référence à la star espagnole de la Movida Pedro Almodóvar[55]… et qui se termine mal pour le dragueur, évidemment. Même s’il s’agit ici d’une comédie débridée et ironique, le protagoniste masculin se faisant poser un lapin par une femme pourtant d’apparence facile, appelée Carmela. La chanson, une salsa, comme son nom l’indique, joue aussi, d’ailleurs, avec les codes musicaux à la mode en Espagne à ce moment-là et fait donc un appel du pied à ses fans latinos, au-delà du stéréotype.

La seconde chanson de ce type est « Una rosa es una rosa » (« Une rose est une rose », 1991), référence claire à Gertrude Stein[56] et histoire d’amour topos impossible, dès le départ, sur fond de techno-rumba flamenco – mélange lui-même musicalement post-moderne, modernisant et mêlant, entre liberté et ironie, les deux côtés latins de l’Océan Atlantique –, histoire d’amour entre le locuteur masculin et une « hembra » (« femelle »). Le but, dans cette chanson, semble être de parodier, ou au moins de pasticher, les paroles de rumba parlant d’histoires d’amour extrêmement passionnées, du fait de femmes cruelles, lesquelles manient des roses qui piquent et font saigner le corps.

Mais il y a ici aussi, comme dans l’autre chanson, de l’humour, celui-ci naissant dans ce cas de l’exagération des lieux communs et la distance déréalisante et fictionnalisante de l’intertextualité « intellectuelle » précitée, comme une mise en abyme d’ailleurs présente dès le titre-miroir tautologique. Ce qui n’empêche pas l’« amertume » (« amargura »), même ou surtout post-moderne de la tonalité générale de ce titre, derrière l’humour : « No puedo vivir sin ella / pero con ella tampoco [57] ».

Néanmoins et pour achever cette réflexion sur ce thème de la post-modernité, entre parodie et pastiche, ironie et distance, on voudrait dire qu’il ne faut pas exagérer cette lecture, car l’hispanité ou la latinité exacerbée de ces chansons – visibles aussi dans les clips de ces deux chansons – n’est pas ressentie à un degré si fort chez les Espagnols, biberonnés « par nature » de ces thèmes et de ces paroles…

À titre d’anecdote, on citera une dernière chanson, « Los amantes » (« Les amoureux », 1988), « à propos des plaintes d’un amoureux qui veut, mais ne peut être original » (, qui montre un amoureux dandy à l’ancienne, mais obsolète dans ses [End Page 10] comportements par rapport à la nouvelle société et aux nouveaux comportements amoureux, lui qui est vu comme un « troubadour ». Pourtant, nous citons essentiellement cette chanson, ici, en clin d’œil à ce colloque d’anglicistes pour une raison précise : selon l’excellent, polémique et récent ouvrage de Grace Morales, Mecano 82. La construcción del mayor fenómeno del pop español[58], cette chanson aurait (plus qu’)inspiré le groupe de Sheffield, Pulp, de Jarvis Cocker, pour son fameux « Common People » (1995), sans doute leur plus grand succès, même s’il s’agit sans doute, précise l’auteure, d’une « légende urbaine » : les auditeurs jugeront eux-mêmes, mais la « coïncidence » du début des couplets nous semble personnellement frappante !

Le monde anglo-saxon

On en profitera pour prolonger ce clin d’œil par d’autres rapports au monde anglo-saxon entretenus – ou pas… – par le groupe, même si Mecano, précisément, ne perça jamais outre-Manche. Pourtant, le journal britannique The Guardian publia pendant l’été 2012 une série de numéros spéciaux consacrés au meilleur de la pop dans les pays non anglo-saxons, et bien entendu Mecano était en très bonne place pour le numéro consacré à l’Espagne, avec des commentaires très élogieux.

En revanche, en 1983, sa maison de disques, CBS, fit enregistrer au groupe une version en anglais distribuée en Grande-Bretagne de « Me colé en una fiesta » intitulée, « The Uninvited Guest » (avec l’instrumental et opportuniste « Boda en Londres » en face B), morceau qui, pour un critique du magazine spécialisé anglais Sounds, ressemblait au morceau d’un groupe qui « semble  avoir fouillé parmi les rebuts de Spandau Ballet [groupe anglais de new wave souvent raillé, apparu en 1979] […], le single faisant penser à du Bucks Fizz [groupe anglais de pop tout autant moqué, apparu en 1981] et tournant à une mauvaise vitesse [59]. » Ce single n’ayant pas eu de succès, il signa à la fois le début et la fin de la carrière anglo-saxonne de Mecano.

On mentionnera tout de même : un voyage promotionnel des membres du groupe à Londres et la participation en 1983 à un festival de la BBC – parrainé par Andy Gibb et Tony Visconti –, International Battle of the Pop Bands », qui les choisit pour représenter l’Espagne, un festival où ils furent les seuls à ne pas chanter en anglais ; ainsi qu’un passage éclair en Australie, à l’Exposition (semi-)Universelle de Brisbane en 1988, où leur première partie de Brian Ferry fut apparemment si appréciée du public qu’ils se produisirent seuls le lendemain sur le même site. Quant aux États-Unis, le groupe s’y rendit pour des opérations de promotion et des concerts à taille réduite, essentiellement pour les hispanophones, en fait : d’où la présence de L. A. ou de New York (par exemple, dans la discothèque « Palladium », en 1989) dans la liste des endroits où ils se sont produits en Amérique du Nord[60].

Bien sûr, ils ont enregistré, le succès venu, aux studios d’Abbey Road et à New York, ou travaillé ponctuellement avec Hans Zimmer et Waren Cann (Ultravox) entre 1984 et 85, mais il faut bien reconnaître que le groupe n’a jamais « pris » sur le marché anglo-saxon. Une dernière anecdote résumera à elle seule ce rendez-vous manqué : les producteurs de Mecano avaient voulu, très tôt dans le « cursus » du groupe, sortir le single « Japón » (« Japon », 1984) en Angleterre, mais ils essuyèrent là-bas un refus net : ni en anglais, ni en espagnol, un single de Mecano ne devait marcher…[End Page 11]

En conclusion, on dira que le groupe espagnol a su balancer constamment entre le mainstream et le soutien, parfois maladroit ou minimal, à des minorités réprimées[61], surfant sur la vague d’une mode, en Espagne, incarnée par le pop commercial typique de ces années 80 de post-Movida historique, passée et bien passée, en réalité, au moment où le groupe arrive sur le devant de la scène. Sa vision de l’amour est, de fait, consensuelle, derrière de timides hardiesses, et même, comme on l’a vu, au final, assez conventionnelle, en dehors du prurit de dénonciation de l’homophobie ou du fléau qu’est le SIDA ; mais, là encore, ces combats sont très politiquement corrects ou portés un peu tard.

L’usure du couple après le coup de foudre, les difficultés du quotidien et la jalousie et/ou les mensonges après les débuts riants, la persistance de la tendresse, pourtant, et l’espoir d’un regain de flamme, voici des thèmes courants, voire topiques, de la chanson (d’amour), qu’elle soit espagnole ou pas, d’ailleurs. Des thèmes « mécaniens » que le recours – rare, certes – à une certaine post-modernité bien tempérée, dans la dernière partie de sa production, « sauve » un peu de la mièvrerie, qu’elle soit espagnole ou pas.

Il n’en demeure pas moins que Mecano, entre 1981 et 1992, a justement connu ce succès phénoménal pour avoir su « coller » avec talent et opportunisme, aussi, à toute une époque, les années 80 qui, en Espagne, tout particulièrement du fait de son amnésie politique sans doute nécessaire pendant la Transition démocratique, cinq avant et après plus de trente-cinq ans de dictature franquiste, ont vu l’avènement d’une culture de masse, elle-même intrinsèquement post-moderne, où tout se vaut, en amour comme dans d’autres domaines qui conjuguent l’intime et le social : émotions, sensations, pensées, postures esthétiques comme discours politiques… puisqu’il n’y a plus de grand récit d’explication du monde, religieux, idéologique ou artistique.

En cela, Mecano est bel et bien le groupe espagnol des années 80, jusqu’à l’overdose, paradoxalement, une overdose de « santé éclatante » :

Mecano, sans parvenir à découvrir un monde nouveau, démontra la viabilité d’une pop espagnole sincère (sic), homologable et exportable. […] [Ce groupe est] un archétype international confortable de la pop à l’esprit sain dans un corps sain. Son succès familial avait beaucoup à voir avec leur image de santé éclatante[62].

Javier Adrados signifie ici que Mecano, tant pour ce qui est du thème de l’amour que d’autres thèmes qu’il aborde dans ses chansons, le fait dans une perspective globalement mainstream et rassurante, époque et « cible » obligent, en dépit de l’énergie pop incontestable du trio. Reste que ce groupe est le seul, précisément, à demeurer véritablement dans la mémoire de cette Espagne des années 80, malgré les attaques dont il a été dès le départ victime, que ses disques se vendent encore par milliers chaque année, qu’Ana Torroja chante – et vend, elle aussi – encore, que des comédies musicales basées sur la carrière du groupe ou sur ses tubes remplissent les salles chez nos voisins et que des rumeurs donnent régulièrement Mecano prêt à se reformer : espoir vain, pour le moment (et pour toujours ?), car il manque au trio, pour le coup, juste un peu… d’amour !

[1] Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2004, p. 100-101.[End Page 12]

[2] Nous n’analyserons pas ici la musique des chansons, excepté quelques remarques sur la post-modernité. Le groupe Mecano était constitué par les deux frères musiciens (et auteurs) Cano, José María et Ignacio – surnommé Nacho –, accompagnés par la chanteuse Ana Torroja, nés tous les trois entre 1959 et 1963. Ils ont vendu plus de 25 millions de disques de par le monde tout au long de leur carrière. Les 6 albums studio (auquel il faudrait ajouter le live « En concierto » [En concert] de 1985) s’intitulent respectivement : Mecano de 1982, ¿Dónde está el país de las hadas? (Où est le pays des fées ?) de 1983, Ya viene el sol (Le soleil arrive) de 1984, Entre el cielo y el suelo (Entre le ciel et la terre) de 1986, Descanso dominical (Repos dominical) de 1988 et Aidalai (intraduisible, à peu près Aïe Dalaï[-Lama]) de 1991, soit 117 chansons, si l’on inclut les versions en langue étrangère (italien, français). Nous n’avons pas retenu pour cet article l’album postérieur Ana/José/Nacho (1998), car cette tentative de come back après leur séparation de 1992, quoique honorable, ne contient que 7 titres inédits et ne nous semble pas s’inscrire dans la période du « vrai » Mecano et des spécificités de l’Espagne des années 80 (comme exemple de morceau faussement provocateur, on recommande tout de même l’écoute de « Stereosexual » [« Stéréosexuel »]…). On dira immédiatement que dans la totalité des chansons, la voix narrative, si l’on peut dire, est masculine (i. e. la voix des auteurs, les frères Cano, et de leur imagination, deux garçons qui sont aussi les compositeurs de toutes les chansons, mais jamais ensemble, ayant très tôt été rivaux), mais que l’interprète, Ana Torroja, est une femme. Cette spécificité a, dès le départ, créé des effets de réception troublés, voire une récupération/appropriation par le public gay espagnol. Par ailleurs, les sites Internet les mieux faits sur le groupe sont :, (site où ont été puisées les paroles étudiées ici), rubrique « Mecano » et le site officiel On lira aussi avec profit les ouvrages suivants : Javier Adrados et Carlos Del Amo, Mecano: la fuerza del destino, Madrid, La Esfera de los Libros, Coll. « Cara B », 2004 (puis Barcelone, Libros Cúpula en 2011, éd. citée ici) et du même J. Adrados, Los tesoros de Mecano: un homenaje al mejor grupo de pop en español, Barcelone, Timun Mas, 2011, hagiographique comme on l’imagine. Citons aussi deux livres « pour fans » parus à l’époque et très recherchés aujourd’hui par les collectionneurs : Carlos López Pérez (ed./dir.), Mecano (el libro), Madrid, Luca, 1992, vendu avec un CD, et, plus ancien encore, Joan Singla, Mecano. La explosión del pop español, Barcelone, Martínez Roca, Coll. « Ídolos pop », 1984.

[3] Pour reprendre de manière plaisante, mais cohérente, le titre de l’essai de Frédéric Martel. Mainstream. Enquête sur cette culture qui plaît à tout le monde, Paris, Flammarion, 2010, et dont, pensons-nous, Mecano fait partie, que ce soit pour sa vision de l’amour, objet de la présente étude, comme d’autres thèmes, d’ailleurs (le rapport moral aux drogues [dures], une certaine vision light de la société et des rapports humains, « politiquement correcte », dirait-on aujourd’hui, même pour ce qui concerne le racisme ou le machisme, par exemple).

[4] 1ère chanson à thème clairement homosexuel à avoir eu un énorme succès dans tous les pays où elle est sortie (elle a, par exemple, été numéro 1 des ventes en France). On dira aussi qu’en Amérique Latine, où l’homosexualité était alors pénalisée dans plusieurs pays, cette chanson créa bien des soucis au groupe : par exemple, au Mexique, la censure l’interdit dans un premier temps, avant de l’autoriser face à son succès sous le manteau et à la pression de la jeunesse. En République Dominicaine, le clip fut censuré, et le trio subit, de manière générale, de nombreuses menaces, notamment d’excommunication par l’Église [End Page 13] Catholique (sic) ; mais il faut reconnaître que le groupe a toujours assumé cette chanson et défendu son message de lutte contre l’homophobie, un problème bien plus important en Amérique Latine qu’en Europe… Mais on en reparlera.

[5] Magali Dumousseau-Lesquer, dans son remarquable essai La Movida. Au nom du père, des fils et du todo vale, Marseille, Le mot et le reste, coll. « Attitudes », 2012, procède de même et analyse brièvement, par exemple, les paroles du premier single de Mecano, « Hoy no me puedo levantar » (« Aujourd’hui, je ne peux pas me lever », 1981), p. 139-140. Elle parle, par ailleurs, du groupe à 8 reprises dans cette étude sur la Movida.

[6] « [Les paroles de José María Cano] se tournent vers le tableau de mœurs, sont en rapport avec la chanson populaire traditionnelle et recherchent une certaine chaleur agréable, typiquement espagnole », J. Adrados, op. cit., p. 156. Plusieurs chansons d’amour du disque « Entre el cielo y el suelo » sont rapidement « analysés » par J. Adrados, op. cit., pp. 90-92 et p. 96. Les traductions des articles en espagnol sont les nôtres et données directement en français, comme les paroles de chansons, celles-ci étant néanmoins données aussi en espagnol.

[7] José Ramón Pardo, « Prólogo a: Una historia de amor y canciones », dans J. Adrados, op. cit., p. 8.

[8] Mecano était bien plus pop que rock et flirtait parfois avec la variété, ce qui faisait qu’il était détesté par les « purs » (?) de la Movida – le succès n’étant pas « rock » non plus –, en plus du fait que le trio était issu de la bourgeoisie madrilène. Ils furent souvent traités de « fils à papa », de groupe « fabriqué » (ils n’ont pas joué dans la petite salle madrilène, mythifiée – et détruite – depuis, le « Rock-Ola »), n’ayant pas « galéré » : ils furent conspués par ces « purs » de la Movida, notamment quand ils furent reçus dans la famille royale, les enfants du couple royal, alors adolescents, adorant le groupe. C’est vrai que l’on fait mieux comme caution rock ou underground

[9] D’où, pour la plupart des historiens, la date de 1982 comme borne finale de la Transition démocratique espagnole, alors que 1981 représente celle de la tentative de coup d’État, certes raté, contre cette même démocratie, le 23 février.

[10] « Les années 80 étaient en train de passer, et avec elle la grande gueule de bois de toute cette époque, la perte de contrôle que ce premier lustre de la décennie avait semé. Les nuits de bringue, débordant d’alcool, de drogues et de sexe, laissaient peu à peu la place à la facture que présente le corps maltraité et même à des morts dues […] au SIDA », J. Adrados, op. cit., p. 80.

[11] Les premiers longs métrages exploités commercialement de Pedro Almodóvar et sa reconnaissance générale à l’étranger (d’abord, en France, rappelons-le) sont donc, stricto sensu, à classer dans la période de la post-Movida, et d’ailleurs, à part les tout premiers (disons, jusqu’au mitan, voire à la fin des années 80), ils seront de plus en plus sages. Après 1982, la première, « vraie » Movida étant morte, la provocation n’est plus vraiment de mise, et Mecano s’inscrit parfaitement dans cette tendance light.

[12] J. Adrados, op. cit., p. 133. Et même auparavant, pouvons-nous dire.

[13] Née au Mexique, Olvido Gara aka Alaska a traversé la Movida et le panorama pop espagnol jusqu’à aujourd’hui, avec des groupes comme Kaka de Luxe, Los Pegamoides, Dinarama ou Fangoria : elle et ses groupes successifs sont un peu l’opposé, les rivaux, de Mecano, car vus comme représentant la Movida « pure » et originelle. C’est aussi l’opposition, mutatis mutandis, que l’on retrouve entre Stones et Beatles… et leurs fans ! [End Page 14]

[14] Il faut noter, pour expliciter le sens de ces paroles, que le locuteur raconte une expérience de prise de drogue (malheureuse) qui lui donne la sensation de se transformer en « air »… avant de se jeter, logiquement, par la fenêtre et de mourir écrasé contre l’asphalte.

[15] « […] [J]’ai tenté de me faire respirer / par celle qui dort à mes côtés / sans rentrer dans les détails / moi, je sais faire de meilleurs trucs. […] [L]’expérience sexuelle ne m’a pas satisfait ».

[16] Une condamnation de la drogue qui se fait à la différence de la plupart des chansons rock ou pop de l’époque de la Movida – avec quelques exceptions, tout de même –, comme on peut le voir dans l’ouvrage passionnant de Carlos José Ríos Longares , Y yo caí… enamorado de la moda juvenil. La movida en las letras de sus canciones, Alicante, Agua Clara / Instituto Alicantino de Cultura « Juan Gil-Albert », 2001. Cet ouvrage étudie – comme nous dans cet article – la présence et le sens de certains thèmes dans les chansons rock et pop de la Movida et de la post-Movida espagnole, dont Mecano, à de rares moments néanmoins. On citera, de manière générale, sur l’amour dans le rock/pop espagnol de l’époque, le sous-chapitre de « Amor, ciudad y libertad » intitulé « El amor y el desamor », pp. 112-117. La bibliographie sur le sujet est excellente p. 197-199, ainsi que celle de M. Dumousseau-Lesquer  dans son essai La Movida, op. cit., p. 323-227.

[17] « Fais-moi l’amour / face au ventilateur ».

[18] L’une des chansons du groupe parmi les plus célèbres reste « Maquillaje » (« Maquillage », 1982), qui insiste avec humour et légèreté sur le fait que, pour attirer son amoureux et lui plaire – ici, très exceptionnellement, le locuteur est une femme –, il faille absolument à la jeune femme se maquiller ou se peigner à la mode : via la critique des apparences reines en amour et en désir, Mecano déconstruit discrètement le mythe d’un Eros idéalisé… tout en l’assumant pleinement dans le même temps.

[19] Son auteur-compositeur, Nacho Cano, a reconnu plus tard parler de son frère José María dans cette chanson.

[20] « Tu n’aurais pas dû faire de projets / ce n’est pas toi qui décides de l’avenir / quand il s’agit de deux personnes ».

[21] Le titre « Boda en Londres » (« Noces à Londres », 1982), qui montre déjà l’intérêt du groupe pour le mariage, restera mystérieux quant à son traitement du thème, car il s’agit d’un instrumental. D’aucuns disent, sans doute ave raison, qu’il fait référence au mariage princier et ultra-médiatisé de Diana et Charles l’année précédente.

[22] « Les trois croix [citées dans la chanson] se réfèrent à la trahison en flagrant délit que subit Mario des mains de sa femme María, à la mort de Mario d’un coup de couteau dans la poitrine, des mains de l’amant et au mensonge de sa femme, indiquant que son mari est mort attaqué par des drogués » ( Il s’agirait même d’« une des meilleures chansons du groupe, avec des paroles dignes d’une thèse de 3ème cycle » (sic), d’après les commentateurs jurés de l’émission « Las 100 grandiosas canciones de los 80’s en español », diffusée en 2007 sur la chaîne de TV musicale VH1 Latinoamérica, où elle fut classée à la 3ème place.

[23] Il y a plusieurs cas de jalousie conjugale dans les chansons de Mecano, qui vont parfois très loin, mais une seule où l’assassinat de la femme adultère (car l’adultère du couple est essentiellement une femme, machisme espagnol oblige ? ou simple auctorialité ?) est narré sur un mode humoristique ou approchant : il s’agit de « La extraña posición » (« L’étrange position », 1984), la fin restant ambiguë, le mari assassin, une fois en prison, semblant jurer fidélité pour l’éternité à son épouse, pourtant occise par lui. En tout cas, la [End Page 15] conjugalité semble toujours aussi difficile dans la pratique et la durée chez Mecano : « Tantos engaños / […] Tantas mentiras » (« Tant de tromperies / […] Tant de mensonges »). Une autre chanson, « Sentía » (« Je sentais », 1991), évoque la place de « suppléant » (« suplente ») que joue désormais l’homme dans son couple, maintenant qu’un troisième larron s’est invité dans l’histoire et a gagné sa place de « premier » au sein du couple.

[24] La correspondance ou réciprocité de l’amour est un élément qui revient dans les chansons de Mecano, par exemple dans « Las cosas pares » (« Les choses paires », 1986), qui file la métaphore d’un parallèle de pensées, sentiments et sensations charnelles chez les deux amants de la « paire », cette fois en réciprocité plus  satisfaisante, semble-t-il.

[25] « Comme dans n’importe quel amour / le premier a été le bon / et vite, bien vite le plaisir a disparu ».

[26] Avec, par exemple, ses recueils les plus « gitans » que sont Poema del cante jondo (1921) et Romancero gitano (1928).

[27] « Ce qui t’est arrivé / il n’y a pas plus normal / Ta copine t’a quitté / et elle est partie avec un soldat très comme il faut ».

[28] « Tu es avec ton amour / tu lui donnes ton avis / mais ta copine te frappe comme un ballon. […] Tu vas faire de la rame / toi, tu veux l’embrasser / et d’un coup de coude elle, elle te balance dans l’eau ». La comparaison n’est pas neuve et elle est déjà présente, par exemple, dans le roman Quelque chose au cœur/Le Bon Soldat (The Good Soldier, 1915) de l’écrivain britannique Ford Madox Ford, le « volant » – au badminton – remplaçant ici le « ballon » : « [Nancy] […] a déclaré un jour qu’elle se sentait semblable à un volant entre les violentes personnalités d’Edward et de Leonora : celle-ci essayait toujours de la livrer à son mari qui la rejetait sans mot dire. […] Edward jugeait que c’était lui qui servait de volant à ces deux femmes […], elle se le renvoyaient comme un fichu ballon dont personne ne voulait payer l’affranchissement », éd. citée, Paris, Le club français du livre, 1953, p. 248-249. L’idée d’un « volant » que l’on se renvoie est, on le voit ici, partagée par plusieurs personnages en même temps…

[29] « Le jugement/la sentence », mais aussi « « la faute/la faille », en un jeu de mots ici impossible à rendre. Par ailleurs, le point de départ de la chanson serait réel.

[30] « virus qui navigue sur l’amour ».

[31] Pour l’anecdote, une ville où ils allaient jouer à deux reprises, en 1991 et 1992, à l’apogée de leur carrière internationale… et à sa fin. Ils tournèrent aussi dans les grandes villes de France.

[32] « Je l’ai vue passer et me suis caché / […]  Elle, elle m’a vu et s’est approchée / le coup de foudre a été instantané / et elle est tombée dans mes bras ».

[33] On ne peut s’empêcher de faire remarquer que, en ce début de carrière du groupe, la fête, au moins dans cette chanson – car dans d’autres, on boit au moins de la bière – semble peu ou pas alcoolisée (« Coca-cola para todos » [« Coca-cola pour tout le monde »]), ce qui montre que le groupe s’adresse à de jeunes, voire très jeunes gens, et/ou ne veut pas choquer les parents, des acheteurs potentiels de leurs disques… Mais pour nous, la fête prend ici l’allure d’une aimable « boum » qui fait sourire, comme le film homonyme de la même époque (Claude Pinoteau, 1980) avec Sophie Marceau, alors qu’on est bel et bien dans l’Espagne de la (post-)Movida, censée être plus échevelée, même s’il s’agit de sa fin.

[34] « Une jeune fille voit mourir un homme dans un incendie, dans d’étranges circonstances, et l’esprit de celui-ci, plus tard, va prendre peu à peu possession du corps de cette fille qui l’a vu mourir » selon [End Page 16]

[35] Qui fait bien évidemment penser à la chanson « Histoire d’un amour », interprétée par exemple par Dalida, et qui débute par ces mêmes mots. Il s’agit de l’adaptation française d’une chanson, un « bolero », dont le titre espagnol est « Historia de un amor », composée par le Panaméen Carlos Eleta Almarán en 1955 et reprise par une multitude d’interprètes, dans différentes langues.

[36] « Je crois que j’ai perdu la raison / mon amour ».

[37] « monture hostile ».

[38] « Moi, je lèche le harnais ».

[39] « Toi, tu m’as fait démissionner / et aujourd’hui moi se dit comme ça : / Toi ».

[40] « Le corps de cette fille qui commença à trembler / quand le protagoniste essaya de l’embrasser / m’ont fait (sic) sentir que moi, j’étais là, que j’étais heureux ».

[41] « La fille était à présent déshabillée / quand il y a eu une coupure ».

[42] « Pendant une heure et demie / j’ai pu être heureux […] / en sentant que c’était moi, / qui embrassais cette actrice ».

[43] Nacho Cano a toujours dit en interview qu’il était incapable d’écrire sur autre chose que sur sa vie ou sur une anecdote qui s’était déroulée dans son cercle d’intimes : ici, la chanson est « dédiée », comme « El 7 de septiembre », à l’écrivaine Coloma Fernández Armero, sa compagne pendant plusieurs années et avec qui, chaque année, une fois séparés, il se retrouvait pour « fêter » leur anniversaire de rencontre. Les deux titres reflètent donc deux moments différents de leur relation de couple. Mais on notera aussi, à un autre niveau, l’intertextualité de « La fuerza del destino » avec Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (1835), pièce de théâtre célébrissime chez nos voisins du Duque de Rivas, manifeste du romantisme comme l’Hernani de Victor Hugo en France, et l’intertextualité avec La forza del destino, opéra de Verdi (1862), d’après cette même pièce.

[44] « Je veux être près de toi ».

[45] « Et tu étais là, dans ton coin »

[46] « tout est possible dans l’amour ».

[47] « [N]e sois pas vieux jeu et laisse-toi aller ».

[48] Le queer se veut un mouvement non excluant, au-delà même du mouvement gay qui reste plus ghettoïsant aux yeux du queer car il pose des étiquettes. Le queer défend tout ce qui est différent, du point de vue du sexe, du genre, de la sexualité, mais aussi de la race, de l’ethnie, etc. en déconstruisant ce qu’il considère être de fausses catégories qui marginalisent les individus ne rentrant pas dans la Doxa.

[49] Un sens un peu forcé, disons-nous, mais telle est la « règle » de la réception d’une œuvre et de sa réappropriation par une minorité – notamment d’une œuvre populaire, massivement diffusée –, selon la théorie de la réappropriation de films pas nécessairement gays par ces derniers, telle que développée par Alberto Mira dans son essai Miradas insumisas. Gays y lesbianas en el cine, Barcelone/Madrid, Egales, 2008.

[50] « Je ne suis ni homme, ni femme / je suis seulement une personne ». Le reste de la chanson égrène de manière libre et drôle tout ce que le locuteur « n’est pas » : poisson, moto, photo, arbre de Noël, souris, boîte de conserve ou stade…

[51] En français « Une femme avec une femme » (1990), le reste de la chanson, adaptée par la documentaliste du Lycée Français de Madrid, Michèle Penalva, s’éloignant parfois un peu des paroles originales, tout en gardant sa signification générale. Nous poursuivons notre propre travail de traduction pour les citations proposées de cette chanson. [End Page 17]

[52] « Je n’ai pas envie / de leur jeter la première pierre / si j’arrive au mauvais moment / et les trouve lèvres collées dans le salon / je n’oserais même pas tousser / si je n’aime pas ça je sais ce qu’il y a à faire / car avec mes pierres elles, elles font leur mur ».

[53] « L’une pense que cela n’est pas bien / l’autre pense : qu’est-ce qu’on peut y faire ? / et ce que peuvent bien penser les autres, ça les regarde ». On notera aussi que deux ans auparavant, Alaska, avec son groupe Dinarama, proposait un titre certes moins explicite, A quién le importa (Qui ça intéresse), mais qui n’a pas empêché le morceau d’avoir été adopté par les collectifs gays espagnols.

[54] La tolérance de Mecano via ses chansons est d’ailleurs à géométrie variable, puisque, dans « Quédate en Madrid », le locuteur masculin parle de « mariconez » (« truc ou minauderie de pédé » [sic]), attitude détestable pour lui quand il évoque les diminutifs affectueux que se donnent d’habitude les amoureux… sauf cette fois, dans son cas, maintenant qu’il se sent vraiment amoureux. On notera tout de même que ce terme signifie aussi « vacherie / mauvais tour » (re-sic), ce qui renseigne déjà sur l’homophobie plus ou moins inconsciente de la langue espagnole… et de ceux qui, comme les auteurs de Mecano, utilisent certaines expressions avec tout autant de désinvolture et d’inconscience.

[55] Lequel, selon la rumeur, n’aurait pas apprécié d’être cité par le groupe.

[56] « Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose » est le début d’un vers extrait d’un poème d’avant-garde (post-moderne avant l’heure ? en tout cas pré-surréaliste) de la grande écrivaine nord-américaine Gertrude Stein, « Sacred Emily » (1913).

[57] « Je ne peux pas vivre sans elle / mais avec elle non plus » (cf. les dialogues dans le film La femme d’à côté de 1981 et l’amour-passion impossible des deux protagonistes : le « Ni avec toi, ni sans toi » de François Truffaut).

[58] Madrid, Lengua de trapo, 2013, p. 185.

[59] Cité en espagnol par G. Morales, op. cit., p. 214-215. Bien plus tard, le groupe a enregistré des maquettes de chansons en anglais pour distribuer éventuellement un « Aidalai » avec des morceaux en anglais et d’autres en espagnol (comme dans notre pays, en français et en espagnol), mais ce projet ne vit pas le jour.

[60] Car le succès fut réellement immense en Amérique Latine et en Europe (France, Europe francophone, Italie, d’où versions de CD en langue vernaculaire et tournées spécifiques dans ces deux pays) et un peu en Allemagne et aux Pays-Bas, le tout durant leur seconde partie de carrière, juste avant leur séparation.

[61] Obsédés, le succès aidant, par le « politiquement correct », les membres du groupe se sont crus obligés de se fendre d’un texte inséré dans leur album Descanso dominical à propos de leur titre « El blues del esclavo » (« Le blues de l’esclave »), précisant que ce morceau parlait du fait historique que constituait la fin de l’esclavage aux États-Unis (au XIXème siècle) et non des revendications sociales des Noirs « qu’[ils] respect[ai]ent profondément », comme ils « admir[ai]ent la figure de Martin Luther King ».

[62] J. Adrados, op. cit., p. 156.

[End Page 18]


♪ The Nature of Love in the Work of Leonard Cohen
by Jiří Měsíc

What is love according to Leonard Cohen?

“It is in love that we are made; / In love we disappear,” Leonard Cohen sings after having been abandoned by the “Crown of Light, O Darkened One” with whom he experienced a momentary union (“Boogie Street”). Love is seen as a force which chooses the singer to serve it (“Love Calls You by Your Name”); it is a scorching power in which he extinguishes [End Page 1] his existence (“Dance Me to the End of Love”); a purely divine phenomenon which unites both masculine and feminine forces inside him (“Joan of Arc”) and gives meaning to his earthly existence (“There Ain’t No Cure for Love”). “Love Itself” is seen as the light coming “through the window, / straight from the sun above,” a kind of transforming power that opens the door towards the Divine (“Love Itself”).

In an almost liturgical language, as we shall see, Cohen describes the receiving of love through prayer, repentance, and bodily pleasures. Yet he is also afraid of love, as he sings in a cover version of Frederick Knight’s “Be for Real,” “I don’t want to be hurt by love again.” Moreover, Cohen presents himself as a slave to both Divine and Human love, a man who continuously fails in his faithfulness to each. His work propounds that the profane does not exclude the sacred in the language of love and that the human body, and lust for it, may anticipate the attainment of Divine love (“Light as the Breeze”).

Divine Love and Mysticism

In the song “Love Calls You by Your Name,” the singer implies that love arrives when one is between two unspecified states: “But here, right here, / between the birthmark and the stain, / between the ocean and your open vein, / between the snowman and the rain, / once again, once again, / love calls you by your name.” According to him, love is a force that is revealed neither when one is alive or dead. It is somewhere between, in the liminal space, on the margins of daily life. One receives it in loneliness when “you stumble into this movie house, / then you climb, you climb into the frame.” It appears when we are able to leave the human existence behind, or when we are capable to forget our self and let the soul escape into some “other frame.” Then love comes and calls us by our “name,” which means not only that it recognizes us, but also that it recognizes us as worthy of love.

Here one may ask, but where is the other person to give and accept love? Cohen does not portray love in such a way. To Cohen, love is not limited to the relationship between two partners. Indeed, in the very same song, he sings that he has to leave the woman for some other kind of love: “I leave the lady meditating on the very love which I, I do not wish to claim.” He even describes the “bandage,” the symbol of healing, loosening and calls: “Where are you, Judy, where are you, Anne?” which sounds as if he was trying to address the women who had hurt him and who can no longer hold him back from his thirst for the spiritual form of love. (This is one of the reasons for ending the relationship with Marianne Ihlen, described in the song “So Long, Marianne”).[1] However, the song “Love Calls You by Your Name” suggests that the physical love prepares the singer for the attainment of the Divine love. The chorus then reveals that this attainment is temporary and that the whole experience will repeat and thus prove its cyclical nature: “Once again, once again, / Love calls you by your name.”

Throughout Cohen’s work, the word “name” signifies earthly human existence. (It is distinct, therefore, from “The Name,” which is a traditional Jewish term for G-d.) As in many Biblical stories, from Abram / Abraham and Sarai / Sarah onward, a change of name in Cohen’s work thus implies a change of self, a new existence, and perhaps therefore a new relationship to love, both human and divine. In the song “Lover, Lover, Lover,” for example, Cohen presents a dialogue between himself and the Father G-d in a variety of religious and [End Page 2] mystical idioms, in this case with both Biblical and Islamic (Sufi) references, and much of their conversation concerns the singer’s history and future as one who loves and is loved.

The first verses of the song go: “I asked my father, / I said, ‘Father change my name.’” As the subsequent lyrics reveal, in order to have his “name” changed, the singer has to overcome his bodily desires and the “filth and cowardice and shame” that they have brought him. This is corroborated by the Father G-d responding to the singer: “I locked you in this body, / I meant it as a kind of trial” (“Lover, Lover, Lover”). Understanding this, we see that Cohen’s plea for the new name is, in reality, a plea for letting his soul escape and return to the Father G-d. Sufi teaching refers to this version of repentance as tawba, which entails regretting of the past sins and the return to G-d and to that which is inherently good (cf. Khalil). As Sylvie Simmons attests, Cohen studied the Sufi poet Rūmī (303), and the use of “lover” in this song’s chorus to name both G-d and the human singer, each of whom sings “lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover come back to me” to the other, echoes Sufi thought. Although the Sufis in general distinguish between the lover and his Beloved―the lover is a human being, Beloved represents G-d— this dichotomy is to be overcome once the lover and the Beloved become one. The repetition of “lover” in this song invokes this overcoming of the dichotomy, and the rhythmic, incantatory quality of this refrain, when sung by Cohen, recalls the chanting of “La ilaha ilallah,”[2] one of the creeds of Islam, just as the ecstatic music of the song resembles the musical accompaniment for sama, the ritual ceremony during which the Sufis of the Mevlevi order perform their whirling dance. The dance results not only in the re-enactment the death of their ego and rebirth, but also in the attainment of Divine love and wisdom through the union with the Creator on the vertical axis spanning between the Earth and Heavens (cf. Friedlander). (On a more Judaic note, the seven-times repeated word “lover” may speak of the seven days in the creation of the world, with emphasis on love as a creative force characterising each day, and finally the seventh day celebrated as Sabbath.)

Such a union and the subsequent rebirth is also portrayed in another song, this time using Christian imagery: “Joan of Arc.” The song insinuates that the soul qualifies itself to accept divine love only after the trial period of unfulfilled longing and solitude. The soul is portrayed as a lonely “bride” represented by the character of Joan of Arc, while G-d is the bridegroom represented by the “flame” pursuing her.[3] In a poem from the collection The Energy of Slaves, Cohen acknowledges that he is “the ghost of Joan of Arc” (32), and hints at the possibility that the soul described is his own. In addition, on the back cover of his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, there is a picture of her engulfed in flames. Ira Nadel says that Cohen found this picture as a postcard in a Mexican magic store and felt that he was this woman looking for an escape from “the chains of materiality” (154-155). The Christian concept of anima sola, a soul burning in purgatory and waiting for salvation is quite apt for this description. Therefore, the song portrays a purifying annihilation in the arms of the Lord represented by the flame. [End Page 3]

Image of the head, arms, and shoulders of a naked woman with brown hair surrounded by red and orange flames. Her wrists have chains around them.

Anima Sola, Prayer Card. Public domain.

Joan of Arc, the soul, is tired of the war; in other words, she is tired of living a solitary life seen as a kind of warfare against love and her body because she is a virgin. Now she is longing for “a wedding dress or something white / to wear upon [her] swollen appetite.” Her solitude and pride are to be abandoned before she will be consumed by love and born once again.

However, Cohen does not rely only on Biblical and Islamic symbolism in order to portray the soul’s purification process. In the song “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” we may see how Jewish symbolism collides with Cohen’s Zen practice and other mythical motifs. As Ira Nadel points out, the journey which the cowboy undertakes to find his mare follows to some extent an old Chinese text, “Ten-Ox Herding Pictures” (225-226), which illustrates ten stages of Zen practice.[4] In this song, then, the soul is not a woman longing for purification nor a man longing to return to his Lover / Father G-d, but rather a mare pursued by a cowboy: a spiritual seeker looking for an elusive, redeeming Beloved who is ultimately an aspect of himself.

As in the traditional Ox-herding narrative, the seeker in Cohen’s poem is an Everyman trying to attain enlightenment—a completion of self that is also, paradoxically, a loss of self—through taming the animal. For us, the most important of the series is the eighth picture in which the tamer and the bull both disappear in their union. Yet Cohen changes the narrative, both in its imagery and in its plot. First, he turns the image of a masculine bull into a mare: a shift that does as much to Westernize the parable—the soul is represented as feminine in most Western traditions—as his displacement of the story to an idyllic American setting. Having made these shifts, Cohen can retell the “Ten-Ox” story as though it were a love story. Unlike the first picture in the “Ten-Ox” series, in which the bull is wandering the plains and cannot be tamed, Cohen signals that the cowboy once kept the mare close to him and is about to depart to find her again.

As the song begins, the cowboy is injured, and his loss makes him solitary and repenting: a motif familiar from the songs I have discussed so far. Then, suddenly, the mare grows tamer, standing “there where the light and the darkness divide” (“Ballad of the Absent Mare”). This liminal space recalls those listed in “Love Calls You by Your Name,” but with this difference: where Cohen once again speaks about the threshold between the life and death, [End Page 4] he does so here by invoking Biblical imagery, specifically from the creation story in Genesis, as though we had returned to a moment outside of space and time. This biblical echo is reinforced by Cohen’s having the cowboy quote from the Book of Ruth to declare his love for the mare. “He leans on her neck / And he whispers low, / ‘Whither thou goest / I will go’” (KJV, Ruth 1:16). Unlike Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law Naomi, however—and very much in keeping with Buddhist teaching―the singer indicates that this union will be impermanent, which is one of his most consistent statements:

Now the clasp of this union
who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
the very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare (“Ballad of the Absent Mare”)

We do not know whether the union will be broken by the cowboy or the mare, but we know that, as the Zen series portrays, the rupture begins a new circle in which the cowboy will once again be alone, and the initiatory experience of the annihilation / rebirth of the soul will repeat.

In another song that fuses Biblical and Zen imagery, “Love Itself,” Cohen explores in close detail the experience of solitude as a necessary means to attain Divine union. After his return from the Zen Monastery in 2001 he commented that this song portrays a “rare experience of dissolution of self”:

I was sitting in a sunny room, watching the motes of dust, and accepted their graceful invitation to join in their activity and forget who I was, or remember who I was. It’s that rare experience of dissolution of self, not the careful examination of self that I usually work with. I played it for a couple of brother monks and sister nuns and they said it was better than sesshin—a seven-day session of intense meditation (rpt. in Burger 484).

In the lyrics, an entity Cohen calls “Love Itself” comes unexpectedly and is compared to light. “Rays of love” enter the singer’s “little room,” which implies, with regard to Cohen’s output, one’s heart. The light coming into this room makes little particles of dust visible and, in a moment of enlightenment, the singer sees them dancing in the air. Out of this dust, he sings, “the Nameless makes / A Name for one like me,” which implies that love resurrects him from “the dust”—recreates him as in the biblical story of Adam’s creation (cf. Genesis 2:7)—and thus gives meaning to his existence. In a more peaceful version of the scenes described in “Love Calls You by Your Name,” the singer becomes realised in such a love, so that love may call him by his “real” name. As in the “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” this recreating of love is an initiatory experience which lasts for a while and then disappears. “I’ll try to say a little more,” the song concludes: “Love went on and on / Until it reached an open door – / Then Love Itself / Love Itself was gone.”[5]

The album on which “Love Itself” appears, Ten New Songs (2001), returns to this Zen experience and the momentary union described above, often giving them a more Cabbalistic touch. In the first verses of the song, “Boogie Street,” for example, Cohen sings: “O Crown of [End Page 5] Light, O Darkened One, / I never thought we’d meet. / You kiss my lips, / and then it’s done: I’m back on Boogie Street.” In his commentary on the song, Eliot Wolfson assumes that the singer depicts a state after being unexpectedly struck by “the primordial light so bright that it glistens in the radiance of its darkness” (135). This certainly carries connotations of the revelation of light in Kabbalah, which springs out from its hiding place and is only to be seen thanks to its “concealing and clothing itself” (Cordovero, qtd. in Matt 91), just as Cohen’s names for the divine here—“Crown of Light, O Darkened One”―call to mind the highest Sefirah in the Kabbalistic system: Keter or Crown, the infinite, boundless or Ein Sof. Each verse of the song offers an initiatory and ephemeral experience of love taking place outside the ordinary world, and each returns the speaker to that ordinary world of “Boogie Street.”

One final instance will show the complexity of Cohen’s use of Jewish, Sufi, and Christian symbolism all at once. In the song “The Window,” Cohen speaks of a spiritual journey of the soul in three stages: solitude, suffering, and the final union in which she is annihilated. “Why do you stand by the window,” the song begins:

Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side
Lost in the rages of fragrance
Lost in the rags of remorse (“The Window”).

The soul depicted is in the state between two worlds: the primordial darkness of creation and the secular world. The window symbolises the threshold between the two worlds. The fact that the soul is described as having a thorn in her bosom and “the spear of the age in [her] side” gives the song a Christian cast, as this may echo Jesus’ Crown of Thorns and the spear of the Roman soldier piercing the side of Christ. Yet the soul is further described as “lost in the rages of fragrance,” which calls to mind the Havdalah Ceremony performed in the end of the Sabbath, during which observant Jews smell fragrant spices in remembrance of the departing Sabbath Spirit. In this imagery the soul would seem to be suffering from the loss of the Sabbath’s peace and the extra Sabbath soul called Neshamah yeteirah—although this perhaps also recalls Christ’s sense of being abandoned by the Divine when dying on the Cross (cf. Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34). In both cases, we can see the song as describing the return of the soul to the body as something painful and difficult.

The singer then pleads for Love the Saviour to come and gentle this suffering soul, but Love, too, is described in bewildering series of ways:

O chosen love, O frozen love
O tangle of matter and ghost.
O darling of angels, demons and saints
and the whole broken-hearted host—
Gentle this soul (“The Window”).

First, Love the Saviour is portrayed as “frozen love” which means that his love is constant and unchanging—but “frozen” also suggests something cold, or at least not yet flowing. He is also described as “a tangle of matter and ghost,” which could be transcribed as “a tangle of the flesh and soul,” which points to the fact that the singer is a human being harbouring [End Page 6] the Divine soul—but also suggests Christ (born of matter and the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost). “The whole-broken hearted host” likewise stands for the “host” in the Eucharist, Christ, but also all of those who suffer, since G-d is said to be close to those who have a broken heart (Psalm 34:18).

The following stanza (which includes some of Cohen’s alternate lines, discussed below) is an invocation for the soul’s ascent from the bodily confinement, which enables it a more advanced form of existence:

And come forth from the cloud of unknowing
and kiss the cheek of the moon;
the New Jerusalem glowing          [the code of solitude broken]
why tarry all night in the ruin?       [why tarry confused and alone?]
And leave no word of discomfort,
and leave no observer to mourn,
but climb on your tears and be silent
like a rose on its ladder of thorns (“The Window”).

The “cloud of unknowing” is a clear reference to a 14th century book of Christian mysticism called The Cloud of Unknowing. The book is, in reality, a manual for a young adept who embarks on a spiritual journey. Entering the cloud means to lose any notion of one’s self and sensory perceptions. Only in this state caused by deep meditation and prayer one may leave the notion of one’s self behind and allow the soul to depart from its body.

The phrase “kiss the cheek of the moon” seems to be referring to the ascent and union with the lunar / feminine power. Here, it is apt to mention the masculine and feminine qualities of the G-dhead. Jewish, Christian, and even Islamic mysticism in general speaks about the nature of G-d as both masculine and feminine.[6] Without going deeper into these issues, one may simply state that G-d is not dual but its nature is masculine and feminine at once, at least to the mystic poets.

“The New Jerusalem glowing” symbolises the union of the soul with the Lord and its complete annihilation and rebirth. The reference could also imply that this “New Jerusalem” is the fulfilment of the covenant that manifests itself in one’s heart. The “Book of Revelation” says: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from G-d out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (NLT 21:2). Therefore, this “Jerusalem” might stand for a purified soul that is to descend back to the Earth into the human body.

In a complementary verse appearing in Cohen’s Stranger Music collection, the “New Jerusalem” is exchanged for the word “solitude,” which means that the solitude such as that lived by “Joan of Arc” is to be abandoned in order that love may be attained (299).

The soul is urged to climb on its suffering like a rose which climbs on its thorns before it blooms.[7] The “thorn” in the poem epitomizes human experience which, actually paves the way for the higher ascent and the appearance of the bloom. The “rose” symbolism in Christianity represents the drops of Christ’s blood during his ascent to the cross. Its contemporary notion stands obviously for passion and the fire of love. However, most importantly, it stands for life and death as it implies annihilation in love and rebirth. The descent of the soul is described as its rebirth in the body: “the word being made into flesh.” [End Page 7]

Then lay your rose on the fire;
the fire give up to the sun;
the sun give over to splendour
in the arms of the High Holy One
For the holy one dreams of a letter,
dreams of a letter’s death—
oh bless the continuous stutter
of the word being made into flesh (“The Window”).

In order for the rose / soul to bloom, she must pass through the period of solitude and longing and give herself to the fire, as in the song “Joan of Arc.” Therefore, the whole song might be seen as the instruction to the soul not to linger in the worldly realm but to ascend into the arms of the High Holy One, which echoes Kabbalah. The rest of the stanza indicates that the purified soul will be returned back into the flesh. That is why “the continuous stutter” is mentioned. This process is never ending because love triggers continuous rebirth, even as each individual instance of rebirth (each syllable in the stutter) also ends at some point.

Rūmī, the medieval Sufi mystic whom Cohen studied (Simmons 303), comments on the continuous rebirth by saying:

In the slaughter house of love, they kill
only the best, none of the weak or deformed.
Don’t run away from this dying.
Whoever’s not killed for love is dead meat (trans. Barks 270).

In other words, love and the willingness to “die” in love is the prerogative of “the best,” the elect, not of “the weak or deformed.” The Sufis encourage us to be part of this elect: to die for love and thus strive to have our souls purified. Cohen’s songs show this aspiration put into action.

In the above analysis of a few songs lyrics we have seen how Cohen portrays the union with G-d through various religious systems and how he uses symbolism coming from these religions in order to describe this divine phenomenon, which is not normally to be expressed in words but revealed to the initiates in sacred rites. Such is the case with the attainment of the new name, which, every time after being bestowed, stands for a renewed life which is one step higher than the previous existence. The next part of the essay will focus closely on the soul, its bodily sojourn, and the metaphor of its ascent through the imagery coming from the Kabbalistic and Alchemical teachings.

Kabbalah and Alchemy

Leonard Cohen has dedicated a great deal of work to portraying a man whose self and soul are divided and tormented, struggling against one another. This theme appeared in full in the book of psalms called Book of Mercy. In psalm III, Cohen offers a parable in which his [End Page 8] soul is singing against him and the effort of the self to reach that singing soul is painful and in vain:

I heard my soul singing behind a leaf, plucked the leaf, but then I heard it singing behind a veil. I tore the veil, but then I heard it singing behind a wall. I broke the wall, and I heard my soul singing against me. I built up the wall, mended the curtain, but I could not put back the leaf. I held it in my hand and I heard my soul singing mightily against me.

Although this particular psalm does not specify the soul’s complaint against the self—“this is what it is like to study without a friend,” the piece concludes—the Book of Mercy repeatedly describes vain efforts to reach the soul by our own effort and volition, rather than through the sort of patience which would prove our worthiness to receive love. Comfort and reassurance comes in those few psalms that show Cohen on more amicable terms with his suffering, willing to accept the fact that the preparation of the soul entails an almost unbearable degree of solitude and seclusion. I think here of psalm XVII, in which he addresses G-d with these words: “How strangely you prepare his soul” (referring to the loneliness before any union could take place); later in the volume, in psalm XLI, G-d responds that He is already present in the heart of the singer. “Bind me to you, I fall away. Bind me, ease of my heart, bind me to your love. […] And you say, I am in this heart, I and my name are here.” In Cohen’s theology―a synthesis of all the religious schools that Cohen studied, and perhaps one that comes out of his own experience―we see that G-d is present in the heart of the believer and to reach Him involves both self-criticism for one’s failures (“Blessed are you who speaks to the unworthy,” psalm XLI concludes) and the aspiration to be purified, the ascent of the liberated soul.

In the Sefirotic Tree, liberation is the outcome of reaching Da’at, a point in which other Sefirot unite or merge. This level allows the human soul, still perceiving itself as a soul, to receive the Divine spark and leads it to the most profound state of existence. According to Gareth Knight,

Da’at is the highest point of awareness of the human soul regarded as a soul (or in other terminologies Higher Self, Evolutionary Self, etc.) for awareness of the supernal levels can only be possible to the Spirit or Divine Spark itself. It is the gateway to what is called Nirvana in the East, and thus represents the point where a soul has reached the full stature of its evolutionary development, has attained perfect free will and can make the choice between going on to further evolution in other spheres or remaining to assist in the planetary Hierarchy (102).

In “New Jerusalem Glowing,” Eliot R. Wolfson quotes from Robert Charles Zaehner, a British scholar of Eastern religions, who describes the path of the mystic and his soul in terms of a bride who is annihilated in love of her Lord. The soul in such a state of existence is, according to Zaehner, very much aware of its “feminine” nature:

Zaehner describes the soul of the mystic in relation to the divine as the bride who passively receives from the masculine potency of God. The soul [End Page 9] recognizes its ‘essential femininity’ in relation to God, for in her receptivity, she is annihilated, which serves [. . .] as a paradigm of the mystical union whereby the autonomy of self is negated in the absorption of the soul in the oneness of being. Zaehner remarks that in this state the soul of the mystic, limited in his remarks to the male, is comparable to a ‘virgin who falls violently in love and desires nothing so much as to be ‘ravished’, ‘annihilated’, and ‘assimilated’ into the beloved (Wolfson 132).

Both of the above quotations seem relevant to the work of Cohen, who in 1974 employed an engraving from an alchemical tract called Rosarium Philosophorum (published in Frankfurt in 1550) for the cover of his album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The tract describes the alchemical process of transmutation of the human soul and the concrete picture depicts the union between the King and his Queen, or symbolically between the seeker and his purified soul.

Stylized illustration of a male figure embracing a female figure. Both figures are winged, naked, and wearing crowns. They are positioned horizontally against a blue background.

The front cover of Cohen’s album New Skin for the Old Ceremony (Columbia, 1974). The original engraving was adapted by Teresa Alfieri.

The whole tract contains 20 engravings and an accompanying text describing the process of spiritual transformation by the means of the physical union. Milan Nakonečný, a Czech [End Page 10] scholar, claims that the act depicted aims to portray the union of opposites (coniunctio oppositorum) on the physical and also spiritual planes (152), but I would argue that it can also be read as depicting the return of the purified soul into the body blessed by the Holy Spirit, as in the third picture of the series, whose text reads “Spiritus est qui unificat.”

Black and white line drawing of a naked male figure on the left standing on a stylized sun facing a naked female figure on the right standing on a stylized moon. There is a bird between them, and ribbons of text coming from the moths of all three.

(See Nakonečný 159). Reprinted by permission of Vodnář Publishing House, Prague.

Paul D. MacLean, who is quoted in Nakonečný’s book, sees Rosarium philosphorum as a process in which the soul leaves the body in order to be purified, causing the body to decay, but which ultimately leads the soul back to the body: a reunion which restores harmony between the masculine and feminine divisions of a being (Nakonečný 153), reminding us of “the New Jerusalem glowing” mentioned earlier. Nakonečný compares this process to the “death” of a grain out of which develops a new ear of wheat (164);[8] he sees it portrayed in picture no. 6 of the series, in which the soul is being prepared for the leaving from the body and its subsequent return.

A black and white line drawing of a naked figure that is half male and half female lying on a platform.

(See Nakonečný 164). Reprinted by permission of Vodnář Publishing House, Prague.

[End Page 11] The return of the purified soul into its body can also be seen in picture no. 10, described by Nakonečný as lapis philosophorum, which portrays a hermaphroditic being that has overcome its own death (as the dragon and serpent suggest) and represents the unity of the solar and lunar powers.

A black and white line drawing of a naked winged hermaphroditic figure standing on the moon, holding a serpent in one hand and a cup containing a dragon in the other.

(See Nakonečný 170). Reprinted by permission of Vodnář Publishing House, Prague.

Here, we may remember the notion of the invisible sephirah Da’at, which means that the soul at this stage has reached the limits of its evolutionary possibilities. However, Cohen, by using the eleventh picture of the series for his album cover, suggests that he wants to go further. According to Nakonečný, this continuation of the ascent of the soul symbolizes transpersonal love towards one’s family, nation, or G-d (172). Hand in hand with this, Cohen portrays two angelic figures which are not going to undertake physical coniunctio because the Queen does not allow the King to lie between her legs. Although naked and lying on the top of one another, no penetration seems implied; rather, they seem primarily a reflection of one another. Eros in the picture is transmuted into another form of love, characterised by quenching bodily desires and nourishing the spiritual ones. Both represent the harmonic relationship between the purified soul and its reborn body.

With all of this in mind, the title and cover image of New Skin for the Old Ceremony become available for a variety of complementary meanings. From the Jewish point of view, the “old ceremony” implied in the very title of the album might be circumcision, that physical sign of a bond between the (male) Jew and G-d. The presence of “new skin” for this ceremony presages a new pact: one based on the human experience with love, betrayal, and [End Page 12] surrendering to G-d’s power as detailed in the songs on the album, rather than on the Biblical covenant. The songs themselves—which include “Lover, Lover, Lover,” discussed above, along with the famous “Chelsea Hotel #2,” “Who By Fire,” and “Take This Longing,” among others―speak by turns about love between two partners, carnal love and a complete abandonment of one’s own self and willingness to serve to G-d, but all are framed by the single image of the album’s cover, which casts them as aspects of or stages in a single process that includes both the spiritual and the carnal. In the next section we will see how Cohen acknowledges his own desire for the female body and what happens to love when he succumbs to it.

 Human Love

Love portrayed by Cohen has for the ultimate goal to reach Divine union. However, he does not attain this union only through the spiritual exercise, but also through the sexual act. With regard to the union of opposites that we saw in Rosarium philosophorum and its physical description of spiritual processes, we may interpret sexual love and the subsequent “decay” of the body to be a precursor to the spiritual form of love and love for humanity which characterizes it. However, the work of the singer has not been consistent with this theme, as the spiritual exercise and sex interchange one another in a regular, cyclical way.

In the Key Arena in Seattle in 2012, Cohen, when introducing the song “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” acknowledged that sexual desire has been always winning him over:

I studied religious values. I actually bound myself to the mast of non-attachment, but the storms of desire snapped my bounds like a spoon through noodles (“Ain’t No Cure for Love”, live, YouTube).

“Ain’t No Cure for Love” is a song that was inspired by the spread of AIDS in 1980s. The story goes that Jenifer Warnes was walking with Cohen one day around his neighbourhood and they were discussing the fact that people would not stop making love with one another. Cohen ended the conversation by saying that “there ain’t no cure for love” meaning that there is no cure for people wanting to make love. Several weeks later he finished the lyrics and Warnes recorded the song for her album Famous Blue Raincoat in 1987 (Nadel 244). Cohen released his own recording of it on I’m Your Man the following year.

The fact that this song portrays longing for the woman, rather than for Divine love, is supported by the following verses: “I see you in the subway and I see you on the bus / I see you lying down with me, I see you waking up / I see your hand, I see your hair / Your bracelets and your brush / And I call to you, I call to you / But I don’t call soft enough.” The feminine character to whom he addresses these words is unresponsive. Then the singer wanders to an “empty church” and realises that his longing for the woman is of the same greatness as his longing for G-d (“Ain’t No Cure for Love”).

Cohen sings that he longs for nakedness, not only of the body but also of the soul: “I’d love to see you naked / In your body and your thought.” He refuses a brotherly form of attachment (philos): “I don’t want your brother love / I want that other love,” and repeats that he is not going to give up on his longing. However, in this song a longing for physical [End Page 13] union and the longing for union with G-d do not exclude each other and, if our supposition about the rebirth of the soul is right, we see a circle of constant purification and rebirth of which the sexual act might indeed be the first step. As discussed above, the sexual act ends the physical or interpersonal longing and commences the “decay” of the body in order that the soul could ascend and be purified. The end of the song contains the verse “And I even heard the angels declare it from above / There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love,” thus ensuring us that the longing for the body of other person may be sanctified by G-d Himself (“Ain’t No Cure for Love”).

“Dance Me to the End of Love” can be read in the similar fashion since it describes not only the union of two lovers but also the ascent of the soul to G-d. The song is explained in this way through two accompanying videos. The first video, directed by Dominique Issermann in 1985, emphasizes the way that interhuman love works as a stage in the soul’s progress. It depicts, in a rather disconcerting manner, a woman who comes to the hospital to say the last goodbye to her male lover, played by Cohen himself. Only a moment later, Cohen’s ghost pursues the woman, both physically (by following after her through various wards in the hospital, and then, in a dream-like leap, watching her pose like a classical statue in a white shroud on a stage) and through his pleading voice. In the last part of the film, as Cohen sings, the woman disappears behind her shroud, as though breaking the bond of desire that held the singer to her, freeing him to move on to the next stage in his ascent. While this video emphasises love as a mystical union, the second piece―made in 1994 to promote the live album Leonard Cohen in Concert―is concerned with a sentimental depiction of romantic love between men and women. Featuring a multiracial set of couples at various ages—some older couples waltz in front of oversized portraits of themselves in their youth; one older woman waltzes alone in front of the picture of a man we assume is her lost lover, and other solitary figures gaze sadly at an empty chair—the video repeatedly cuts to a dapper, suited Cohen singing with his band and backup singers, a lady’s man and crooner rather than a spiritual seeker. Inviting these two contrasting visual interpretations, the song itself can be seen as portraying both divine and physical love, as though there were no necessary contradiction between them.

On the other hand, Cohen has criticised unrestrained human love that does not lead to the purification of the soul and which is characterised by inordinate lust and satisfaction of the basest instincts. He presented this criticism in the song “Closing Time,” which depicts a reverie in a country-like setting, with “Johnny Walker wisdom running high.” The feminine character of the song is described as the mistress who is “rubbing half the world against her thigh.” The whole binge is going to lead to its end sooner or later but before it happens, Cohen sings: “all the women tear their blouses off / and the men they dance on the polka dots / and it’s partner found and it’s partner lost / and it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops / it’s CLOSING TIME.” Each stanza ends with the symbolic “CLOSING TIME” warning that this reverie is going to end soon. We do not know what happens later, whether the end will be revelatory or whether it will be a fall to an even profounder mire of bodily desires. Cohen speaks about the liminality, the threshold that we mentioned before, on which the whole event takes place: “I just don’t care what happens next / looks like freedom but it feels like death / it’s something in between, I guess / it’s CLOSING TIME.” Taken alone, “Closing Time” seems a portrait of frustration, since the singer seems trapped in the moment when “the gates of love they budged an inch” but “[he] can’t say [that] much has happened since.” In the context of the full album on which it appears (The Future), however, the song reads [End Page 14] differently. The bleak present and future that the songs here sometimes describe, in which “the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul,” is what affords us the opportunity for and the drive to seek redemption. As Cohen sings on the album’s central track “Anthem:” “Every heart, every heart / to love will come / but like a refugee.” Love (divine Love, in this case) will be always there waiting for us, but we turn to come to it when other bonds and connections, romantic or political, have failed: when, like refugees, we do not have any other option.

The celebration of the union between two human lovers is a distinctive feature of Cohen’s oeuvre. Among the canonical songs that we have quoted so far one merits a special attention: the song “Hallelujah,” which portrays secular love between two partners as holy. The song addresses a “you” inspired by the Biblical King David (with touches of Samson mixed in) who in his piety let himself to be conquered by desire for the female body. In the chorus, Cohen consoles us that “There’s a blaze of light / In every word / It doesn’t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah,” meaning that G-d may be reached through sacred meditation or through sex as both lead to the union with Him. In the last stanza, the singer confesses that when he could not “feel”—feel the divine love—he had to “touch” the female body: “I did my best, it wasn’t much / I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.” Even if he fails in his devotion to G-d and later to his female partner as he confesses, he will be summoned by the Lord: “and even though / It all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” The song suggests that there is no difference between attaining Divine love through spiritual exercise or physical union. In one of the verses that Cohen occasionally sung live, he made this supposition quite clear: “remember when I moved in you / And the holy dove was moving too / And every breath we drew was hallelujah.”[9]

Order of the Unified Heart

Although he is better known as a songwriter, poet, and novelist, Cohen was also a visual artist. In order to promote the concept of a union between Divine and Human forms of love, Cohen created a symbol for his imagined “Order of the Unified Heart”: the Star of David made out of two intertwined hearts. These hearts stand as opposites to each other and are mutually dependent. One points to the Heavens while the other one points to the Earth. This motif first appeared on the cover of the collection of Psalms Book of Mercy. [End Page 15]


Dark blue book cover with the words "Leonard Cohen" at the top in red block lettering, a design of intertwined hearts in gold outlined in red in the middle, and the tile "Book of Mercy" in red block lettering at the bottom.

The front cover of the Book of Mercy (1984). Used by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.

It is also mentioned in the song “Come Healing,” where Cohen sings: “The Heart beneath is teaching / To the broken Heart above.” The singer even made the two intertwined hearts the focus of the Priestly Blessing which the Jewish priests bestow upon the community and which he himself bestowed officially on September 24, 2009 at the Ramat Gan concert in Israel to an audience of around fifty thousand spectators.[10]

A circular logo on a white background. The circle is black with white text around the rim reading "Leonard Cohen Old Ideas world Tour 2012". The interior of the cirlce contains a white design of two interlocking hearts and two hands.

Merchandise accompanying Cohen’s world tour. Private collection.

[End Page 16] The above picture of Cohen’s latest seal contains moreover the word Shin, which represents another name for G-d, Shaddai. Shin is formed by the priest’s hands when giving the Blessing and stands in between the two hearts. Therefore, the whole image represents the profane and sacred form of love at once blessed by the priest and proving that Cohen saw their intersection as the place where the Divine is made manifest.


“I don’t know a thing about love,” Cohen said in the interview with Pat Habron in 1973 (rpt. in Burger 50). More than twenty years later in 1997, when being interviewed by Stina Lundberg Dabrowski, he commented on the full realisation of the human existence in love and the possibility that it reconciles the opposing forces of our selves and paves the way to the liberation of the soul:

SLD: What is love to you?

LC: Love is that activity that makes the power of man and woman [. . .] that incorporates it into your own heart, where you can embody man and woman, when you can embody hell and heaven, when you can reconcile and [. . .] when man and woman becomes your content and you become her content, that’s love. That as I understand is love—that’s the mechanics (rpt. in Burger 420).

We have seen that Leonard Cohen portrays receiving of divine love through solitude and meditation and sexual intercourse. Love thus attained has the power to purify the soul and reunite it with its body in a greater spiritual existence. With the help of religious and mystical motifs, Cohen attributes sacred qualities to the Divine as well as Human love and, finally, consecrates it in his seal.

Love portrayed in such a way has, of course, been the subject of many medieval mystical books and appeared even visually in alchemy. Cohen’s acquaintance with religious and philosophical thought across cultures and continents is unsurpassed among the singer-songwriters in the English-speaking world, and his lyrics and choice of visual art for covers and merchandise show that he is keen to bring these enduring traditions to the attention of his audience.

As I have argued at length elsewhere, Cohen’s work draws on and gives new life to motifs that appeared in medieval love poetry, making him in every sense a “modern troubadour.”[11] Like the medieval poets of Provença and Al-Ándalus, he blurs the division between the sacred and profane, between the Divine and Human, and between the high and low forms of art and situates his work in the popular culture.

May this essay contribute to his honour.

[1] “Well you know that I love to live with you, / but you make me forget so very much. / I forget to pray for the angels / and then the angels forget to pray for us” (“So Long, Marianne”).[End Page 17]

[2] The full Shahada (testimony) goes: “lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh.” (“There is no god except for Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of G-d”).

[3] A similar motif can be found in Christian mystical poetry. One may think only of San Juan de la Cruz (1542 – 1591) and his texts such as “Noche escura del alma,” “Cántico espiritual,” and “Llama de amor viva.”

[4] For an illustrative example, see, for instance, Ten Bulls, woodcuts by the Japanese artist Tokuriki Tomikichiro (1902 – 1999) in Shigematsu 6-23.

[5] I have written about love as a phenomenon initiating the singer into the sacred mysteries elsewhere (Měsíc, “The Song of Initiation”).

[6] This very ancient idea about non-duality of G-d may be found in the texts as old as Plato’s Symposium, for instance, from which many mystical schools drew. Important for the Jewish mystics is the verse from Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, / in the image of God he created him; / male and female he created them.” (ESV). Therefore, the male and female beings are the image of G-d because He is male and female at once. The Christian mystics refer to the same verse and some of them even go so far as to give preferences to the feminine atributes of G-d, such as Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) in her book Revelations. Muslims do not assign a gender to Allah. We should keep in mind that although the religious texts often address G-d with the use of masculine pronouns, verbs and nouns, G-d is regarded as gender and sexless. In Sufism they avoid using the grammatical gender by using the words Hu or Huwa to speak about the One.

[7] The rose is a very common symbol in Persian poetry, standing for Paradise and love (Baldock 142).

[8] This supposition, which appears in Alchemy, seems to be taken from the New Testament, and is seen in verses of John 12:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (ESV). The death of Jesus brings fruit in the form of a new life multiplied by the number of grain on the ear: a metaphor for his followers.

[9] It can be heard, for instance, on the 2009 Live in London recording.

[10] For the full report, see Jeffay. The video of the blessing may be seen on YouTube: cf: “Leonard Cohen Finale in Israel – Priestly Blessing.”

[11] This theory was developed in my PhD thesis (Měsíc, “Leonard Cohen: The Modern Troubadour”). [End Page 18]


“Ain’t No Cure for Love.” Perf. Leonard Cohen, 2012. YouTube, uploaded by Arlene Dick, 10 November 2012, Accessed 14 May 2015.

Baldock, John. The Essence of Rūmī. Chartwell, 2005.

Barks, Coleman, and Jalāl Ad-Dīn Rūmī. The Essential Rūmī: New Expanded Edition. HarperCollins, 2004.

Burger, Jeff. Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. Chicago Review Press, 2014.

Cohen, Leonard. Beautiful Losers. 1966. New ed. Blue Door, 2009.

—. Book of Mercy. McClelland and Stewart, 1984.

—. Death of a Lady’s Man. 1978. New ed. Andre Deutsch, 2010.

—. Selected Poems: 1956-1968. Viking, 1968.

—. Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs. Vintage, 1994.

—. The Energy of Slaves. Cape, 1972.

Friedlander, Shems. The Whirling Dervishes. State University of New York Press, 1992.

Holt, Jason, editor. Leonard Cohen and Philosophy: Various Positions. Open Court, 2014.

Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Tyndale House, 2004.

Jeffay, Nathan. “‘Hallelujah’ in Tel Aviv: Leonard Cohen Energizes Diverse Crowd.” Jewish Daily Forward, Sept 25, 2009, Accessed 14 May 2015.

Julian. Julian of Norwich: Revelations, Motherhood of God. Edited by Frances Beer, D.S. Brewer, 1998.

Jung, C. G. Osobnost a přenos. Tomáš Janeček, 1998.

Khalil, Atif. “Ibn Al-‘Arabi on the Three Conditions of Tawba.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, vol. 17, no. 4, 2006, pp. 403-16.

Knight, Gareth. A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism. S. Weiser, 1978.

“Leonard Cohen Finale in Israel – Priestly Blessing.” Perf. Leonard Cohen. YouTube, uploaded by Amit Slonim, Sept 29, 2009, Accessed 14 May 2015.

Lumsden, Suzanne. “Leonard Cohen Wants the Unconditional Leadership in the World.” Winnipeg Free Press [Winnipeg], 12 Sept. 1970, p. 25. Newspaper Archive,>. Accessed 1 July 2014.

Matt, Daniel Chanan. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. Harper San Francisco, 1995.

Meier, Allison. “Drawings by a Ladies’ Man: Impressions of Leonard Cohen.” HYPERALLERGIC: Sensitive to Art and Its Discontents, 7 April 2015, Accessed 19 April 2015.

Měsíc, Jiří. “The Song of Initiation by Leonard Cohen.” Ostrava Journal of English Philology, vol. 5, no. 1, 2013, pp. 69-93.

[End Page 19]

Měsíc, Jiří. “Leonard Cohen: The Modern Troubadour.” Dissertation, Palacký University, 2016.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. University of Texas, 2007.

Nakonečný, Milan. Smaragdová deska Herma Trismegista. 2nd ed., Vodnář, 2009.

Robertson, Jenny. Praying with the English Mystics. Triangle/SPCK, 1990.

San Juan. San Juan de la Cruz: Poesía. Edited by Domingo Ynduráin. Cátedra, 2002.

Shigematsu, Sōiku. A Zen Forest: Sayings of the Masters. Weatherhill, 1981.

Simmons, Sylvie. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Jonathan Cape, 2012.

Spearing, A. C., trans. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. Penguin, 2001.

The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments Authorized King James Version. Thomas Nelson, 2011.

“The Window” Perf. Leonard Cohen. 1979. YouTube, Accessed 12 April 2015.

Wolfson, Eliot R. “New Jerusalem Glowing: Songs and Poems of Leonard Cohen in a Kabbalistic Key.” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts, vol. 15, 2006, pp. 103-53.


Cohen, Leonard. Songs of Leonard Cohen. Rec. Aug. 1967. John Simon, 1967. CD.

—. “So Long, Marianne.” Songs of Leonard Cohen. Columbia, 1967. CD.

—. Songs from a Room. Rec. Oct. 1968. Bob Johnston, 1969. CD

—. Songs of Love and Hate. Rec. Sept. 1970. Bob Johnston, 1971. CD.

—. Live Songs. Rec. 1970, 1972. Bob Johnston, 1973. CD.

—. “Love Calls You by Your Name.” Songs of Love and Hate. Columbia, 1971. CD.

—. “Joan of Arc.” Songs of Love and Hate. Columbia, 1971. CD.

—. New Skin for the Old Ceremony. Rec. Feb. 1974. Leonard Cohen, John Lissauer, 1974. CD.

—. Death of a Ladies’ Man. Rec. June 1977. Phil Spector, 1977. CD.

—. Recent Songs. Rec. Apr. 1979. Leonard Cohen, Henry Lewy, 1979. CD.

—. “The Ballad of the Absent Mare.” Recent Songs. Columbia, 1979. CD.

—. “The Window. Recent Songs. Columbia, 1979. CD.

—. Various Positions. Rec. June 1984. John Lissauer, 1984. CD.

—. “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Various Positions. Columbia, 1984. CD.

—. “Hallelujah.” Various Positions. Columbia, 1984. CD.

—. Dear Heather. Rec. 1985, 2002 – 2004. Leanne Ungar, Sharon Robinson, Anjani Thomas, Henry Lewy, Leonard Cohen, 2004. CD.

—. I’m Your Man. Rec. Aug. 1987. Leonard Cohen, Roscoe Beck, Jean-Michel Reusser, Michel Robidoux, 1988. Vinyl recording.

—. “There Ain’t No Cure for Love.” I’m Your Man. Columbia, 1988. CD.

—. The Future. Rec. Jan. 1992. Leonard Cohen, Steve Lindsey, Bill Ginn, Leanne Ungar, Rebecca de Mornay, Yoav Goren, 1992. CD.

—. “Anthem.” The Future. Columbia, 1992. CD.

—. “Be for Real.” The Future. Columbia, 1992. CD.

—. “Closing Time.” The Future. Columbia, 1992. CD.

—. Ten New Songs. Sharon Robinson, 2001. CD.

[End Page 20]

—. “Boogie Street.” Ten New Songs. Columbia, 2001. CD.

—. “Light as the Breeze.” Ten New Songs. Columbia, 2001. CD.

—. “Love Itself.” Ten New Songs. Columbia, 2001. CD.

—. Old Ideas. Rec. 2007 – 2011. Patrick Leonard, 2012. CD.

—. “Hallelujah.” Live in London. Columbia, 2009. CD.

—. “Come Healing.” Old Ideas. Columbia, 2012. CD.

—. Can’t Forget. Rec. 2012-2013. Mark Vreeken and Ed Sanders, 2015. CD.

—. Popular Problems. Rec. 2014. Patrick Leonard, 2014. CD.

—. You Want It Darker. Rec. 2015-2016. Adam Cohen and Patrick Leonard, 2016. CD.

[End Page 21]


♪ Murder to Marriage: Love and the Evolution of The Killers
by Tosha R. Taylor

The Killers occupy a contentious place in contemporary music. Their emergence onto the popular music scene in 2004 was characterized by a fusion of rock, “lo-fi fuzz” (Prevatt, qtd. in Keene 36), synth-pop, and new wave revival. The band’s early visual aesthetic, mostly embodied through the stage persona of frontman Brandon Flowers, gave conspicuous nods to glam rock and the “British pop dandy” (see Hawkins), but shared elements with the concurrently rising emo genre with its similar penchant for men in tailored suits and [End Page 1] eyeliner. Both their visual and musical styles underwent a notable transformation for their second album, striving to evoke a Springsteen-esque Americana. They have continued to dabble in various genres, notably arena rock in recent years, thus preventing their music from settling into a secure niche (Plutzik, paras. 7-10) and defying the “hallowed distinctions between ‘pop’ and ‘rock’” problematized by musicologist Allan F. Moore (“Authenticity” 210). While early hits “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” still receive radio and club play, their more recent work has received less commercial success and critical acclaim.[1] Following the release of their fourth studio album in 2012, Chris Bosman of TIME and Consequence of Sound described the band as “both grand and forgettable” and “embarrassingly satisfying” (para. 1), while Craig McLean of the Independent hailed them as “America’s greatest rock band” (n.p.). While Flowers himself appears to espouse this attitude in some public statements, in others he seems to apologize for work by the band that he finds subpar. They are, in short, a musical entity in a state of constant fluctuation, contradiction, and evolution.

One such evolution comes in their treatment of love and romance. Rhodes identifies love as “rock’s great theme” which the genre addresses “in all its positive, negative, and ambivalent connotations” (25). The Killers’ engagement with the theme alone is certainly not unique. What is noteworthy, however, is the nature of their evolution, which has been marked by conspicuous thematic and stylistic transformations, changes in reception, and, perhaps most significantly, their frontman’s return to his Mormon faith and much-publicized church-influenced commitment to his wife. In chronological terms (outlined below), their early work largely abstained from positive depictions of romantic relationships, centering instead on breakups, unreciprocated desire, and seemingly doomed pick-up lines (“Somebody told me/That you had a boyfriend/That looked like a girlfriend/That I had in February of last year”). By the release of their fourth album, their subject matter had evolved to focus heavily on love, with a particularly notable concern for love in long-term relationships. From the first track off their first album to the first single off their fourth, The Killers made a dramatic shift from murdering the object of their narrative focalizer’s affection to marrying her.

Surveying popular music, Madanikia and Bartholomew define love as a musical theme as “expressions of romantic love or caring for a potential, current, or past romantic partner, as well as any content that involved a romantic relationship” which may also, but not always, “involve expressions of sexual desire” (3). For the purposes of this article, I will consider songs as being about love/romance when their lyrics explicitly describe such a relationship (or the loss of one) or clear romantic and/or sexual desire. The band’s early studio albums posit bad endings to such desires, ranging from jilted emasculation to murder. The rejection theme continues in the release of 2007’s Sawdust, a compilation album of early singles, B-sides, and rare tracks. The album contains a number of songs that address romantic relationships, including The Killers’ first promotional single and exception to their early focus on the consequences of rejection, “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll.” Most other songs, however, pertain to smugly single-sided desire or the loss of a relationship. In keeping with the angrier approach suggested on Hot Fuss, “All the Pretty Faces” is a frenetic rock song in which the focalizer seems torn between love and violence, desire and rejection. “Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf” here functions as a breakup song, although it is in fact a prequel to The Killers’ take on a rock murder ballad in Hot Fuss’s “Jenny Was A Friend of Mine.” (The Murder Trilogy will be discussed in detail below.) Other romance-centric tracks here include “Under [End Page 2] the Gun,” “Who Let You Go,” and a cover of Kenny Rogers’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Before closing with a remix of “Mr. Brightside,” the album features one of the band’s most popular covers, Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet.” This album thus seems to collect several love-centric songs that were not selected for the early studio albums.

However, the next studio album, Day & Age (2008), withdraws from explicit love, its loss, and romance. No love-centric songs (per this article’s definition) appear on the album save for one: “Tidal Wave,” which was exclusive to the iTunes edition. Yet with their fourth LP, Battle Born (2012), The Killers focused conspicuously on romance, a turning point away from their previous work. The album explores romantic relationships with a maturity that is both unusual for often youth-centered rock and a departure from the images of the bewildered and rejected young boys on Hot Fuss. Not coincidentally, “Miss Atomic Bomb” acts as a sequel to “Mr. Brightside” both musically and lyrically, featuring its antecedent’s signature guitar motif and the apparent decision of the Mr. Brightside character to move on from the woman he cannot have. Several other tracks on the album concern romance, heartache, and even the hardships of marriage: “Runaways,” “The Way It Was,” “Here With Me,” and “Heart of a Girl,” and, on the deluxe edition of the album, “Prize Fighter.” Finally, a failed romantic relationship is lamented on “Just Another Girl,” a previously unreleased bonus track that closes their greatest hits collection, Direct Hits (2013). Their fifth studio album Wonderful Wonderful (2017) focuses more personally on marital relationships, specifically that of Flowers and his wife Tana.

It is clear from this survey that The Killers’ studio work has evolved toward romance rather than away from it, to such a point that their recent work is dominated by songs about love, to the dismay of some fans.[2] Several concurrent factors have precipitated this shift, including aging band members and fans, Flowers’ stated distaste for much contemporary rock music, and the peculiar place of Flowers as a devout Mormon rock star with ambitions of becoming an even greater one. More generally, the shift also participates in the critically well-established ability of rock music to explore and challenge masculinity via songs about love and desire. This article traces the band’s thematic evolution as an investigation into rock’s varying modes of masculinity, gender politics, and the star persona of the frontman figure. While Moore cautions against some humanities approaches to music studies (“Introduction” 7), my analysis of the music itself will primarily concern lyrics, which, Griffiths notes, are often de-emphasized in music studies despite their influence on the music itself (40-43). My focus on Flowers as the driving force of the band’s thematic evolution also requires a lyrical focus, as he is the band’s primary lyricist and spokesperson, and lyrical analysis is particularly efficient in revealing the “complex interplay between myth and music(ian)” (McCarthy 28). Furthermore, as this article will demonstrate, changes in the band’s treatment of romantic relationships are correlated with events in Flowers’ personal life. Through song lyrics, Astor and Negus argue, musicians “inevitably negotiate the meaning of their own biographies” (200). The band’s evolution is, therefore, most conspicuous through analysis of lyricism and the gradual identification of Flowers himself as his own focalizer. [End Page 3]

Rock Masculinities

The trajectory of The Killers’ evolution from murder to marriage can first be contextualized through an understanding of the relationship between masculinity and rock music. Much of the scholarship on this relationship concerns more popular, more aggressive, or conspicuously harder rock acts. Discourses of masculinity in the respective works of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, both all-male bands that have straddled similar rock/pop lines to The Killers, have received a respectable amount of academic and non-academic study. Rock has traditionally been addressed as a male-dominated genre, and even when women do find prominence in the genre, Crider argues, rock “has always conformed to the expectations of hegemonic masculinity” (259). Male focalizers are also standard and can be reasonably assumed in many, if not most, songs performed by men in the rock and pop genres, further supporting a link from masculinity and maleness to such music.[3] Focalization, an essential element for this analysis, occurs in “the relationship between the ‘vision’ of the agent that sees, and that which is seen” (Bal, Narratology 104). The reader/listener is presented with the perspective not only of the narrating voice but also the implied perspective of the agent witnessing or participating in the events of the text, ultimately allowing up to three or four levels of focalization (Bal, Narratologie 32). With regards to masculinity, personal focalizers are especially embedded within lyrical music, which implicitly creates the masculine figure through a gendered human voice.

R.W. Connell’s theoretical model of “hegemonic masculinity” provides a starting point for several contemporary studies of masculinity and music. In her model, hegemonic masculinity is understood as a socially prescribed set of images and practices which men are expected to exhibit publicly. Frith and McRobbie’s seminal work on “cock rock” in 1978 provided a detailed analysis of hyper-aggressive masculinity in rock music that allowed only for anger and jealousy as male emotional expressions. This category was juxtaposed with what the authors termed “teenybop,” whose focalizer was an “incompetent male adolescent” who sang of his own “self-pity, vulnerability, and need” for the “unreliable, fickle, and more selfish” woman (375). However, Frith’s 1985 “Afterthoughts” admits this work oversimplified much of rock’s gender relations. Nonetheless, their study of women’s sexual objectification and men’s anger and sexual prowess is echoed in much rock criticism and is even now not without merit. In 2005, Connell and Messerschmidt revisited Connell’s original theoretical framework to adjust for more nuanced understandings of masculinity and to establish a “renovated analysis” of prescribed male qualities (854). This revised study rejected the former premise of an automatic subordination of women but maintained that gender hierarchies are still powerfully in place (846-7). Men’s abilities to navigate appropriate contexts for hegemonic practice are also acknowledged. Hegemonic masculinity, then, “is not static or essential” and may or may not include all the qualities previously ascribed to it (Houston 159).

Musical masculinities have indeed evolved to include performances that defy traditional criticism or that fluidly fuse characteristics of traditional understandings of gendered expression. Leonard posits Kurt Cobain, with his emotional neediness contrasted against aurally aggressive grunge rock, as a challenge to binaries such as Frith and McRobbie’s (25). Biddle, meanwhile, recognizes the “new male singer/songwriter,” who is characterized by “openness to vulnerability, a commitment to social and sexual intimacy, and [End Page 4] a tendency to want to avoid the overt spectacularisation of masculinity” (125). The Killers are far from the more aggressive musical forms of rock with which many critics of music and gender have been concerned, nor do they display the soft sensitivity of Biddle’s characterization, whom are exemplified by more musically and vocally subdued singers Sufjan Stevens and José González. What can be found in their work, however, is a negotiation of these spheres of musical masculinity that alternately upholds and challenges rigid critical classifications, beginning at one extreme (murder) and ending at what here serves as its thematic opposite, husband-and-fatherhood. These negotiations manifest particularly through a series of masculine focalizers who have gradually forsaken narrative distance to become identifiable as the band’s frontman himself.

“I’m Not Satisfied Until I Hold You”: Murder and Rejection (2003-2004)

Heartbreak is a common subject in The Killer’s music, as in rock at large, but is highlighted in their work by certain early tracks in which it leads to murder. Their Murder Trilogy comprises, in narrative order, “Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf,” “Midnight Show,” and “Jenny Was A Friend of Mine.”[4] In the first song, the focalizer is rejected by his girlfriend, Jennifer, in favor of another man. In the second (which is actually the tenth and penultimate track on Hot Fuss), he murders her, and in “Jenny” (which opens the album), he is interrogated by the police, ultimately confessing to the crime. The lyrics of “Leave the Bourbon” themselves do not indicate that he will kill her for this perceived transgression, but a threat is implied:

Give me one more chance tonight
And I swear I’ll make it right
But you ain’t got time for this
And that wreckin’ bell is ringin’
And I’m not satisfied until I hold you

The final chorus modifies the last line to say “I’m not satisfied until I hold you tight.” The last word takes on new significance when paired with “Midnight Show.” Here, the focalizer confronts Jenny and strangles her: “I took my baby’s breath beneath the chandelier/Of stars and atmosphere/And watched her disappear.” We may now interpret the addition in the previous song as foreshadowing the manner in which Jenny will die. The embrace/strangulation motif is repeated in the chronologically final song, in which the focalizer proclaims, “She couldn’t scream when I held her close/I swore I’d never let her go.”[5]

The Murder Trilogy blends rock aggression with less masculine-coded emotional sensitivity to depict the most extreme reaction to rejection. The act of strangulation is particularly aggressive and dominating, requiring applied physical force over a prolonged period in order to ensure death. Through this act, the focalizer expresses the traditional stereotype of hegemonic male aggression while retaining a petulance that still echoes Frith and McRobbie’s limited analysis. Perhaps the most vocally emphatic tracks of Hot Fuss are [End Page 5] the two pertaining to Jenny’s murder. In these, Flowers’ voice moves from a disaffected, narcissistic bluntness (“I know my rights/I’ve been here all day and it’s time/For me to go so let me know/If it’s all right”) to loud, growling protest (“I just can’t take this!/I swear I told you the truth!”) in “Jenny” and a repetition of “no” over climactic driving guitars and a sustained wail in “Midnight Show”). In both songs, it is only when the focalizer becomes angry or is threatened with the revelation of his crime that Flowers emotes. His desperate pleas for Jenny to reconsider before he murders her compromise the smug dominance that he otherwise displays. Regarding the sex murderer, an iconic figure in murder ballads, Reynolds and Press write that “Murder is the final expression of his passion, the proof and testament of his love. It’s a form of absolute possession, a terrible sanguinary intimacy” (28). In these songs, Flowers perhaps inadvertently aligns himself with Nick Cave, whom Reynolds and Press label “the most powerful exploration” of that expression in rock (the alliance is all the more significant in that Cave has experienced a similar musical evolution, the lyricism of which owes much to his personal spirituality). In this way, the focalizer-murderer becomes a morbid, romantically rejected embodiment of Connell and Messerschmidt’s revised, plural hegemonic masculinities, which may involve conflicting emotional ambivalences (852), but still invite physical violence even if they are no longer predicated upon it (840).

On Hot Fuss, “Jenny” is followed by The Killers’ first single, “Mr. Brightside.” This marks the first blatantly love-centric song in their musical corpus, but it is far from a celebration of love. The song instead reveals the inner paranoia and envy of a male focalizer observing the woman he desires with another man. His protestation that he has “been doing just fine” at the beginning of each verse is contradicted by a sense of emasculation as he imagines the couple preparing for sex:

Now they’re going to bed
And my stomach is sick
And it’s all in my head


I just can’t look
It’s killing me
And taking control

The self-identified Mr. Brightside does not resort to murder when he perceives himself rejected, and his song thus removes him from the aggressive masculine/emasculated dichotomy found in the Murder Trilogy. The music video further establishes this removal, as Flowers appears as a nervous but smugly flamboyant dandy in contrast to the older, more emotionally collected Eric Roberts in their battle for the girl. Here, the embodied focalizer is at his least hegemonically masculine and most like a music dandy, who, “mocking his own self-loathing […] exhibits an outward expression of superiority” (Hawkins 5). This dandy, Reynolds and Press argue, is himself a “revolt against the proper model of masculinity” (17). Flowers’ dandy, however, lacks a rock dandy’s typical politically transgressive nature due to his inability to participate in the “supposed sexual freedom” of the aesthetic identity (Hesmondhalgh 57). [End Page 6]

While “Mr. Brightside” refrains from violence, it is worth noting that its 2012 sequel, “Miss Atomic Bomb,” evokes destructive imagery. With a decade between them, the two songs are positioned at polar opposite eras in The Killers’ thematic trajectory: “Mr. Brightside” occurs at the new wave/post punk-revival beginning and “Miss Atomic Bomb” is the centerpiece of the Springsteen-influenced arena rock of Battle Born. Here we return to Mr. Brightside’s focalization as he at last relinquishes his desire for the girl. There is a conspicuous maturity to the song, not only due to the years between albums and a more developed tone in Flowers’ voice but also within the lyrics, which denote a passage of time: “I was new in town, a boy with the eager eyes,” “When I look back on those neon nights,” “We were innocent and young,” “Sometimes in dreams of impact I still hear” (all emphases mine). The paranoid boy of the first track has grown into the man who has granted himself the power to leave the scene of his rejection. Accordingly, the frenetic, club-friendly dance-rock of its predecessor is replaced by a smoothly building rock ballad. The identification of the girl as “Miss Atomic Bomb” creates a sense of her as a sudden, all-destroying force, yet the focalizer, previously unmanned by his romantic desire, now emerges whole (“The dust cloud has settled/And my eyes are clear”).

Yet, in keeping with the masculine destructiveness of Hot Fuss, the song closes with doublespeak suggesting a bad and bitter end for one of the pair. While the focalizer’s declaration that “this love that I’ve cradled/Is wearing thin” does not result in Miss Atomic Bomb’s murder, the subsequent lyrics “But I’m standing here/And you’re too late/Your shock-wave whisper has sealed your fate” imply that something undesirable awaits her. This fate, however, is clouded in ambiguity as the narrative adopts another layer in the song’s finale. The “you,” previously addressing Miss Atomic Bomb through the focalization of Mr. Brightside, now shifts to Mr. Brightside himself, addressed by the song’s external narrator, who may possibly be the mature Mr. Brightside as a distinctly separate entity speaking to his younger self. As the song fades out, a final verse describes Mr. Brightside with images that imply assault:

It feels just like a dagger buried deep in your back
You run for cover but you can’t escape the second attack
Your soul was innocent, she kissed him and she painted it black
You should have seen your little face, burning for love
Holding on for your life

Then backing vocals (also primarily provided by Flowers) juxtapose this narrator’s voice with Mr. Brightside’s as the latter repeats the pre-chorus:

But you can’t survive (All that I wanted was a little touch)
When you want it all (A little tenderness and truth, I didn’t ask for much)
There’s another side (Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time)

What is particularly notable here is that the first shift is not signalled; the listener only realizes that “you” is now Mr. Brightside when the focalized “she” enters. The fluid shift leaves it open to question if the final promise of death (“you can’t survive”), whether literal or figurative, is addressed to the man or the woman of the ill-fated pair. As (currently) the final piece in the band’s exploration of romantic destruction, “Miss Atomic Bomb” removes [End Page 7] the male focalizer from the jealous paranoia of his first appearance and the homicidal actions of Jenny’s murderer, but, as if an homage, it still ends with a sense that the emasculation of rejection will have negative, if ambiguous, consequences.

“I Don’t Really Like You”: Ambivalent Desire (2006-2008)

The Murder Trilogy now stands as an anomaly in the band’s musical corpus; despite their name (which was inspired by a New Order video), they did not build their recording career on killing. While some subsequent songs have addressed failed relationships, none have ended in death or emotional raving. Ambiguity and ambivalence, however, persist, and the post-Hot Fuss era can be romantically characterized by focalizers at war with their own emotions. The 2006 sophomore album, Sam’s Town, featured only one song that can be considered love-centric. “Bones” is one of the band’s few erotically suggestive songs; as will be discussed in the final section of this article, the band typically avoids references to sex. The song juxtaposes a playfully inviting chorus (“Don’t you wanna come with me/Don’t you wanna feel my bones/On your bones/It’s only natural”) with verses that suggest inexperience and even disdain on the part of the focalizer. The line “And in the ocean we’ll hold hands” is immediately followed by a Hot Fuss-esque tonal bluntness in “But I don’t really like you.” An image of the focalizer weeping is similarly immediately followed by a sonically joyful first chorus. The second chorus yields to an unemotional spoken admission that provides insight into the focalizer’s ambivalence: “I never had a lover/I never had soul/And I never had a good time/I never got cold.” His romantic and sexual inexperience has prevented him from feeling the opposing pleasure and pain of a relationship.

Male ambivalence comes to the forefront of “All the Pretty Faces,” recorded during the Sam’s Town era and released on Sawdust. Here the focalizer asks the focalized subject to “help [him] out” immediately before proclaiming “I don’t feel like loving you no more.” The line that follows (“I don’t feel like touching her no more”) shifts the focalized from second-person “you” to a feminine third person. The chorus echoes Hot Fuss’s violence as well as its ominous aural tone as drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. hits the cymbals on every eighth note with Mark Stoermer’s bass also picking up during the lines “You’re not going anywhere without me/These trials don’t prepare the air of love/You’re not telling anyone about me/And you shake and you bleed while I sing my song.” Other tracks on Sawdust are similarly steeped in romantic ambivalence. Despite its title, “Under the Gun” is not a song about murder but rather about a focalized man who is “tied to a dream” of the deceptive woman he loves. The chorus is entirely a repetition of his request to the narrator: “Kill me now, kill me now, kill me now.” According to the narrator, however, the man’s release can come only from the woman herself, whom the man still characterizes as an “angel.” His desire to be destroyed rather than continue suffering at her hands boasts shades of “Mr. Brightside” but lacks Brightside’s paranoid, 80s pop-influenced charisma and thus makes him seem the more emasculated of the two.

These songs, as well as those referencing romantic relationships on Sawdust, withdraw from the violent passions of Hot Fuss but do not replace them with other forms of romantic or sexual desire. Indeed, some songs suggest a cynicism about love. “Where the White Boys Dance” sets a break-up, focalized by a woman, against the comedic cultural motif [End Page 8] of unsophisticated young men who “might have a chance” only because she is upset. Flowers’ disaffected tone as he voices the focalizer of “Who Let You Go?” sounds bored with desire when he sings “I find it so romantic/When you look into my beautiful eyes/And lose control” (emphasis mine). Day & Age returns to the avoidance of explicitly love-centric songs. Confident masculine lust is nowhere to be found in the band’s 2006-2008 studio work, nor is the unabashed romanticism of the rock ballad. Up to this point, The Killers have complicated their treatment of love by infusing it with either ambivalent naiveté at best, or a petulant and selfish desire at worst.

“If I Go On With You By My Side…”: Marriage Rock (2012-Present)

The release of Battle Born in 2012 saw the greatest thematic shift in The Killers’ music by conspicuously focusing on romantic relationships. The love-centric songs on the album do not repeat the motifs of spurned suitors or ambivalence; instead, many of them relate the perspectives of focalizers who navigate established and prolonged relationships. The first single (and second track on the album), “Runaways,” is an up-tempo arena rock song, powered by militaristic ghost notes on the drums and resplendent with energetic keyboards, that traces a pair of lovers from their courtship to pregnancy to engagement and ultimately to marriage. While dissimilar in tone, tempo, instrumentation, and vocal clarity, the track shares a trajectory with Springsteen’s “The River” (1980), depicting the idealism of young love (“a teenage rush”) as it rises to confront adult responsibilities (“We got engaged on a Friday night/I swore on the head of our unborn child/That I could take care of the three of us”). The couple soon wish to escape from their new roles. The focalizer sings, “But I got the tendency to slip when the nights get wild/It’s in my blood,” while his wife “says she might just run away/Somewhere else, someplace good.” The bridge and final verse see the focalizer, like Springsteen’s, comparing the relationship’s better days to its current tension:

We used to look at the stars and confess our dreams
Hold each other til the morning light
We used to laugh, now we only fight
But baby, are you lonesome now?

At night I come home after they go to sleep
Like a stumbling ghost I haunt these halls
There’s a picture of us on our wedding day
I recognize the girl but I can’t settle in these walls

The repetition of “I knew that when I met you/I’m not gonna let you run away/I knew that when I held you I wasn’t lettin’ go” in each chorus moves from evoking romantic attachment to marital imprisonment. Unlike the similar language of the Murder Trilogy that describes Jenny’s murder, here inextricable embraces are used to signify the upholding of matrimonial bonds.

A melodically catchy song about marriage is, to a degree, an unusual choice to mark any band’s return after four years, especially when their sales have declined with each [End Page 9] album. Yet it does participate within a critically undefined group of songs in which a romantically committed man rediscovers freedom not through leaving (or murdering) his partner but through roaming away from the family home. It is perhaps no coincidence that this motif appears in the music of some of the band’s influences, who are also known for being in committed relationships, as well as being conspicuously religious. The “tendency to slip when the nights get wild” in “Runaways” echoes Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” which “pledges masculine fidelity while suggesting its opposite” (Edwards 84). For country and rockabilly performers like Cash, roaming allows focalizers to regain “some sense of lost working-class freedom and individualism” (88). The road similarly functions in Springsteen’s work “as source of male power” (John Connell 211). The Killers’ focalizer here finds comfort in driving, as related in the final pre-chorus’s triumphant contrast to the “stumbling ghost” he is at home: “I turn the engine over and my body just comes alive,” he sings, sustaining the final syllable triumphantly as the drums, rhythm, and bass uniformly punctuate the musical phrase. Although driving does not bring the focalizer of “The River” the same ecstatic release as that of “Runaways,” the convergence of the two songs is here amplified.

The next song on the album, “The Way It Was,” continues the driving motif, beginning with a man driving through a desert. Its music is much more subdued, resembling a power ballad, which “court[s] intimacy” as the “singer imparts what comes across as deeply felt emotions and draws in listeners through delicate candour” (Metzer 438-9). Here, the focalizer reminisces about the early days of a romance but finds the relationship has soured. The chorus subsequently questions whether or not the couple will be able to salvage their love. The interplay between singer and musicians inserts a pause between short phrases as represented here, signalling an increasingly emotive uncertainty: “If I go on/With you (by my side)/Can it be/The way/It was.”[6] If this song only resembles a power ballad, the subsequent track, “Here With Me,” actually is one. The song begins slowly and mournfully as the focalizer, accompanied by a piano, laments a past failed relationship (the opening line, “Wheels are turning,” continues the evocation of driving). Like the previous two tracks, this one juxtaposes carefree images of young romance with a more mature man’s sense of loss. The focalizer is almost painfully vulnerable in his nostalgic desire, with Flowers crying out the chorus and eventually vocalizing in falsetto. Unlike Jenny’s murderer, this focalizer cannot confront the object of his desire when he encounters her but rather flees from her, deciding to passively “wait” for her to return to him. As the song closes, he can only repeat his desperate request, “I want you here with me.”

With “Miss Atomic Bomb” belonging more to the narrative begun in Hot Fuss, the remaining love-centric song on the album is another ballad (but not a power ballad). “Heart of a Girl” relates the first meeting of two young lovers who now struggle to “hear that ancient refrain,” but the suggested marital strife does not end in late night roaming or separation, as the focalizer realizes his partner has chosen to stay with him: “Staring down the mouth of a hundred thousand guns/And you’re still here/You’re still here.” This realization is followed by the emphatic proclamation “I believe that we never have to be alone.” The track closes with an informal renewal of marital vows: “Standing on stone, you stand beside me/And honor the plans that were made.” The alienation experienced by focalizers of other love-centric Killers songs is here put to rout in favor of the assurance of a long, weathered but stable partnership. Its placement after the trio of romantic disillusionment songs and “Miss Atomic Bomb” leaves the listener with the image of a devoted couple working toward the [End Page 10] continuance of their relationship. A final crash and a sustained chord on the synthesizer emphasize a sense of narrative finality.

“Heart of a Girl” pairs with “Prize Fighter,” a bonus track on the deluxe edition of Battle Born, to create a very personal exploration of frontman Flowers’ actual marriage (the story of “Heart” is indeed how he and Tana met). That exploration continues in The Killers’ fifth album, Wonderful Wonderful. Although the album’s lead single, “The Man,” is a parody of machismo, as if to mock previous cocksure focalizers, much of its promotion has concerned its three songs that specifically concern Tana and address her struggle with complex PTSD, which Flowers revealed in multiple promotional interviews in late summer of 2017. The third track on the album, “Rut,” addresses Tana’s suicidal depression directly and apparently from her perspective (Beaumont para. 16). “Rut” is followed by “Life to Come,” a quasi-spiritual rock song in which the focalizer promises “to be the one” who will “be there in the life to come.” In “Some Kind of Love,” which prominently samples Brian Eno’s “An Ending,” the focalizer, here identifiably Flowers himself, softly praises his wife’s strength and discourages her from self-harm, leading up to a plea sung by Flowers and his and Tana’s three sons. In the title track, which is more musically experimental than much of the band’s catalog, the focalizer sings to a “motherless child” who seeks “rescue” and will find it by “follow[ing] [his] voice.” Using the archaic “thee” pronouns to address her and claiming omnipresence, the focalizer doubles as a divine being who promises “great cause to rejoice” and a “home” for her. He recedes from this grandiosity in the final verse by admitting that he may be “dirty” and “unworthy,” but repeats his promises. This song in particular, Flowers relates to NME, served as a bonding experience for him and his wife, as it brought him to a better understanding of her long-untreated condition (Reilly para. 8). Just as the most prominent focalizer of the band’s love-centric songs has moved from the smarmy young murderer to the tempted but devoted husband, he now appears to simply be Flowers. In this way, Flowers becomes more conspicuous as the driving force behind The Killers’ thematic evolution. Thus, it is through his frontman persona that we may conclude an examination of the band’s trajectory from murder to marriage.

“This burning belief in salvation and love”

Building on analyses by music scholars Frith and Auslander, Sutton explicates three “‘layers of performance’” (209). The first is the musician himself: here, Brandon Flowers outside the public eye, the man, husband and father, composer, and primary lyricist for The Killers. The second is the star: here, the Brandon Flowers who appears onstage and in paratextual materials. The third is the narrator and/or focalizer that has been this article’s focus hitherto, who need not bear any resemblance to the prior layers, and it is this third that has steadily emerged as an audible and visible presence within the band’s music.

As a practicing Mormon who now abstains from alcohol and drugs, Flowers is an unlikely rock star.[7] In an interview with The Daily Beast, Flowers describes his decision to devote himself to his faith in terms that we can see reflected in his de-eroticized, drug-free music: “[…] being committed to my wife and family, I can’t see any downside to it. There are people who’ve done the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll thing and made it happen for them, but I knew even when I was young that that wasn’t going to work out for me” (Stern para. 14). [End Page 11] However, his current devotion to his faith did not occur until after Sam’s Town (para. 13), thus aligning the sneering, desperate murderers and rejected lovers of the band’s early work with each other, during which time Flowers has stated that he experienced “a rebellious streak” (para. 21). Writing for The Mormon Women Project, Tana Flowers has similarly emphasized her husband’s temporary departure from his faith in this period (para. 1). He has since committed himself to his wife and children and prioritized them over music; their inclusion as focalized subjects and performers on Wonderful Wonderful provides musical evidence of an increasing thematic prioritization.

The Mormon emphasis on marriage is evident in “Heart of a Girl,” and thus it is all the more appropriate that the band’s 2012 album places it as the final love-centric song. As an influence on Flowers even prior to his re-commitment to the church, it likely also accounts for the continued lack of sexuality in the band’s work. The most explicitly sexually-charged lyrics in their corpus occur prior to Jenny’s murder in “Midnight Show” (“You got a real short skirt/I wanna look up”) and the chorus of “Bones,” but even these songs do not venture into the raw sexuality that is often associated with rock. While by no means universal, the genre’s frequent “separat[ion]” of sexuality from “fidelity and trust” and “the demands of conventionality, including marriage” poses a challenge for the rock musician who adheres to their faith more than simply nominally (Hesmondhalgh 56). As Hesmondhalgh argues, rock often deploys sexuality as a means of “opposition to structure and […] central institutions of order and continuity” (63). While Hesmondhalgh points out that alternative rock allows for a “hyper-masculine but desexualized rock style, derived from the frenetic energy of punk,” The Killers’ sound has evolved further away from that energy; the one track that could be described as having “the frenetic energy of punk” on Wonderful Wonderful, “Run for Cover,” was in fact composed between the Sam’s Town and Day & Age eras. The remembrances of youthful sexuality in Battle Born’s love-centric content are relatively tame: “Did you forget all about those golden nights?” and, respectively, “Your body was tan and your hair was long/You showed me a smile and my cares were gone.” The latter continues to echo the nostalgia in Springsteen’s “The River,” in which the focalizer describes “Her body tan and went down at the reservoir.” Springsteen’s musical influence on The Killers is made all the more relevant through his own own admitted religious ties and struggle to reconcile his experience of the world with his faith (Marsh 97). Although Springsteen has dealt with sexuality more frankly than Flowers, his focalized women (whom are frequently named Mary) are undoubtedly colored by Catholicism (Moss 343-4). In the Mormon context, so, too, is Flowers’ lyrical evolution from murder to marriage.

Complications superficially arise in Flowers’ solo work. To date, Flowers has released two solo albums, Flamingo (2010) and The Desired Effect (2015). The first boasts a more explicit spirituality than The Killers’ work, with “Crossfire” fusing images of lovers with a cosmic battle between heaven and hell. “Playing with Fire” features a more direct statement that appears to reference Flowers’ own precarious place as a rocker who is equally religious and ambitious, aged by marriage and fatherhood, but determined to keep his faith:

Ten thousand demons hammer down with every footstep
Ten thousand angels rush the wind against my back
This church of mine may not be recognized by steeples
But that doesn’t mean that I will walk without a God [End Page 12]

Rolling river of truth, can you spare me a sip?
The holy fountain of youth has been reduced to a drip
But I’ve got this burning belief in salvation and love
This notion may be naive, but when push comes to shove
I will till this ground

Yet The Desired Effect sees a brief return to early form. The album makes heavy use of synthesizers in stark contrast to Battle Born’s arena rock, a sonic homage to 80s pop and new wave, and its lyrics feature darker treatments of love and desire. The chorus of the first single, “Can’t Deny My Love”, ends with the lines “And you can run to the hillside/And you can close your eyes/[…] But you’re not gonna deny my love.”[8] Likewise, the upbeat, brass-backed “Lonely Town” relates the perspective of a stalker who, while lacking the energy of the Murder Trilogy’s focalizers, references having a knife.

However, these songs are not permitted to carry the narrative theme of the album. Two songs after “Can’t Deny My Love” is “Still Want You,” a campy pop song accompanied by doo-wop style feminine backing vocals in which the focalizer proclaims continued love for his partner in spite of all the troubles of the world. Then, two songs after “Lonely Town,” Flowers settles back into the theme of simultaneous spiritual and romantic longing. In “Never Get You Right,” the focalizer addresses a troubled woman whom he romantically describes as “born lost and dirt blonde.” Another Springsteenian veneration of the focalized woman is suggested as he ends each chorus with an affirmation of her power: “The people passing by/Should tremble at your sight.” This veneration now serves as a lyrical prelude to Flowers’ songs for Tana in The Killers’ Wonderful Wonderful, as does the image of the focalized woman as a lost child. The focalizer of “Untangled Love,” the last love-centric song on Desired Effect, seeks the kind of romance that may lead to marriage and fatherhood and ultimately appears to find it: “It took a lot of faith, it took a lot of lies/But I finally came to realize/Untangled love/I can see it in your eyes.” Therefore, like Battle Born, the album closes its exploration of love with images of stable monogamy, and leads to the autobiographical depictions of marriage on Wonderful Wonderful. Finally, with no distance remaining between Flowers and the narrative focalizer of his work, he sings lines such as “You got the grace of a storm in the desert/You got some kind of love” directly to the focalized woman, who also lacks narrative distance. As Flowers has admitted in multiple promotional interviews for the album, the focalized woman is literally his wife. The Killers’ most recent work, then, brings their evolution far from the beach where Jenny died and directly into the Flowers home.


Music critics still contextualize the band through their early interest in murder. A September 2017 interview with NME’s Marc Beaumont begins with the band being shown Jeffrey Dahmer’s glasses. Flowers voices mild personal identification by reminding Beaumont that one of Dahmer’s escaped victims shared Flowers’ surname. Beaumont describes Flowers as “slightly embarrassed” by the venue, a club across from Dahmer’s former apartment (para 3). According to Beaumont, Flowers disavowed any role in selecting [End Page 13] the venue, suggesting a distaste for the continued association of his and the band’s work with violence and death. It is clear from the band’s thematic shifts that they have largely moved on from the sneering young man who murdered his ex-girlfriend and who opened their first album. “Jenny Was A Friend of Mine” has been an intermittent staple of the band’s live shows, and while it has recently reappeared in their 2017 tour, it was only rarely played in the weeks leading up to Wonderful Wonderful’s release. While Flowers has explicitly identified only three of the ten songs on Wonderful Wonderful as pertaining to his wife, the album’s exploration of his marital relationship has dominated the pre-release press, with Flowers giving nearly identical statements to publications such as Rolling Stone, NME, and Q regarding the album’s intimacy to him. The departures of bassist Mark Stoermer and lead guitarist Dave Keuning from the tour, although it has been stated that this was for personal reasons, highlights the role that Flowers has played in directing the band’s shift.

Though The Killers have been neglected by popular music scholarship and even seem to suffer from some neglect from music critics, their discography provides insight into rock’s shifting concerns about love and sexuality, particularly through the lens of masculinity. The video for the aptly-titled “The Man,” Wonderful Wonderful’s first single, depicts Flowers as a parody of masculinity who repeatedly affirms “I’m the man.” The video’s contextualization of the self-proclaimed man through visual references to deserts, Las Vegas, and celebrity ambitions further encourages a reading of the song as a self-aware critique of specifically Flowers’ early focalizers. Such a reading, then, enables realization of the thematic shift in Flowers’ more personally authentic odes to his wife on the album. As part of his stated commitment to his family and church, he appears to be extricating himself from his early image and thematic interests.

Other themes persist in The Killers’ work, such as the American dream, fate, and overcoming self-doubt and regret. However, it is through their journey from murder to marriage that we may find a particular negotiation of the expectations of masculinity within rock – and where it intersects with themes that have been more artistically and critically neglected in the genre, such as marriage, fatherhood, and a more explicitly conservative spirituality. The band’s seemingly precarious future at the time of this writing calls into question whether or not these subjects are sustainable when made so explicit, especially when they have increasingly become linked to a frontman’s personal beliefs and family life. Regardless of sustainability, however, the band’s discography reveals a fascinating gender-coded trajectory from some of rock’s most famous masculine themes (aggression, sexual liberation) to the affirmation of marital and religious faithfulness.

[1] Indeed, Noisey reports that “Mr. Brightside” has remained in the UK charts every year between 2004 and 2017.

[2] Observation of various Killers fan spaces online reveals a noticeable (but by no means universal) disdain for the band’s overtly romantic work, especially songs that seem to reference Flowers’ relationship with his wife.

[3] Challenges to the association of the male rock/pop singer with a male focalizer seem infrequent. A notable example occurred with Matchbox 20’s “Push” (1997). Despite being criticized for seeming misogynistic, its chorus (“I wanna push you around / […] I wanna push you down / […] I wanna take you for granted”), is complicated by each verse’s opening with “She said….” [End Page 14]

[4] The Murder Trilogy is not the band’s only negotiation of a woman’s murder. In 2005, their setlist commonly included “Where Is She?”, a song written about the 2003 death of Scottish teen Jodi Jones. The song shares some similarities with the trilogy; like the fictional Jenny, Jodi was murdered by her boyfriend. However, in response to public backlash, the band did not release any official recordings of the song. It cannot, therefore, be counted amongst their standard catalog or the Murder Trilogy. Moreover, Flowers has stated that the song’s focalizer is Jodi’s mother, not her killer. While it does point toward the band’s early fascination with murder, it is not part of the same negotiation of rock masculinity as the trilogy.

[5] The motif is more explicit in alternate live versions of the song, in which Flowers sometimes sings “She couldn’t scream while I held her throat” or even “She kicked and screamed while I held her throat” (“The Killers’ Top Ten Most Played Concert Tracks” para. 11).

[6] “By my side” is only sung by backup vocals. Thus, Flowers’ lead vocal track makes this phrase even shorter.

[7] Certainly, Flowers is not the only Mormon to find mainstream success in music. However, he currently lacks the wholesome family appeal and light pop of, for instance, the Osmonds. His continued adherence to Mormonism, which he has affirmed to Rolling Stone in September 2017 (Greene paras. 7-8), also distinguishes him from rock/pop musicians like Tyler Glenn, the frontman of Neon Trees (with whom The Killers have toured). After coming out as gay in 2014, Glenn has spoken openly of his ostracization from the church and a sense of separation from God.

[8] What is omitted here is the repetition of “not gonna deny” before the line’s fulfillment at the end of the chorus. The song may also be interpreted as a religious song in which the focalizer of the chorus takes on the qualities of the God of the Book of Job and the New Testament’s Jonah as He promises his own inescapability. This possibility is emphasized in the music video, which (in contrast to the 80s pop sound of the song) casts Flowers as Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. [End Page 15]

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[End Page 18]


Rewriting the Romance: Emotion Work and Consent in Arranged Marriage Fanfiction
by Milena Popova

In this paper, I examine arranged marriage slash fiction – a sub-genre of fanfiction which focuses on same-gender relationships and is widely acknowledged within the online [End Page 1] fanfiction community to be a close cousin of, and share readership with, Regency-setting romance novels, particularly those featuring marriages of convenience. Using theories of meaning creation in fanfiction to show the intertextual relationships between arranged marriage slash fiction and marriage of convenience romance novels, I explore differences and similarities between the two, with particular reference to sexual consent in the often unequal arranged relationships they portray. I use the theoretical framework of emotion work (Hochschild 551) to understand the development of the relationship between the main characters in marriage of convenience romance novels and arranged marriage fanfiction stories. Emotion work is work performed in a private context such as the family (as opposed to emotional labour, which is performed in public settings and particularly the workplace) to manage one’s feelings and provide emotional support to others. I argue that by focusing on relationships which involve disparities of social standing and often financial dependence of one partner on the other, arranged marriage fanfiction stories explore marriage as an institution which reproduces and amplifies inequalities. This exploration includes the legal and formal aspects of marriage, as well as the social and emotional ones. As a result, they cast the practice of marriage consummation – and sex within marriage more generally – as an at least potentially coercive practice. Furthermore, while arranged marriage fanfiction stories retain some key elements of the romance genre, notably the Happily Ever After (HEA) ending and the sex scene (often the marriage consummation scene) which doubles as the emotional climax (Roach, Happily Ever After 165), they also make key changes to how the relationship between the main characters develops, particularly how the emotion work necessary to make the relationship work is divided between the partners. It is these changes which allow arranged marriage fanfiction stories to challenge dominant discourses of sexual consent within marriage and propose an alternative view of how consent within unequal relationships can be made meaningful. This practice within the fanfiction community indicates a dissatisfaction with elements of the marriage of convenience romance novel, particularly how issues of power inequalities in romantic relationships are handled. Fanfiction provides a space where this dissatisfaction can not only be explored but the perceived issues set to rights.

Romance, work, emotion

As a popular genre predominantly written and read by women (“Romance Readers”), romance novels are a contested space in feminist scholarship and cultural studies. Mainstream romance novels have historically focused on heterosexual relationships culminating in monogamous marriage, although dedicated queer presses have published lesbian and gay romance since the 1970s, and more recently we have seen a proliferation of the LGBTQ romance sub-genre facilitated by digital technologies which enable low-cost electronic publishing and small print runs (Barot). Both in these and in mainstream heterosexual romances, more open “happy for now” endings have become a more common feature (Roach, “Good Man”; Happily Ever After 166). Research on the romance genre often focuses on how it relates to – and enables its readers to relate to – patriarchy and gendered power structures in society. Radway, a pioneer of romance research, subtitles her chapter on the “ideal” romance novel “The Promise of Patriarchy” (119). In it, she breaks down the [End Page 2] narrative structure of the typical romance novel into thirteen “functions,” each based on a stage in the hero and heroine’s relationship, progressing from antagonism through the hero punishing the heroine, a rapprochement, to a final sexual and emotional union. Radway repeatedly refers to the initially cold or ambiguous hero being “tamed” by the heroine. Yet she argues that rather than through a radical change in the hero, this taming is achieved largely through a reinterpretation of his behaviour on the heroine’s part. This argument is worth quoting at length:

The romance thematizes the activity of interpretation and reinterpretation for a very good reason, then. In suggesting that the cruelty and indifference that the hero exhibits towards the heroine in the early part of the novel are really of no consequence because they actually originated in love and affection, the romance effectively asserts that there are other signs for these two emotions than the traditional ones of physical caresses, oral professions of commitment, and thoughtful care. When the heroine retrospectively reinterprets the hero’s offensive behavior as equivalent to expressions of his basic feeling for her, the reader is encouraged to engage in the same rereading process in order to understand properly what she is offered daily in her own relationship (Radway 151, emphasis in original).

Modleski sees a similar role for romance novels in enabling women to accommodate patriarchy, but crucially argues that romance fiction helps readers actively adapt to (rather than passively accept) the harms of patriarchal society by enabling them to recode men’s violent and aggressive behaviours as expressions of love. In her study of Harlequin romances, she focuses on the transformation of the heroine (and analogously, the reader), arguing that she can only achieve happiness “by undergoing a complex process of self-subversion, during which she sacrifices her aggressive instincts, her ‘pride,’ and – nearly – her life” (29).

As popular romance studies has evolved as a field, such accounts have increasingly been questioned and complicated through engagements with both romance novels themselves and their audiences. In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Regis challenges pathologising approaches to romance reading, highlighting instead the complexity and variety of works that fall within the romance genre and establishing clear generic links between works commonly considered part of the literary canon and more contemporary mass-market romance novels. She counters the argument that romance novels, through their pre-ordained “happily ever after” ending in monogamous heterosexual marriage, “extinguish” the spirited heroine and “bind” the reader in the structures of patriarchy (11). She questions the assumptions that books have the power to do this, arguing that “[r]eaders are free to ignore, skip, stop, disbelieve, dislike, reject, and otherwise read quite independently of the form” (13). Secondly, Regis says, it is not the ending in marriage that is important to romance readers and writers, but the process of overcoming the barriers and obstacles in the heroine’s path to happiness with the hero. This process takes a heroine who is already bound and frees her. Regis does concede that freedom for the heroine is provisional and constrained, unlike freedom for the hero, which is total and absolute (16). Ultimately, the heroine’s provisional, constrained freedom is achieved through the heroine’s own hard work in taming and healing the hero. [End Page 3]

Regis’s work is firmly situated in a formalist literary theory tradition with little examination of audiences’ engagements with the romance genre. More recent approaches have returned to centering audiences alongside texts. Roach, for instance, has examined both the genre and its readers in an (auto)ethnographic study (Happily Ever After). She returns to the question of the relationship between romance and patriarchy, and picks up on the Beauty and the Beast themes of taming and healing present in many romance novels. She argues that romance novels and the readerly and writerly communities around them provide – within the limits of the tropes and conventions of the genre – a safe space for imaginative play where (predominantly) women can think through the challenges posed by patriarchy (188). Roach follows Sedgwick’s “reparative reading” (Sedgwick 1) model. Sedgwick critiques what she calls “paranoid reading” (1) approaches to texts. Paranoid readings emphasise and expect negative affect, and seek to expose the underlying negative assumptions and effects of texts. By contrast, she proposes a reparative reading mode, where rather than expecting and seeking to expose negativity, a reader approaches a text with hope, open to surprise, regardless of whether that surprise may be positive or negative. Building on this, Roach argues that romance fiction performs “deep work” for women readers struggling with patriarchy. Through their guaranteed “happily ever after” ending, they provide pleasure, an escape from reality, a reparation fantasy and imagined healing. The takeaway message of contemporary romance novels, says Roach, is a simultaneous and contradictory “You can’t fight  patriarchy”/”You must fight  patriarchy” (Happily Ever After 185). She identifies risk and hard work on the part of the characters as some of the essential elements of romance, noting that “giving up individuality to coupledom requires a willingness to make changes in one’s life for the sake of another” (Happily Ever After 23). Yet Roach’s analysis often glosses over how exactly this hard work is performed and how risk is taken by characters in romance novels. Here, Modleski and Radway offer a more in-depth and persuasive account of the heroine’s hard work to predominantly transform herself rather than the hero – and, by extension, the absence of any such work on the hero’s part. Roach herself admits that even at the end of the romance novel the “alpha hero” remains deeply embedded in patriarchy, made only safe for the heroine by his love for her (Happily Ever After 188).

It is this hard work, which Roach identifies as such a central element to the romance narrative, that I want to investigate further in examining how fanfiction readers and writers approach the romance trope of arranged marriage or marriage of convenience. To that end, I propose to view the “taming” of the hero which romance heroines and their fanfiction counterparts engage in through the lens of emotion work theory. Emotion work was first proposed by Hochschild (551) as the work involved in managing feelings to bring them in line with societal norms and expectations. In the original definition, emotion work is performed on the self, and is the (not necessarily successful) attempt to induce or inhibit one’s feelings to make them appropriate to a particular situation. Hochschild identifies three techniques of emotion work: cognitive (attempting to change ideas or images in order to change the feelings associated with them); bodily (attempting to change physical signs of emotion); and expressive (attempting to change expressive gestures, such as smiling or frowning, to change how one feels). Erickson extends the concept to such activities performed specifically to enhance the emotional well-being of others and provide emotional support, especially in a private, family or domestic context (“Reconceptualizing” 890). Umberson et al. identify activities involved in reading others’ emotions as well as managing one’s own as part of emotion work (547). Erickson (“Reconceptualizing” 890, “Why Emotion [End Page 4] Work Matters” 349) argues that emotion work is key to perceptions of marital quality. With regards to emotion work and sexuality, Umberson et al. find that where a disparity in desire for sex is present in the relationship, women who desire less sex than their partners often perform emotion work to increase their own desire, and women in relationships with men often experience this as a one-sided effort to please their partner (550).

These experiences are reminiscent of the heroine’s emotion work in the romance novel and illustrate what Radway and Modleski mean when they talk about romance novel readers encountering and adapting to the demands of patriarchy in their own lives. Moreover, viewed through Gavey’s lens of discursively constructed expectations of women’s sexuality and sexual behaviour, especially in relationships with men (146), such experiences acquire an additional meaning. In this way, the pressure women feel to perform such “emotion work” can be seen as societal coercion, casting doubt on the meaningfulness of any consent to sexual activity given by women in these circumstances. Such expectations, often framed in the language of romance, facilitate certain courses of action and subject positions while making others unavailable. Gavey and McPhillips, for instance, argue that the wider discursive construction of what is and is not “romantic” acts as a significant barrier to women’s ability to negotiate consent and enforce boundaries around sexual activity, such as the use of condoms (355). This further underscores the power of the romance discourse within and outside the romance novel to influence not only attitudes but actions. These discursive constructions of romance and emotion work therefore may shed light on the work both the romance heroine and the romance reader (at least according to Radway and Modleski) perform to “tame” or “heal” the romance hero, and on what that means for sexual consent in often unequal romantic relationships.

Both Radway’s reinterpretation of the hero’s actions as motivated by love and Modleski’s recoding of violent or aggressive behaviours and self-subversion of the heroine can be conceptualised as emotion work. It is the heroine’s emotion work which causes the change in the typically gruff, cold, indifferent hero, and it is the reader’s emotion work that enables them to read the hero’s motivation for his gruffness, coldness, or indifference as ultimately moved by love. Of the heroine in Kathleen Woodwiss’s Ashes in the Wind, Radway writes:

It is in fact a combination of her womanly sensuality and mothering capacities that will magically remake a man incapable of expressing emotions or admitting dependence. As a result of her effort, he will be transformed into an ideal figure possessing both masculine power and prestige and the more ‘effeminate’ ability to discern her needs and to attend to their fulfillment in a tender, solicitous way. (127-128)

Regis also acknowledges the taming or healing dynamic through not only emotion work but also domestic work. For instance, in discussing Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract, she writes:

Jenny heals [Adam] through her careful attention to his needs and wants: she manages his households with determined efficiency, she learns the duties of being the lord’s wife. Her motive is love: she has loved him since she met him at Julia’s house as a schoolmate guest. (135) [End Page 5]

On the romance novel character’s part, these are examples of work performed in a private or domestic context to enhance another’s emotional wellbeing and provide emotional support (Erickson Reconceptualizing). Additionally, if we accept Radway and Modleski’s arguments, they become an exercise in cognitive emotion work for the reader, actively changing ideas and images in order to change the feelings associated with them (Hochschild). The arranged marriage trope in fanfiction parallels the marriage-of-convenience plot in romance novels, such as the one described by Regis above. The courtship in this variation of the romance novel genre occurs after the marriage and culminates in a declaration of love (Regis 135). Similarly to other romance novel plots, however, the heroine still often needs to tame the hero, using her beauty, charm and grace – that is, her emotion work – to soften a man known for gruffness or even cruelty.

Recasting as emotion work the heroine’s taming of the hero, and (in Radway’s terms) the reader’s reinterpretation of the hero’s callous initial behaviour as love, provides a framework through which the interactions between the protagonists in both romance fiction and fanfiction based on romance tropes can be explored. However, the romance novels studied by Radway, Modleski, Regis and, to a lesser extent, Roach are highly heteronormative. Investigating the arranged marriage trope in slash fanfiction is further complicated by the fact that the characters are of the same gender. There is a tradition in fan studies which argues that slash erases inequalities between the partners (e.g. Lamb & Veith; Russ). Yet fanfiction writers frequently incorporate and explore inequality in the relationships they write about, and the arranged marriage trope is shaped by such inequalities. In this case, however, they arise from factors other than gender, although some may nonetheless have gendered connotations. I will therefore briefly introduce the arranged marriage trope in the context of the Thor/Loki pairing based on the characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the specific stories I am basing my analysis on, before moving on to an exploration of how such stories investigate marriage as an institution which reproduces and amplifies inequalities in a number of ways.

A note on methodology

Fan studies has a history of approaching fan communities and fanfiction as social practices (e.g. Jenkins; Bacon-Smith; Kustritz), but also of looking at fanfiction as literary text using textual analysis (e.g. Derecho; Stasi). In addition, the field has a tradition of auto-ethnography (e.g. Jenkins), as many fan studies scholars are also fans themselves. These traditions are reflected in my approach to the arranged marriage fanfiction trope. My involvement with the fanfiction community as a reader and writer predates my choice of it as a site for research by decades. I therefore bring to my research a dual perspective: that of fan and that of scholar. This is reflected in my approach to both data collection and data analysis. To select stories for analysis, I followed the path any fan new to a fandom, trope or pairing may follow to find stories that are considered good or impactful by the community at large, a path I myself have followed many times as a fan. I used the technical features of the Archive of Our Own to search, sort and filter stories of interest, and immersed myself in them. I used a range of auto-ethnographic insights for this: my understanding of the technical features of the site, but also of the community’s usage practices, and of dynamics and trends within the particular fandom, pairing and trope of interest. The two stories thus selected for [End Page 6] in-depth analysis are representative both in terms of their popularity and impact within fanfiction communities, and in representing trends and themes within fanfiction for this trope and pairing. Finally, in line with fan studies best practice and to protect the privacy of individual fans and fan authors, I have not provided complete URLs for fan works.

 Loki/Thor Arranged Marriage

To investigate the arranged marriage trope and how readers and writers of fanfiction use it to explore issues of consent, I have chosen a small selection of stories from the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom, centred on the relationship between Loki and Thor. The Loki/Thor pairing is the largest pairing under the Arranged Marriage tag on the Archive of Our Own, with around 180 stories as of August 2016. The trope is popular for Thor and Loki, as in the originary works the two characters, although not related by blood, are raised as brothers and therefore are an unlikely romantic pairing. They are also antagonists, with Loki being the villain in both of Marvel’s Thor movies and in Avengers Assemble.

My story selection for this analysis was based on ethnographic knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom in general, and a more in-depth ethnographic exercise within the Thor/Loki pairing in particular. I immersed myself in the Thor/Loki pairing, particularly the Arranged Marriage tag on the Archive of Our Own. I traced the steps a fan new to the pairing or the trope would take, using AO3’s tagging and filtering features to help me find stories of interest. I read a wide range of Thor/Loki Arranged Marriage works, as well as other readers’ comments and discussions around the pairing, and this process of immersion gave me a “feel” for how writers of this particular pairing interpreted and adapted the arranged marriage trope, as well as how they worked with the characters from the originary work. I focused on five of the most popular ones (measured by “Kudos”)[1] and identified common themes. I then narrowed my selection down to two complementary stories for in-depth analysis: Bride (themantlingdark) and XVII (stereobone). My ethnographic exploration of the Thor/Loki fandom and the Arranged Marriage trope enabled me to identify key ways in which the two stories were similar to and different from the originary material, as well as other fanfiction works for that pairing and within the Arranged Marriage trope. These similarities and differences are worth summarising here, as key elements of my readings of the stories arise from them.

Both Bride and XVII depart from the MCU canon[2] by having Thor and Loki grow up separately rather than be raised as brothers. In both stories, Loki is depicted as intersex, as are all Jötnar, and his gender presentation tends towards the masculine but is sometimes ambiguous. This is a common depiction of Loki in fanfiction, incorporating elements of Norse mythology not present in the MCU version, though they are to an extent present in some of the Marvel comics. It often serves to highlight Loki’s otherness and associations with magic and the feminine, which complicates the power relationship between him and Thor. Both stories are told predominantly from Thor’s point of view, though in Bride, the point of view shifts to Loki on a few occasions. It is the structure of the marriage arrangements that makes these two stories a complementary pair for analysis. In XVII, Loki leaves his home to marry Thor and secure a lasting peace between Jötunheim and Asgard. This is by far the more common premise of Loki/Thor arranged marriage fanfiction. Conversely, and unusually for this pairing, in Bride it is Thor who must leave his home to marry Loki. As in many other [End Page 7] Arranged Marriage fanfiction stories, these marriage arrangements, alongside other factors, give rise to significant inequality between the partners at the start of each story.

In the next section, I explore how the institution of marriage in its legal, social and emotional aspects is constructed in these stories. I focus in particular on how the marriage arrangements relate to the inequalities between the partners in a range of gendered and non-gendered ways, and what these inequalities mean for sexual consent. I then explore how the power imbalances are addressed through emotion work, and finally analyse in detail the consummation of each of the marriages and how sexual consent in the presence of power imbalances is handled in these stories.

Thor/Loki and the inequalities of marriage

Marriage as a social and legal institution has a history of constructing and legitimising gendered social inequalities. One mechanism for this is through the legal structures which codify marriage, for instance, the historical doctrine of coverture (Donovan 3) or exemptions for marriage in rape law (e.g. Smart; Donovan). Yet despite extensive reforms of the legal institution of marriage, changes in the material circumstances of women have been slower and more difficult to achieve (Smart 160). Discourse, and the subject positions it makes available or inaccessible, may account for some of this discrepancy, as Gavey argues:

Those discourses which are commensurate with widely shared commonsense understanding of the world are perhaps most powerful in constituting subjectivity, yet their influence can most easily remain hidden and difficult to identify and, therefore, resist (92).

The subject position of “wife” as constructed in discourses of marriage is particularly relevant here with regards to inequality and sexual consent. Gavey, for instance, shows how sex is still constructed as the “duty” of a wife, and how this discourse influences her interview participants’ perceptions of themselves, constructions of their own identity, and their material experience of sex within marriage. With this in mind, it is worth examining how arranged marriage fanfiction stories depict marriage as an institution, including the possible inequalities it produces, reproduces and amplifies.

While gender has historically been a key structuring element of marriage, it is not the primary source of power differentials in arranged marriage slash fanfiction relationships. There are, however, gendered elements to how both Thor and Loki are presented and it is worth exploring those briefly, particularly as they relate to other inequalities and are reproduced and amplified by the marriage arrangements. Lamb and Veith argue that the primary effect of slash is to remove power imbalances from sexual and romantic relationships by focusing on same-gender relationships. They also note that in slash fanfiction, characters who are men – often extremely masculine men – in the originary work acquire androgynous characteristics (243).

This kind of androgynous characterisation is present for both Thor and Loki in all five of the stories reviewed, and particularly in the two chosen for in-depth analysis. Thor is most obviously feminised in Bride, where even the title associates him with the feminine role in a heterosexual marriage. In this story, Thor is both younger and – unusually for fanfiction [End Page 8] about this pairing – physically smaller than Loki. While Loki is heir to the throne of Jötunheim, Thor’s arranged marriage with Loki precludes him from inheriting the throne of Asgard which will pass to his younger brother: an arrangement which evokes the practice of male-preference primogeniture, serving to further feminise Thor. He is also forced to leave his home and join the family and household of his husband. While getting dressed for the wedding – in a white gown – Thor is explicitly described as feeling “feminine” and “delicate,” particularly compared to the frost giants surrounding him. Conversely, Loki in this story has a reputation for coldness and cruelty, adding to Thor’s apprehension about the marriage. These elements evoke the first of Radway’s narrative functions: “the heroine’s social identity is destroyed” (134). Through his removal from his home and family, therefore, Thor here is cast in the heroine role, while Loki’s coldness and cruelty mark him out as a romance hero. Through the mechanism of side-by-side reading (Derecho 73), this gendering of the characters therefore clearly evokes popular romance novel tropes and sets expectations for the reader based on the generic conventions of romance novels many fanfiction readers are familiar with: by the end of the story Thor will have tamed Loki and transformed him into a loving and caring husband. Additionally, these gendered inequalities within the context of the arranged marriage also highlight the structural inequalities of the marriage itself, as Thor leaves behind his own family to formally become part of Loki’s, and as the settlement of property and titles is a key aspect of the marriage arrangement.

Yet the characterisation of Thor as feminine heroine and Loki as masculine hero is complicated in Bride in two key ways. Firstly, Loki himself is shown to have feminine characteristics as well as masculine ones. On a bodily level, Loki, like all Jötnar, is intersex.[3] He is also physically smaller than other Jötnar, and is known for his intelligence, gift for magic, and manipulativeness: characteristics frequently associated with femininity. He is described as both beautiful and handsome. Secondly, on several occasions factors which make Thor feel feminine and vulnerable in the context of his wedding are shown to have gender-neutral or masculine associations in other contexts. When Thor objects to wearing the white wedding “dress,” his mother, Frigga, explains that Loki will also be wearing a white gown. When Thor balks at the expectation to be nude for part of the wedding ceremony, Frigga again re-contextualises this for him by pointing out that in Asgard Thor is frequently nude, for instance in public baths. This complication of the characters’ gender coding and the social structures around them already signals a departure from the generic conventions and power imbalances of the romance novel. This “repetition with a difference” (Derecho 73) encourages a side-by-side reading where the differences between the fanfiction story and the romance novel trope are highlighted. Such departures in turn are a key tool for fanfiction writers and readers to explore and challenge dominant discourses about power, gender and sexuality in romance novels.

As Bride can be seen as part of three different archives – those of romance novels, arranged marriage fanfiction stories, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – additional layers of meanings are created through other side-by-side readings, with both the MCU and other works of fanfiction. The story is fairly unusual within Thor/Loki arranged marriage fanfiction in that it casts Thor in the less powerful position within the relationship. The author’s notes which accompany the story indicate that this is a deliberate choice to explore the change in the power dynamics between the characters. More frequently, it is Thor who starts out as the more powerful partner in the relationship, as is the case in XVII: he is the heir of Asgard, with Loki having to leave his family and make a life for himself in a realm [End Page 9] strange to him. Ambiguous or androgynous gendering of both Thor and Loki is also present in XVII. Loki’s physical beauty is emphasised, as are his magic use, intelligence, and reputation for being manipulative. Yet it is Thor who is too nervous to eat at their wedding feast, while Loki is also described as muscled and a competent fighter. Both Bride and XVII therefore rework their central characters – men in the originary work – into more androgynous versions of themselves, incorporating characteristics associated with both femininity and masculinity. However, far from entirely removing inequality from the relationship, as Lamb and Veith would argue (238), these stories use the arranged marriage trope and related romance novel conventions to introduce other power imbalances between the characters.

There are several other factors, both internal and external to the relationship, through which power differentials are established between Thor and Loki in the two stories. Differences in physical size and strength, for instance, are used to establish – and sometimes negate – power differentials between the characters. In both Bride and XVII, Thor does not meet Loki before the wedding and expects him to be a giant like other Jötnar. This causes him significant anxiety, as this extract from Bride shows:

The Frost Giants that Thor sees on his way through the palace leave him shaken.

I’m going to be torn apart, he thinks.

Even in XVII, where Thor in many ways has the upper hand in the marriage arrangement, he is concerned about Loki being a frost giant:

‘This is your duty,’ [Frigga] says. ‘I know it is hard, my darling, but it is for the good of our realm.’

Thor knows that, he does, but it doesn’t stop it from being hard. Jötun are not an ugly people by any means, but they are giants. And they are cold. Thor doesn’t see how anyone can expect him to marry one. He doesn’t say this, but his mother seems to sense it anyway.

It is only once he meets Loki that Thor’s perception of the power imbalances between them begins to change, and he is palpably relieved in both stories. While Thor is generally depicted as physically stronger than Loki in MCU fanfiction, in both Bride and XVII Loki is presented as a competent fighter. In addition to that, Loki is a powerful magic user, and often uses his magic and intelligence to get his way. Finally, differences in age and experience play a significant role in Bride. The author’s notes accompanying the story specify that Thor is 18 and Loki is 27 in this setting, and this age difference is reflected in the characters’ behaviours, attitudes and even physicality throughout the story. Even after he finds out that Loki is not a giant, Thor continues to be intimidated by his physical size, repeatedly reflecting that he himself is not “fully grown” or as muscular as Loki. Loki is also more sexually experienced than Thor: although neither character has had any sexual experience with a partner, Loki’s [End Page 10] magic allows him to create doubles of himself which he indicates he has done for sexual reasons in the past.

The arranged marriage trope allows external factors such as political considerations, marriage laws and customs, and the characters’ relationships with their families to play a significant role. In XVII, Loki’s marriage to Thor means that he is no longer considered a Jötun: he will not be able to return to Jötunheim or see his family ever again, and he is completely dependent on Thor for everything from basics like food and shelter to emotional support. Conversely in Bride, while Thor has to leave Asgard and is somewhat dependent on Loki, his parents repeatedly reassure him that they will continue to visit and support him. Therefore the consequences of a failed marriage for Loki in XVII are much greater than those for Thor in Bride, which in turn exacerbates the power differential. When read side by side with both romance novels and an understanding of the history of marriage laws and customs in Western cultures, these stories then clearly cast marriage as an institution characterised by and potentially reproducing and exacerbating inequalities. Marriage here is not the “happily ever after,” but rather the beginning of a process of negotiation, with significant personal and social risks attached to failure of such negotiation. While Roach sees risk-taking in the name of love as a key element of the romance novel (Happily Ever After 24), the risks in arranged marriage fanfiction stories are often taken out of a lack of options instead, as the personal, social and legal repercussions of failure – a life spent in an unhappy and unloving marriage, social isolation, or loss of legal status and the financial means for survival – are simply too great. In the face of these risks and power differentials within the relationship, the characters’ options are limited.

There are, therefore, clear power imbalances in Thor and Loki’s marriage in both Bride and XVII. They are caused by factors internal to the characters – physical size and strength, age, experience – as well as exacerbated by ones external to them – marriage customs and access to material and emotional support outside the relationship. While both characters are given androgynous characteristics, the overall picture of their relationship is still one of inequality: more specifically, inequality similar to that in marriage of convenience romance novels (Regis 135). It can be argued that at the outset of the relationship, Thor has considerably more power than Loki in XVII, and Loki has more power in Bride. The construction of marriage as a sexual relationship, as evidenced by the emphasis on marriage consummation I shall explore further below, puts additional pressures on the partner with less power. Even though these inequalities are only partially structural within the setting, they cast doubt on the ability of the less powerful character to give consent to sexual relations in a meaningful way. In the next section, I turn to the emotion work framework to examine how such power imbalances are negotiated within the relationships in the two stories, how the happily ever after ending is achieved, and what this means for sexual consent.

Emotion Work and the Happily Ever After

The Happily Ever After, or at least Happy For Now, ending is an essential feature of the romance novel genre (Roach, Happily Ever After 165). The hero and the heroine have taken risks, worked hard, the heroine has tamed the hero, and they finally come together in [End Page 11] a mutually loving relationship, often a marriage. In marriage of convenience stories, of course, the marriage itself has already happened, but it is transformed from a purely transactional arrangement into one of love (Regis 135). It is useful to view the way this transformation is achieved in romance novels as a result of the heroine’s emotion work. Emotion work is often gendered and the burden of it falls disproportionately on women, particularly in heterosexual relationships (Erickson 346; Umberson et al. 546). This is reflected in marriage of convenience romance novels, where the young bride – who has relatively little power in her marriage and is often financially and otherwise dependent on her husband – has to become skilled at reading the male hero’s moods, negotiating them and transforming his gruff personality in order to achieve happiness and fulfilment in marriage (Regis 135). Radway and Modleski both make convincing arguments as to why, rather than a transformation of the hero or the relationship, this development is actually a transformation of the heroine. In arranged marriage fanfiction stories, the Happily Ever After ending is retained as an essential element and generic convention. Yet even if we accept Regis’s argument that the more important element in the romance novel is not the HEA ending itself but the process of getting there (15), how that ending is achieved differs significantly between fanfiction and the romance novel, though emotion work is still at the centre of the transformation. It plays a vital role in negotiating the multiple and layered power differentials between Thor and Loki in both Bride and XVII, allowing them over the course of the story to create a more equal dynamic. What distinguishes many fanfiction stories featuring the arranged marriage trope from more traditional marriage of convenience romance novels is who within the relationship performs this kind of work. In both Bride and XVII, the bulk of the emotion work depicted falls on the partner portrayed as more powerful in the relationship: Thor in the case of XVII and Loki in Bride.

The first time Loki performs emotion work in Bride is shortly after the wedding ceremony at which Thor and Loki meet. At the wedding feast, Loki seeks to put Thor – still too nervous to eat or engage in much conversation – at ease:

Loki has kept his hands largely to himself. He has leaned over a few times and set his hand at the small of Thor’s back, pointing out the members of court with a nod of his head and breathing the best gossip about them into Thor’s ear. He brushed his fingers over Thor’s when he took his goblet from him to refill it with wine, but Thor wasn’t certain if it was meant to be friendly or if it was incidental. They danced, but Frigga had held Thor closer when she was teaching him the steps than Loki held him as they spun through the hall.

Thor’s surprise at Loki’s behaviour can be viewed through the lens of Western gender roles, with Thor coded as feminine and Loki as masculine and Thor’s expectations of his husband shaped accordingly. It is not clear whether Loki’s behaviour is in line with Jötun gender roles, which are implied to be different to Asgardian (and therefore Western) ones, as most of the story is told from Thor’s point of view. It is, however, clear that Loki is making an effort to set at ease the younger Thor, who is also at that point experiencing culture shock. When the two newlyweds are finally alone on their wedding night, Loki uses his magic to shapeshift into Aesir (or more human-like) form instead of the frosty blue skin of the Jötnar in another effort to provide some reassurance and familiarity for Thor. This is also the first occasion where Thor acknowledges and reciprocates Loki’s emotion work: [End Page 12]

Loki shifts his skin to match his spouse’s and Thor pauses in his pacing to stare.

‘Which do you prefer?’ Loki asks.

‘The night does not compete with the day. As a Jötun you are fairest among your own folk, and as an Aesir you are lovelier than mine.’

‘They are all our people now,’ Loki reminds him, and Thor nods and smiles.

Loki shifts back into his blue skin, pleased with the lad’s pretty speech, and pulls out a seat for Thor.

It is significant that Loki is proactive about making Thor feel more comfortable, as it shows that he clearly understands that Thor is feeling vulnerable and isolated. The gesture of shape-shifting is intended to reduce that feeling of isolation. It is also important that Loki asks for Thor’s opinion and gives him a choice, thereby empowering him to make decisions within the relationship very early on. At the same time, this choice clearly makes Thor uncomfortable as he does not want to cause offence to his husband. He therefore retreats into language which can be seen as rather diplomatic and deliberately flattering, effectively passing the decision back to Loki. So while Loki’s emotion work goes some way towards making Thor feel more at ease, the power imbalances between them are still clearly reflected in this exchange. The fact that Thor declines to make a choice indicates that he may not be feeling safe yet to do so, and by extension to meaningfully give or deny consent to any sexual relations between the couple.

Conversely, in XVII it is Thor who performs the majority of emotion work, both in trying to read Loki and understand how he feels and trying to make Loki feel at home in Asgard, particularly early on in the story. At the same time, Loki is studying Thor and trying to understand him, but he makes no move to initiate conversation or work on their relationship. As Loki expresses a desire for safety and privacy, Thor gives him space by leaving their quarters during the daytime and bringing him food rather than making Loki join the family at mealtimes. This is in stark contrast to Radway’s romance heroine:

Because she cannot seem to avoid contact with him despite her dislike, the heroine’s principal activity throughout the rest of the story consists of the mental process of trying to assign particular signifieds to his overt acts. In effect, what she is trying to do in discovering the significance of his behavior by uncovering his motives is to understand what the fact of male presence and attention means for her, a woman. (139)

A side-by-side reading (Derecho 73) of XVII with this understanding of the heroine’s behaviour in romance novels indicates that this is precisely what Loki is expecting to have to do in this story. He is watching Thor carefully and testing out the limits of any freedom he may have in this new situation. However, where the heroine in a romance novel would then use any knowledge gained this way to provide emotional comfort and support for the hero, in XVII, Loki finds every wish he expresses respected and as much space is given to him as [End Page 13] the social and legal restrictions on both partners allow. Thus Loki does not need to account for and come to terms with Thor’s presence in his life in the same way as a romance novel heroine would.

Thor also seeks to engage Loki in conversation and takes clues from his behaviour to find activities Loki might enjoy. The first breakthrough in their relationship comes when Thor, having seen Loki read the single book he has brought with him from Jötunheim, takes him to Asgard’s library. As the relationship develops, the emotion work involved in deepening and sustaining it evolves to being shared equally between Thor and Loki, indicating that they have reached a level of mutual trust. While the inequality of the marriage arrangement is never erased, and formally, Loki remains dependent on Thor, Thor repeatedly demonstrates that he views his husband as an equal. When Loki is given the choice to dissolve the marriage and return to Jötunheim or stay in Asgard with Thor, he freely chooses to stay and negotiates a reopening of the border between the two realms, indicating that he feels confident in his own status and power as Thor’s husband. Thor’s emotion work has transformed the relationship to one where Loki is a loved and respected equal and feels able to make choices freely and without constraint. Thus, while the Happily Ever After ending is achieved, the process by which it is achieved, and how the obstacles are overcome, differs considerably between arranged marriage fanfiction stories and romance novels.

For readers versed in romance novels as well as fanfiction, the arranged marriage fanfiction story becomes a part of both archives, and the differences in how emotion work is approached in each body of work become a key site of meaning creation. While fanfiction stories retain the romance novel’s Happily Ever After ending, they make key changes in how this ending is achieved. The contrast between the romance novel heroine’s efforts to understand and accommodate the hero on the one hand, and the partner with less power in the fanfiction arranged marriage on the other, who ultimately has emotion work performed for them, becomes a challenge to the power imbalances in the romance novel trope. It is important that the “equality-centered relationship dynamic” (Kustritz 377) is not present in these fanfiction stories from the start. Neither is the “hero” tamed by the “heroine” (Radway). Rather, through persistent performance of emotion work, the partner with more power in the relationship levels the playing field to build trust and minimise inequality in the partners’ day-to-day interactions. In the next section, I explore what these changes to the romance novel generic conventions mean for sexual consent within the relationship.

Marriage consummation

Marriage consummation is a recurring feature of arranged marriage fanfiction stories. Part of the reason for this lies in the generic conventions of slash fiction and romance novels, which often feature sex scenes. In the romance novel, a sex scene is often used to mark the Happily Ever After ending, with the couple consummating their relationship in a mutually loving and respectful way. While this may not be the first sex scene of the novel, or even for the couple, this final, emotional sex scene is still nonetheless a popular feature of a range of subgenres of romance novels. Roach argues that part of the message here for the (mostly) women who read romance novels is that they are entitled to love and great sex in their relationships, and that their partner should be devoted to their sexual pleasure (Happily [End Page 14] Ever After 87, emphasis added). Yet it can be argued the questions raised by the romance novel premise with its unequal relationship around the meaningfulness of sexual consent are often not satisfactorily addressed in the genre, particularly if the transformation of the hero and the relationship has happened largely through the emotion work performed by the heroine. Roach herself admits that the hero at the end of the romance novel is still embedded within patriarchy outside the relationship even if he does submit to the heroine within the relationship (Happily Ever After 187). Thus any re-negotiation of the power imbalance between them is limited and contingent at best.

In arranged marriage fanfiction, the consummation scene too is a key generic convention. While sometimes it is used in the same way as the climactic sex scene in romance novels to indicate the Happily Ever After ending, it has a different function in many fanfiction stories. A closer look at the metadata around the stories and the construction of these scenes in arranged marriage fiction shows how they are used to examine complex issues around sexual consent, power and inequality in intimate relationships. Of the 3600 works tagged “Arranged Marriage” on AO3 in August 2016, 466 also use a tag related to at least one of the following: “Consent Issues,” “Non-Consensual,” “Rape/Non-Con.” Of the five Loki/Thor stories I selected for this analysis, consummation was a central feature in four, with pre-marital sex performing a similar function in the final one. One story presented consummation as an outright rape, and the other three, including the two selected for in-depth analysis, contained discussion of consent issues in light of the arranged marriage and inequality of the partners. Consummation is presented as expected in these relationships, both through the legal structures surrounding the marriage arrangements and through the cultural expectations which construct marriage as a sexual relationship. Through both the metadata around the stories and key features of the stories themselves, arranged marriage fanfiction casts marriage consummation as an at least potentially a coercive practice. References to the range of different sources of power imbalances and inequalities in the relationship discussed previously are present throughout the stories and support this, keeping the issue of meaningful consent as a focal point of the works. This focus evokes both issues around the legal construction of marriage (Smart) and the social and cultural constructions of potentially coercive heterosex practices as “just sex” (Gavey). Where arranged marriage fanfiction departs from the generic conventions of romance novels is again in the distribution of emotion work between the partners. In stories where consummation is explicitly addressed as coercive or potentially coercive, another sex scene later in the relationship may take its place in establishing the Happily Ever After ending.

XVII illustrates well the problematic nature of marriage consummation within arranged marriage fanfiction. In this story, when Thor meets Loki and finds he is not a giant, he is immediately sexually attracted to him. Once the wedding feast is over and the couple are alone in their room, Loki makes it clear that he expects the marriage to be consummated even though he is not feeling enthusiastic about the prospect. When Thor refuses on the basis that Loki would clearly not be a willing participant, Loki is both confused and angry. He accuses Thor of making a fool of him and continues to be cold and hostile but eventually accepts that he has some agency within their marriage. There is a similar, though far less confrontational, conversation in Bride. This time it is Loki who makes it clear that Thor’s consent matters and that he will not insist on consummating the marriage unless Thor is willing. Thor, while nervous, does prove willing, though the language used in reaching their [End Page 15] mutual agreement to have sex is rather formal and carries connotations of meeting expectations, both social and each other’s:

‘I would not have you unwilling,’ Loki says, turning toward Thor. ‘I’m not a monster. This marriage was no more of my making than of yours. We needn’t punish each other for it.’

‘It is no punishment,’ Thor answers. ‘It is a gift, is it not? I mean to keep my promises. I would not rob my husband of the pleasures of his wedding night.’

‘Nor I mine,’ Loki agrees, smiling.

Thor’s phrasing of his consent reflects the discursive construction of the institution of marriage and the wedding ceremony, as it clearly references – and legitimises – the expectations of sexual intercourse generated by their wedding. The word “rob” in particular implies a sense of obligation on Thor’s part and an entitlement for Loki. In XVII, Thor thinks that wedding night rape is “not an uncommon practice, but certainly no practice Thor would ever take part in,” while Loki concedes that he “did not expect [Thor] to be so honorable.” In Bride, while ultimately the expectation is met and the marriage is consummated, this only happens with mutual agreement. It is Loki’s final response in this exchange, picking up on the implications of Thor’s phrasing and the word “rob”, which performs the work of putting them on equal footing, as it acknowledges that the entitlement and obligation of being a new husband applies in reverse too.

The status of marriage as a legal institution is a key factor which influences and shapes the practice of marriage consummation. In the Western legal context, there are consequences for non-consummation which may put one or both parties at risk. As Smart argues, “[t]he civil law on marriage is still interested in whether marital intercourse takes place, and whether the child of a woman is also the child of her husband” (92). In the UK, for instance, non-consummation is grounds for annulment (except for same-gender couples) (“When You Can Annul a Marriage”), which in turn has different legal implications to divorce. In the US, annulment may have a significant negative impact on an immigrant spouse’s application for permanent residence. The exact legal context for Thor and Loki’s marriage is not specified in either Bride or XVII. It is therefore possible to read these stories side by side with the complexities of marriage law. Loki’s anger at “being made a fool of” in XVII can be read as reflecting a similar concern with his legal situation as Thor’s husband. This again highlights the risks of a failed marriage, particularly for the partner with less power in the relationship, and therefore the stakes for the characters in making the relationship work. Far from being a risk taken willingly and in the name of love (Roach, Happily Ever After 24), however, the risks here are clearly ones the characters are forced to take for lack of other options, and potentially at peril of death.

When it comes to the actual consummation of Loki and Thor’s marriage in both Bride and XVII, emotion work plays a key role in facilitating meaningful consent between unequal partners. As previously discussed, unlike in romance novels where emotion work is predominantly performed by the heroine who is also the partner with less leverage in the relationship (Radway; Regis; Roach, “Getting a Good Man”), emotion work in both these stories is performed by the partner who is more powerful: Thor in XVII, and Loki in Bride. [End Page 16] This applies not only to the emotion work needed to build trust within the relationship but also to that needed to ensure any consent given is and continues to be meaningful.

In Bride, the conversation between Loki and Thor once they are alone in their room quickly becomes an equal exchange, both of them working towards building trust and rapport. However, once they agree to consummate the marriage, it is Loki who works to read Thor’s feelings, calm his nerves, and provide reassurance. In XVII, after Thor’s initial refusal to consummate his marriage with an unwilling Loki, the couple grow closer over the course of weeks, largely due to Thor’s efforts to make Loki feel more comfortable and at ease with him. Their first kiss is triggered by a scuffle following a trip away from Asgard during which Loki is verbally assaulted by another character. The kiss leads on to the consummation of their marriage, but throughout this scene Thor continues to consciously read Loki’s reactions and feelings, and verbally or through gestures asks for consent on several occasions:

It gets Thor hot all over, and suddenly he has too many clothes on, and this isn’t going fast enough.

Thor leans back and Loki looks angry, not because Thor is kissing him but because he’s stopped. The look disappears once Thor pulls him upright and leads him to the bed. Loki understands then what’s happening. He keeps himself pressed very close to Thor, like he can’t stand to be pulled away from him right now. Thor doesn’t move them onto the bed though, not yet. He searches Loki’s eyes, tries to figure out what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling. He made a promise before, and he means to keep it, despite the lust that grips him tight all over and threatens to drive him crazy.

Here, Thor repeatedly performs the bodily emotion work (Hochschild 562) of controlling his own desire. As he is both the more powerful partner in the relationship and the one who so far has shown a greater desire for sex, this is a key indicator that he is actively thinking about issues of consent and looking to ensure that Loki has the space to deny or withdraw consent if needed. To that end, Thor is also carefully reading Loki’s emotional expressions in order to be able to react and adapt to them. This stands in stark contrast to the findings by Umberson et al. where emotion work around sexuality and desire was performed predominantly by women who desired less sex than their partner, with the aim of increasing their own desire (550). Read side by side with women’s own experiences of such emotion work, this story therefore reveals some key differences. It and other arranged marriage fanfiction stories construct the partner who is more powerful in the relationship and desires more sex as the one responsible for the emotion work of managing their desire and of ensuring that any sexual consent is meaningful. Where the dominant cultural construction of potentially coercive heterosex is “just sex” (Gavey), in these stories this is challenged and presented as “potentially rape” unless, through emotion work and a conscious effort to negotiate and manage power inequalities, consent has been made truly meaningful. [End Page 17]


Arranged marriage fanfiction can be seen as part of several different archives (Derecho 64): the romance novel genre as a whole, fanfiction, the archive surrounding the originary work the fanfiction is based on, as well as potentially that of readers’ and writers’ own life experiences and relationships with dominant cultural discourses of sexuality and consent. Reading arranged marriage fanfiction in this way – side by side with romance novels, originary works, other fanfiction, as well as dominant discourses on consent – gives access to a range of meanings created through similarities and differences with aspects of these different archives.

Arranged marriage fanfiction retains certain key generic conventions of the romance novel: the Happily Ever After ending and the climactic sex scene. However, fanfiction stories employing this trope also directly address issues of power imbalances and inequalities in relationships, casting marriage as an institution which reproduces and potentially exacerbates them. This construction of marriage is built on both its legal and formal aspects, as well as the social and emotional ones. As a result, these stories reframe the practice of consummation – an often taken for granted feature of marriage, commonly constructed as “just sex” – as at least potentially coercive. To resolve this conflict and retain the Happily Ever After ending, arranged marriage fanfiction stories also make key changes to the generic conventions of romance novels, particularly in the way the HEA ending is achieved. Where in romance novels the transformation of the relationship is effected predominantly through the heroine’s emotion work – that is, her effort to understand and support the hero – in fanfiction it is the partner with more power in the relationship, the equivalent of the romance novel hero, whose responsibility it is to perform this emotion work. Through it, inequalities in the relationship are negotiated, the playing field is levelled, and space for meaningful consent (or the denial or withdrawal thereof) is created. It is these changes which allow arranged marriage fanfiction stories to challenge dominant discourses of “just sex” and cast them as “potentially rape”. An alternative discourse then emerges where through emotion work and a conscious effort to negotiate and manage power inequalities, consent is made truly meaningful.

[1] Kudos are a feature of the Archive of Our Own which allows readers to quickly and easily express their appreciation of a story through clicking a single button. A logged-in user can only leave kudos on a story once. The number of kudos on any given story is driven by several factors beyond quality or even popularity of the story: how long it has been available on the archive, how big the community around that particular fandom is, or even the format of the work. Ranking by kudos is therefore a good way to find stories within a single fandom for a long time, but it may miss more recent stories. This method has significant issues when trying to compare the popularity of stories across different fandoms.

[2] The Marvel character Thor is loosely based on Norse mythology. He is a member of the Aesir, an extremely long-lived and god-like (albeit human in appearance) race who inhabit a world called Asgard. Asgard’s historical enemies in the MCU canon are the Frost Giants or Jötnar (singular: Jötun), a race of large, humanoid, blue-skinned creatures who inhabit the ice world Jötunheim. [End Page 18]

[3] Intersex representation in both Norse mythology and Thor/Loki fanfiction is a fascinating topic that is beyond the scope of this research. I am using the pronouns “he/his/him” for Loki in this paper in line with both mythological and fan community usage. [End Page 19]

Works Cited

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Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Barot, Len. “Queer Romance in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century America: Snapshots of a Revolution.” Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom?, edited by William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger, Routledge, 2016, pp. 389-404.

Derecho, Abigail. “Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, McFarland & Co, 2006, pp. 61-78.

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Erickson, Rebecca J. “Why Emotion Work Matters: Sex, Gender, and the Division of Household Labor.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 67, no. 2, (2005,): pp. 337-351.

Gavey, Nicola. Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. Routledge, 2005.

Gavey, Nicola, and Kathryn McPhillips. “Subject to Romance: Heterosexual Passivity as an Obstacle to Women Initiating Condom Use.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol. 23, 1999, 349-367.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. “Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 85, no.3, 1979, pp. 551-575.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge, 1992.

Kustritz, Anne. “Slashing the Romance Narrative.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 26, no. 3, 2003, pp. 371-385.

Lamb, Patricia, and Diana Veith. “Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines.” Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature, edited by Donald Palumbo,  Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 235-256.

MacKinnon, Catharine. Towards a Feminist Theory of the State. Harvard University Press, 1989.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women. 1982. Routledge, 2008.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Roach, Catherine. “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 ,2010, n. pag.

Roach, Catherine M. Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Indiana University Press, 2016. [End Page 20]

“Romance Readers.” RWA, n.d., Accessed 5/16/2018.

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Smart, Carol. Feminism and the Power of Law. Routledge, 1989.

Stasi, Mafalda. “The Toy Soldiers from Leeds: The Slash Palimpsest.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, McFarland & Co, 2006, pp. 115-133.

stereobone. “XVII.” Archive of Our Own, 2013. Accessed 3/30/2016.

Tag Wrangling Committee. “The Past, Present, and Hopeful Future for Tags and Tag Wrangling on the AO3.” Archive of Our Own, 2012, Accessed 5/16/2018.

themantlingdark. “Bride.” Archive of Our Own, 2013. Accessed 3/30/2016.

Thor. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, performances by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2011.

Thor: The Dark World. Directed by Alan Taylor, performances by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2013.

Umberson, Debra, Mieke Beth Thomeer, and Amy C. Lodge. “Intimacy and Emotion Work in Lesbian, Gay, and Heterosexual Relationships.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 77, no. 2, 2015, pp. 542-556.

“When You Can Annul a Marriage.” Gov.UK, 2016, Accessed 3/30/2016. [End Page 21]


Troubleshooting Post-9/11 America: Religion, Racism, and Stereotypes in Suzanne Brockmann’s Into the Night and Gone Too Far
by Kecia Ali

In the years since 2001, the number of “desert,” “sheik,” or “Orientalist” romance novels published has “exponentially increased” (Burge 182).[1] Alongside the greater prominence of soldier-heroes (Kamblé, Making Meaning), including those engaged in a fictionalized Middle East/Muslim world, these romances illustrate the central place of America’s so-called War on Terror in popular fantasies and anxieties. Even though readers, authors, and editors alike deny any relationship between the rising popularity of such novels and U.S. involvement in Muslim-majority nations (Jarmakani, “Sheik” 994, An Imperialist Love Story ix; Holden 3), popular romance demonstrably reflects current controversies (Kamblé, Making Meaning) even if specific geopolitical topics are omitted (Teo 197, 284).

Suzanne Brockmann is among those authors whose work directly addresses United States military and intelligence involvement in the (broadly conceived) Middle East and in the fight against what it considers Islamic terrorism. Brockmann (b. 1960) has published over fifty novels since 1993. Roughly half feature military heroes, mostly Navy SEALs. Brockmann began her career writing stand-alone category romances. Her eleven-book Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series (1996-2003, abbreviated TDD), first published in Silhouette’s Intimate Moments line, centers on the members of SEAL Team Ten. The series has recurring characters but mostly independent plots. Her Troubleshooters series (2000-, abbreviated TS), on which this article focuses, comprises larger single-title romances with intricate suspense plots and deeply interdependent storylines carried out over fifteen full-length novels, a novella, and two anthologies. After a hiatus during which Brockmann worked on other creative projects, another novel came out in July 2017. Troubleshooters follows SEAL Team Sixteen, a group of FBI Counterterrorism agents, and former members of both groups who form a private security firm called Troubleshooters, “the equivalent of a civilian SEAL Team” (TS #6 311). Seven of the books incorporate World War II subplots.

The Troubleshooters books merge “progressive, feminist, and antiracist politics” with “jingoistic patriotism,” according to Hsu-Ming Teo, who writes briefly about Brockmann in her study of Orientalism and romance novels (277). Teo’s claim is borne out by the overlaps and divergences between these agendas in the first two Troubleshooters installments written after 9/11. Published in 2002, Into the Night (TS #5) revolves around an al-Qaeda assassination attempt on the president at a San Diego naval base. A Muslim terrorist, whose identity is revealed in the last third of the book, exploits the disintegrating marriage of SEAL Sam Starrett to smuggle weapons onto the base by tricking his estranged wife Mary Lou. It ends with the attack mostly thwarted, a fall guy badly injured, and the real terrorist escaping because racial profiling casts suspicion on the wrong person. In the 2003 novel Gone Too Far (TS #6), Mary Lou and her young daughter flee, fearing retribution; Sam and his FBI-agent love interest Alyssa Locke track them down while hunting the terrorist, apprehended in the book’s climax. Gone Too Far shifts the focus from anti-Arab bigotry to contemporary anti-black racism, America’s history of white supremacy, and the healing possibilities of interracial relationships. Over the course of these two novels, Mary Lou and Sam, both white, find lasting happiness with non-white partners—in Mary Lou’s case, Ihbraham Rahman, an [End Page 2] Arab immigrant suspected of being a terrorist. This pair of novels focuses intently on stereotypes, race, and what it means to be an American.

This article proceeds in four sections. The first briefly surveys the post-9/11 American climate of ideas about Islam and Muslims. The second shows how Into the Night both draws upon and critiques stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. The third compares Ihbraham to sheikh heroes, showing that rather than playing into assumptions about race, religion, and liberal (white) feminist savior projects, Brockmann portrays America as in need of reform. The fourth section concentrates on Gone Too Far, shifting the discussion on race, difference, and American identity to anti-black racism and interracial relationships. I conclude that although Brockmann acknowledges the importance of large-scale social change, she concentrates on and values personal transformation achieved via humanizing intimate connection across lines of racial difference.


In the twenty-first century, Islam and Muslims have taken on a new salience in the construction of (white) American identity, with the male terrorist as a frightening embodiment of unassimilable difference. To be sure, Muslims and the Middle East were on American minds long before the September 11 attacks, with the OPEC-driven oil crises of the 1970s, Iran’s 1979 revolution, and the Libyan-sponsored airplane hijacking in the 1980s. However, these events were overshadowed by, and understood within the frame of, the Cold War. So long as it endured, communists were cast as America’s main enemy. During the 1980s, for instance, the United States allied with religious Muslims, funding the Afghan mujahidin who were fighting the Soviet army.

The fall of the communist bloc overlapped with a series of attacks on American targets in the United States and overseas by Muslim extremist groups, including al-Qaeda. The first World Trade Center bombing (1993) was followed by bombings of Air Force housing in Saudi Arabia (Khobar Towers, 1996), East African embassies (Nairobi and Dar El Salaam, 1998), and a Navy vessel (USS Cole, 2000), as well as the thwarted Millennium plot (Oregon, 1999). All helped shift American attention to a new enemy. The 2001 attacks and their aftermath cemented the figure of the Muslim terrorist as the prime threat to American safety—a strengthening of existing pop-culture images of Arab villains (Shaheen, Arjana). U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, justified on shaky grounds including pursuit of the attackers, punishing complicit governments, possession of weapons of mass destruction, or liberation of oppressed Muslim women, have mired the United States in a seemingly never-ending War on Terror. Intervention has led to hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect civilian casualties in the region, far surpassing the percentage of Americans killed on 9/11.

Most Americans think about this war’s toll less in terms of Muslim deaths and suffering overseas than its impact on American soldiers killed or physically, mentally, or morally injured, and the weight of these deaths and injuries on military spouses and families.[2] Although Brockmann wrote Into the Night and Gone Too Far in the post-9/11 climate of fear of Muslims, her oeuvre is “less an affirmation of predominant political ideology than might be suspected of novels in the warrior romance category” (Kamble, “Patriotism” 160). She acknowledges the messiness of war and the toll it takes on both [End Page 3] American soldiers and on (Muslim) civilians in conflict zones. Moreover, her Troubleshooters bad guys come in many flavors. Some, like al-Qaeda (TS #5, TS #6, TS#7), are explicitly Muslim; others, including Central Asian airplane hijackers, implicitly so (TS #3). Religious extremists collaborate with garden-variety wrongdoers. A non-Muslim mercenary does the bidding of Muslim extremists off-screen, then seeks revenge for personal losses (TS #1 20, 205). Drugs and weapons smugglers who dabble in misogynist violence and pornography are mixed up with Muslim terrorists (TS #11). Other terrorists include the right-wing, patriarchal, white supremacist (and hypocritically anti-Muslim) Freedom Network (TS #8, #13, described [TDD #7 7] as “homegrown terrorists with racist, Neo-Nazi leanings and a fierce hatred for the federal government.”). Other installments feature dictator/drug lords (TS #4, #10), serial killers (TS #9, #15) and human traffickers (TS #16).

In the two books published directly after 9/11, in which Middle Eastern/Muslim terrorists threaten American institutions, Brockmann acknowledges and works to counter anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bias. Her work can be understood as part of a push—supported at least rhetorically by then-president George W. Bush—to refuse the equation of Islam with terrorism. In the decade and a half that followed, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the idea that Muslims are necessarily America’s enemies has gained traction. A network of well-funded individuals and groups has deliberately cultivated anti-Muslim sentiment (Center for American Progress, Fear, Inc., Fear, Inc. 2.0); and the idea that Islam is incompatible with American life has moved from fringe to mainstream (Bail). The so-called Muslim bans enacted by executive order in early 2017 build on earlier anti-terrorist immigration restrictions and government surveillance programs, as well as clash-of-civilizations ideologies, as does the administration’s decision to focus its Countering Violent Extremism program solely on Islamic extremism.

These recent alarming developments draw on centuries of ideas about Islam and Muslims (Lyons, Arjana)—mostly but not exclusively negative. Western discourses around Islam, gender, and sexuality have long relied on a sustained tension between attraction and repulsion (Ali, Sexual Ethics, Lives of Muhammad). Building on the work of scholars including Edward Said, Lila Abu Lughod coined the term Islamland to describe the imaginary universe that Muslims inhabit in the mind of many Westerners. In Islamland, women are oppressed, men are patriarchal, and religion determines everything. Timeless and unchanging, Islamland bears only tenuous relationship to actual Muslim or Middle Eastern settings. So, too, Islamland’s shadow: Arabiastan (Jarmakani, An Imperialist Love Story 11-13). Amira Jarmakani’s term Arabiastan names the fictionalized, anonymized Gulf kingdoms in which astoundingly virile, impossibly wealthy, often royal sheikh heroes find their happily-ever-afters in the arms of plucky, usually white do-gooder heroines.

Brockmann navigates between these poles throughout the Troubleshooter series, steering closer to Islamland than to Arabiastan with her portrayal of the fictional Kazbekistan, “nicknamed The Pit” (TS #3 63). There, corrupt warlords rule through violence and women and girls suffer terribly (e.g., TS #7 93-94). Though Iraq and Afghanistan appear, the fictional Kazbekistan looms larger.[3] Notably, though, Brockmann’s depictions of Kazbekistan and its extremists, including the hijackers who take over a plane in the series’ third installment—written before 9/11 but released shortly after—scrupulously avoid making the bad guys piously Muslim or assigning them religious motivations. Still, Islamland tropes remain recognizable: in her 2008 survey of Brockmann’s work, Sarah Frantz describes Troubleshooters’ invocation of “the harsh realities of life in a third-world Islamic [End Page 4] nation” (13) even though religion remains implicit. Brockmann’s immediate post-9/11 Troubleshooters novels blend reticence about and direct engagement with stereotypes about Islam and Muslims even as they imagine terrorism on U.S. soil.


Although most SEAL activity takes place outside the continental United States, Into the Night (TS #5) imagines a domestic target: al-Qaeda plans to assassinate the president when he visits Team Sixteen’s San Diego naval base. The book’s primary romance is between a SEAL lieutenant and a White House staffer. A secondary storyline tracks the imploding marriage of Sam and Mary Lou Starrett and their involvements—past or current—with non-white partners. Mary Lou’s developing relationship with Ihbraham serves as the pivot for key character developments as well as the novel’s action, with inaccurate prejudices playing a key role in both. Sam’s multi-book relationship arc with mixed-race FBI sharpshooter Alyssa finds resolution in Gone Too Far (TS #6), as does Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s storyline.[4]

Mary Lou Starrett, née Morrison, begins as an unsympathetic character. A lower-class alcoholic with a somewhat traumatic past (TS #5 150-54; Teo 276), she and Sam have a hot but shallow affair mostly off page in Over the Edge (TS #3 8, 50). She turns up pregnant a few months after he’s broken things off, putting the brakes on the relationship finally started by Sam and Alyssa; he withdraws from that relationship to do what he considers the honorable thing, marrying Mary Lou (TS #3 374-5, 383-86).

By the time Into the Night opens, their marriage has badly stagnated. Both love their young daughter and Mary Lou remains committed to sobriety. She does her best to please Sam—keeping house impeccably, being sexually available—but cannot or will not acknowledge Sam’s difficult wartime experiences. After realizing that she deplored any show of weakness on his part, Sam “had given up trying to make his marriage work … and started merely to endure” (TS #5 185). Sam came to understand that “she didn’t love him any more than he loved her. She loved the idea of him, sure. She maybe even loved the image she’d built of him in her head—some superman who never doubted himself, never faltered, and never failed” (TS #5 185). Sam believes that Mary Lou “had no real desire to get to know him—especially if the real him deviated from the picture-perfect super-him she held in her head” (TS #5 185). She wanted the fantasy SEAL and the fantasy home-life, not a real man with emotions and vulnerabilities (similarly, TS #6 191). Mary Lou’s “denial” of “the complexity and reality of his character” appears in Into the Night as “what dooms her relationship with Sam” (Frantz, “I’ve tried my entire life” 211).

As her marriage falls apart, two very different men befriend and court Mary Lou. Bob Schwegel is an attractive white man she runs into repeatedly, first at the library and then elsewhere. Mary Lou thinks that he “looked like Heath Ledger’s older, sexier brother” (TS #5 94). She is flattered and a bit surprised at the attention he pays to her and her daughter, such as offering to carry her books and load them in her car’s trunk, until she learns that he is an insurance salesman; she then presumes his attentiveness is designed to sell her a policy. He eventually tries to seduce her. Her other suitor is Saudi-born landscaper Ihbraham Rahman: dark-skinned, bearded, and foreign. Mary Lou had thought, when she first saw him, that “he [End Page 5] looked as if he might spend his free time organizing an al-Qaeda terrorist cell” (TS #5 81). While Bob reminds her of a Hollywood star, Ihbraham looks like a film villain, “the homicidal terroristic Muslim [who] stalks the Western social imaginary” (Arjana 2). The more Mary Lou learns, though, the more Ihbraham does not conform to her mental model of an Arab Muslim. Like her, he is a recovering alcoholic; he explains that though “Muslims have laws in which drinking alcohol is forbidden … many still do [drink]” (TS #5 82, emphasis in original).

As Mary Lou’s marriage deteriorates, she interacts with these two men, flirting with Bob and coming to rely on Ihbraham as a support for her sobriety (e.g., TS #5 294-297). Meanwhile, Husaam Abdul Fattah has been surveilling Mary Lou. Brockmann sets up uncertainty about the terrorist’s identity: the things he does (make first contact with her, use her vehicle to sneak weapons onto the base where she works a menial part-time job) are things that intersect with Ihbraham’s actions, like making a duplicate car key for her.

Brockmann’s misdirection suggests to readers steeped in media portrayals of Arab Muslim terrorists that Ihbraham is leading a double life, deceiving Mary Lou, who remains unaware of the brewing assassination plot. However, readers eventually learn that Bob—actually Warren Canton from Kansas—is the terrorist. Although a Muslim, he is not “really … a religious man” (TS #5 437); his conversion was motivated by the profit to be obtained from smuggling at the behest of al-Qaeda collaborators, and not any sincere belief: “He’d worship zucchini squash if it would help him bring home the kind of money he was earning these days” (430).[5]

Brockmann simultaneously plays to readers’ expectations, by making a Muslim with an Arabic name the villain, and confounds them: the villain is a white guy who goes by Bob while the brown man with the funny foreign name is trustworthy. FBI agent Jules Cassidy, who as a gay man knows about stereotypes, later observes: “We hear a name like Abdul-Fattah, and we automatically think terrorist, we think Arab, we think Muslim extremist. … we certainly don’t think white American using an alias” (TS #6 497, emphasis in original). The “flip side of racial profiling” is the presumption of white innocence (497).

Even as Brockmann manipulates her readers into assuming, or at least worrying, that Ihbraham is a terrorist, she directly addresses the prejudices that led them to do so. Readers are privy to Mary Lou’s changing thoughts as well as to her interactions with Ihbraham. In her “Readers’ Guide to the Troubleshooter Series” (7), Brockmann lists Into the Night’s point-of-view characters (her term). She includes the hero and heroine of the main romantic storyline and the WWII subplot, Sam, Mary Lou, and “the terrorist.” (She presumably refrains from naming Husaam/Bob/Warren to avoid spoilers.) Despite Ihbraham’s centrality, readers learn only what others think about him.[6] Though he has been keeping the neighbors’ yard looking good, Mary Lou thinks, “really, after 9/11, who wanted strange Arabs prowling around their neighborhood?” (TS #5 81). After they have become friendly but long before the relationship turns romantic, Mary Lou is sitting on a neighbor’s step, and he asks whether he can join her. She says, “You don’t have to ask to sit down. It’s a free country.” He responds with an understated commentary on American racism: “Free more for some than for others. I’ve learned never to assume” (124-125). His reaction is not surprising when, as Sophia Arjana observes, “The portrayal of Muslims as the antithesis of good Americans is not only common—it is the norm” (10).

Mary Lou gradually gains enough distance from her initial prejudice to consider what “most people” would “assume, from the color of his skin and from the way he looked”: “that he was dangerous” (TS #5 125). She herself had done so, though her reaction had changed. [End Page 6] Yet she is not immune to powerful biases. Brockmann depicts Mary Lou’s halting, tenuous, partial unlearning of racist stereotypes. Stereotypes are tenacious and undoing them involves reversals and uncertainties. On the one occasion Bob, Ihbraham, and Mary Lou are all in one place, Ihbraham walks away to speak with other Arab men who have come to see him. Bob mentions Ihbraham’s name and his appearance to sow distrust, telling Mary Lou, “He could be the poster boy for al-Qaeda” (TS #5 277). Neither the reader nor Mary Lou yet knows that Bob is actually the al-Qaeda operative, but Mary Lou begins a heated rejoinder— “Well, he’s not, and you’re being racist to assume…”—only to break off, doubting herself, when one of the “darkly complexioned” men attacks Ihbraham (277-78). (She later learns that they are his brothers; the argument is about nothing more sinister than the family car dealership.) When her emotions run high, Mary Lou reacts with racist assumptions. When the novel’s action comes to a head, Mary Lou—who has already declared her love for Ihbraham—wonders whether he is, in fact, a terrorist. The reader knows better, but Mary Lou still worries that Ihraham and his brothers, “all those Arabic faces and voices, dark with anger” (444), might be responsible for the attack at the naval base.

When the attack occurs, both Ihbraham and Bob/Husaam are in the audience. The terrorist mastermind has used his whiteness to enter the base with minimal scrutiny. He reflects: “Despite claims that this country avoided racial profiling, there were far more places he could go with his fair skin and light-colored eyes and hair than could most people who had such an obviously Muslim name” (TS #5 429). He manipulates a group of white bikers to beat up Ihbraham by insinuating that Ihbraham is doing something suspicious. Ihbraham suffer serious injuries. Because attention is diverted to the man who looks like a terrorist, the real terrorist escapes (447), just as he counts on (458).


In American popular culture, the (Arab/Muslim) terrorist and the (white/American) military hero starkly oppose one another (Shaheen, Arjana). However, soldiers, particularly the spec-ops warriors and Navy SEALS who have risen to unprecedented cultural prominence in the last decade and a half (Chelton), are at times problematically like their terrorist opponents. They use secrecy and stealth; they kill without qualms. Jayashree Kamblé argues that the “warrior hero” often presents “a critique of American patriotic aggression” (“Patriotism” 153). As she notes, “many novels waver between expressing a ‘support our troops’ rhetoric and agonizing over the post-traumatic stress and moral impoverishment that soldiers experience as a result of combat” (154). This is certainly true for Brockmann’s novels—indeed, Sam’s sadness and guilt over agonizing choices he has had to make is something that Mary Lou cannot accept.

In addition to the soldier, the terrorist has another shadow: the sheikh. If Islamland sutures negative images of Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners into a fabricated whole, Arabiastan offers the flip side of Orientalist stereotypes: “fantastical kingdom[s]” (Holden 7) and “fairy-tale sheikhdoms superimposed over, and obliterating, the complex geopolitical realities of the Middle East” (Teo 214). Recent scholarship on sheikh romances emphasizes the (white) liberal feminist fantasies they shore up. Stacy Holden (17) suggests that sheikh novels are “a form of socio-political erotica” providing “explicit images and arousing [End Page 7] fantasies in which Arabs and Americans ultimately live together in peace.” Teo likewise observes that they are one of the few positive pop culture representations of Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle East (25-26), though Jarmakani emphasizes more sinister implications of the subgenre (Imperialist Love Story).

In desert romances, the white heroine inspires the sheikh to reform or modernize his (fictional) nation (Jarmakani, “Sheikh”; Holden), or supports him in the face of opposition. Sheikh romances simultaneously draw on and recast stereotypes about racialized Arab/Muslim men. Unlike other violent, backward Arab/Muslim men, the hero rejects despotism, religious extremism, and absolutism. He also rejects passive Muslim women (Teo 14). Unlike the figure more prevalent in “the West’s imaginaire of Islam” of “the Muslim as a frightening adversary, an outside enemy … who, due to an intrinsic alterity, must be excluded from American and European landscapes” (Arjana 2), in liberal feminist-Orientalist desert romances, the sheikh’s transformation at the hands of the white woman renders him acceptable.

Brockmann’s approach differs. Rather than selectively replacing “negative stereotypes” of vaguely Arab/Muslim characters with “exotically upbeat” ones as sheikh romances do (Holden 3), or writing exoticized Muslim-ish characters into military roles as Lindsay McKenna has, Brockmann writes an Arab character who mostly confounds these stereotypes.[7] Troubleshooters storylines treat Arab and Muslim Americans sympathetically while “confirming the dominant narrative … that Muslim terrorists are the enemies of the United States” and “the American military … is justified in waging war on Afghanistan” and elsewhere (Teo 277).

Brockmann never directly confronts the romanticized sheikh. Instead, she displaces the fantasy narrative of racial reconciliation from Arabiastan to America, and flips the script: it is the heroine, not the hero, who undergoes transformation. In the desert novels, with their literal embrace of white women, sheikh heroes metaphorically embrace companionate marriage and liberal feminist projects.[8] The white savior woman is not only their love but also the partner in or catalyst for transforming their societies. In Into the Night and Gone Too Far, on the other hand, it is not the Arab man but the white woman who is transformed, and her society that requires further transformation.[9]

Ihbraham, intermittently exotic and ambivalently American, offers a beta rejoinder to dominant models of heroic masculinity, challenging certain racialized assumptions about Arab/Muslim men. Ihbraham serves as an anti-sheikh without being his terrorist doppelganger. He grew up in California. He lives in a mundane world of family businesses rather than royal politics: a family dispute over an arranged marriage involves a proposed merger with his fiancée’s family’s BMW dealership (TS #5 295, 322-23). He is neither aggressively Westernized nor strictly devout. He resembles neither Harlequin Presents’ wealthy, suave sheikhs nor Brockmann’s larger-than-life and twice as sexy SEALs.

Central to the sheikh genre is its hero: a virile alpha male with money, which symbolizes and grants power (Cohn): “Animalistic yet sensitive, dark and sexy, this desert prince emanates manliness and raw sexual power” (Jarmakani, Imperalist Love Story 1). The sheikh, “largely the descendent of the Byronic hero commingled with the Gothic villain,” has connotations of “irresistible, ruthless, masterful, and over-sexualized masculinity” (Teo 160, 1). Arjana notes that “[m]ale Muslim monsters are typically hyper-masculine—aggressive, overly sexual, and violent—characters that also function as tableaux of desire and fantasy” (11). These constructions of monstrous Muslim masculinity resonate with white depictions [End Page 8] of Black men, including but not limited to African Muslims (Arjana). “Muslim monsters,” Arjana (15) writes, “are not just masculine—they are outrageously so, with superhuman sexual powers, an otherworldly kind of strength, and an unfathomable propensity for violence.”[10]

To be desirable, though, a sheikh hero must be more manly than monstrous. In other words, he must be differentiated from his terrorist counterpart. Readers who cannot separate them—like the reader who insists that “my enjoyment of reading romances with Arab hero’s [sic] and harems … came down with the twin towers”—typically reject the subgenre entirely (Teo 191; also Jarmanaki, Imperialist Love Story 13, 134-37). Sheikh romances partly effect this separation between man and monster by effacing religion: Islam, strongly associated with terrorism in many minds, becomes largely incidental. The Harlequin Presents’ sheikh hero will not be “too Muslim.” He observes no religious rituals. He drinks wines with dinner, signaling not just his breach of religious rules but also his elite sensibility. He probably attended Oxford or an Ivy League school. Thus, although “[t]he sheikh in this post-9/11 novel is ethnically Arab”—unlike earlier iterations where he was proven racially European (read: white)—“he is culturally quite Western in his orientation” (Holden 5).

Though religion in no way dominates Brockmann’s discussion of Ihbraham, neither is it simply ignored. Ihbraham abstains from drinking—but as part of a struggle with addiction.[11] This does not mean a complete rejection of Islam: though his parents “chose to embrace the ways of the West and to serve and drink alcohol … yet we observed Ramadan and practiced our faith in other ways” (TS#5 83). He points out the messiness of people’s religious practice, and rejects simple either/or categorizations.

Ihbraham’s hybrid dress style contrasts with sheikh heroes’ desert robes or bespoke suits; he “dressed kind of the way Jesus might dress if He were alive today” (TS# 5 124). His “loose pants,” “leather sandals,” and “worn-out T-shirt” are hybrid garb rather than the robes that symbolize sheikh heroes’ cultural background and masculine potency (Jarmakani, Imperialist Love Story 158; Holden 9; Teo 237). Rather than display professional status or family wealth, his nondescript clothing suits the manual labor he performs. Yet he doesn’t wear that most American of garments: jeans. And, T-shirt notwithstanding, his skin tone and beard enable others to identify him as Arab and Muslim. His physical attributes and grooming as well as his clothes distinguish him from others. Mary Lou reflects on a meeting with Bob: “His blond hair gleamed in the sunshine, his chin was smoothly shaved, and his shirt was crisply white—obviously freshly laundered beneath his well-tailored business suit” (TS #5 231). These descriptions set up repeated contrasts: Ihbraham is dark; Bob is blond. Ihbraham is bearded; Bob is clean-shaven. Bob wears a pristine white shirt and a well-cut suit, while Ihbraham wears a “worn-out T shirt” and “loose pants.” While both men smell good, Ihbraham scent garners additional descriptions: “like fresh-cut grass and some kind of exotic fragrance—sandalwood” (223). Ihbraham’s clothing contrasts also with the “more expensive” suits and “shiny sweat suit” worn by three of his countrymen, who accost him when they are out together, building suspicion about him (277), and with the uniforms SEALs routinely wear.

Ihbraham differs from sheikh heroes not only in having a different class status, as manifest in his clothing and occupation, but also in the desexualized manner in which Brockmann describes him. His appearance is unusual, even appealing, but not lust-inducing. His accent is “lilting” (TS #5 251) and his voice is “musical, gentle” (341).[12] Ihbraham is “so very foreign-looking” and “dark” (TS #5 125), but this exoticism remains mostly divorced [End Page 9] from sizzle or sex appeal. Unlike most sheikh romances, where if either partner is sexually inexperienced or hesitant it will be the (white) woman (Jarmakani, An Imperialist Love Story 163), Ihbraham is chaste. Though he is attracted to Mary Lou, apart from one “meltingly lovely” kiss in which he proves himself “gentle but in complete command” (TS #5 341), they do not become physically involved in Into the Night. Indeed, Ihbraham’s restraint affects Mary Lou’s modus operandi. The former bar bunny blushes when he complements her beauty. Though “there was nothing remotely … salacious in his eyes, and yet she’d never felt so completely overwhelmed before just from gazing back at a man” (252, emphasis in original). When talking with Ihbraham about accepting a dinner invitation from Bob, she ponders “what it would feel like to kiss a man with a beard like Ihbraham’s. What would it be like to make love to a man with such warm, all-seeing, yet gentle eyes?” And then she chastises herself: “Not that that would ever happen” (252, emphasis in original). Mary Lou later reflects that she “would have [cheated] if he’d have let me. I was that desperate” (TS #6 148). Ihbraham only refers obliquely to his desire for her; when they are committed at the end of Gone Too Far, he still speaks of spending the night together only via “innuendo.” He accompanies it with a sort of marriage proposal, giving Mary Lou the option to defer “our first night together until after we’re married” (476). He does not, however, insist on waiting, although their intimacy remains off-page.

Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s developing relationship provides numerous chances for them to (mis)communicate about gender, race, and double-standards. With their exchanges, Brockmann depicts an America that fails to meet its lofty ideals of racial or sexual equality. In “characterizing inequality as an Oriental practice that should not exist in the West” (Teo 267), Mary Lou occasionally critiques sexist practices and assumptions by figuring them as un-American (e.g., TS #5 374-76). In such conversations, she displays what Joyce Zonana calls “feminist orientalism,” strategies that “figur[e] objectionable aspects of life in the West as ‘Eastern’” to “define their project as the removal of Eastern elements from Western life” (Zonana, quoted in Teo 232). Yet when Mary Lou talks to Ihbraham about how things are “here” in America as opposed to over there, readers should understand that she is not entirely reliable.

Mary Lou is not only an unreliable analyst of gender politics but also a failed feminist: she tried (and failed) to woo Sam by making herself submissive, compliant, and domestically perfect (TS #5 104-106, 319-21). According to Jarmakani, sheikh novels reject the Arab woman who makes herself small and subordinates her opinions, personhood, and desires to make herself agreeable (Imperialist Romance 80-82, 112-115). In Into The Night, this stereotype is displaced onto a white woman. Interestingly, both Ihbraham (TS #5 336-38) and Sam (321-22) agree that a loveless marriage for the sake of security is an unacceptable way for a woman to live. In being or becoming (again) herself, refusing to continue acting like a doormat, Mary Lou reminds Sam of her positive qualities—even as she leaves him. Mary Lou’s internalized sexism is subtly interwoven with her stereotypical ideas about Muslim gender norms. However, rather than make this realization or a recovery from retrograde gender norms the centerpiece of Mary Lou’s character arc, Brockmann prioritizes Mary Lou’s awareness of her own racist assumptions about non-white men, and fear of public opinion about her involvement in an interracial relationship. She must overcome both to have a successful relationship with Ihbraham. [End Page 10]


Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s relationship illustrates a key concern of Brockmann’s oeuvre: the ugliness and harmful effects of stereotypes and the possibility of moving past them. Like Brockmann’s other series, Troubleshooters has a somewhat diverse cast of characters. To a greater extent than most white authors, Brockmann explicitly acknowledges and connects racism, sexism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation. Prejudice plays a role in many of her novels. Harvard’s Education (TDD #5) features an African-American hero and heroine and draws crucial parallels between racist bigotry and sexism. The hero, acutely aware of racism (148-50), is offended when the heroine describes him as a bigot for holding sexist ideas (61). In Troubleshooters, racism and sexism play significant roles as does anti-gay prejudice. Gay FBI agent Jules Cassidy, Alyssa’s partner until she resigns to join Troubleshooters, often remarks on the negative impact of stereotypes. His character arc is the prime, although not the only, place that characters confront stereotypes and assumptions about gay people.[13]

Sam is central to discussions about racism, sexism, homophobia and the parallels among them. Alyssa thinks he’s racist (she’s wrong, as she will eventually learn in Gone Too Far), sexist (she’s not entirely wrong), and homophobic (he starts out that way, but he changes, as he gets to know Jules). In one encounter, Sam complains to Jules that Alyssa’s “expectations” of him get in the way: “She thinks I’m some rednecked asshole … She thinks she knows me, but she doesn’t have a clue. She’s prejudged, prelabeled, and prerejected me. How the fuck do you fight that?” Jules replies, “Well, gee, I couldn’t possibly know what that’s like.” Sam realizes that, “As a gay man, Jules had spent most of his life prejudged, prelabeled, and prerejected by most of society,” including Sam himself (TS #3 309-10, emphasis in original). Sam’s embeddedness in interracial relationships—romance, friendship, and family—is where the Troubleshooters books most engage the questions of race.

Interracial relationships figure in several Brockmann novels, often merely incidentally.[14] In Into the Night and Gone Too Far, however, the interracial dimensions of romantic relationships pose a crucial barrier (Regis 2003) to successful romantic resolutions, whether because of individual prejudice or broader societal racism. In Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s secondary romance, in the ultimate resolution of Sam and Alyssa’s romance, and in the historical WWII plotline interwoven in the latter novel, interracial elements dominate. Unlike in Into the Night, where the primary romance and the WWII subplot feature white couples, of the four engagements/marriages that take place in Gone Too Far, only one is a mono-racial couple: Kelly Ashton and Tom Paoletti, both white, whose perfunctory wedding follows a protracted engagement. Overcoming stereotypes, which pose one barrier to successful interracial relationships, is crucial to the story arc of Into the Night and Gone Too Far, and confronting—however incompletely—her own racism is a “redeeming” character development for Mary Lou (Leapheart).

Into the Night focuses on racial profiling of Arabs; in Gone Too Far, anti-Muslim/anti-Arab bigotry remains a concern (e.g., TS #6 148-49) but it cedes thematic centrality to anti-black racism. The thematic shift in Gone Too Far to anti-black racism suggests new questions about racial identity and categorization in Into the Night – especially as they are gendered and linked to reproduction. Where British romances from the early twentieth century were particularly preoccupied by miscegenation, the hybrid progeny resultant from the union of [End Page 11] Arab male and white female (Teo), in the US context as a whole, anti-blackness has been the central structuring principle of racially-based legal discrimination. Of course, the two are not easily separated. When Mary first kisses Ihbraham she thinks about the fact that anyone could see her kissing someone “black. Or brown. Certainly non-white” (TS #5 341).

Mary Lou mostly thinks about race in black and white terms. If “the specter of the silent and oppressed Arabiastani woman haunts the [sheikh] novel as a compelling absent presence” (Jarmakani, Imperialist Love Story, 113), in Troubleshooters the other woman who haunts Mary Lou’s floundering marriage is black. Her statement that “Alyssa’s black” (TS #5 338) is not precisely wrong; Alyssa sometimes describes herself as a “black woman” though she has mixed heritage (TS #3 47). When Mary Lou thinks of Sam and Alyssa having children, Mary Lou imagines their future son would be black, and that it would be difficult for Sam, as a white man, to raise a black child (TS #5 141, 339).[15] Without disagreeing with Mary Lou’s statement that “It’s way harder for a young black man to succeed in America than a young white man,” Ihbraham calmly confronts her with the genocidal logic of her thinking: “So should all non-white men and women in America therefore stop having children simply because life will be harder for them than it will be for your white children?” (TS #5 339). Much later, when she tells Ihbraham she loves him, he reminds her that she had worried about the well-being of dark-skinned children in a world that disadvantages them and warns that, “My sons may have skin as dark as mine” (TS #5 427). She acknowledges the potential difficulties, but affirms that she’s no longer looking for life to be easy. (Interestingly, both scenarios imagine sons rather than daughters, focusing on discrimination toward men and boys of color and ignoring girls and women of color.)

Over the course of these novels, Mary Lou shifts from working to maintain her fantasy American dream of marriage to a heroic (white) SEAL to being in love with and wanting to build a life with a dark-skinned Arab-American man – despite having once been so strongly opposed to interracial relationships that she’d have refused to marry “Jesus himself” if he came “down from heaven” but “didn’t have the same skin color she had”[16] (141). Despite such acknowledgments of her racism, Into the Night framed the problem with her marriage to Sam as her inability to accept Sam’s full humanity, including his ambivalence about deploying violence. In Gone Too Far, however, readers learn that her racism posed the most significant obstacle to marital harmony. Sam explains to Alyssa that it was when he learned Mary Lou was a racist that he abandoned any attempt to save their marriage: “It made her completely unattractive to me. … I couldn’t get past it. … That was when our marriage ended” (TS #6 366, emphasis in original). Her racism not only posed an obstacle to a liaison with Ihbraham, it had kept her from happiness with a white man.

Three interracial relationships structure Gone Too Far. First is that between Mary Lou and Ihbraham. Although they are apart for most of the novel, the question arises of how Mary Lou might have become involved with a terrorist. As Sam, Alyssa, and the FBI search for her, they consider various possibilities. An extramarital affair seems the most likely explanation for her (unwitting) involvement in the terrorist plot, but Sam cannot believe that she is romantically or sexually involved with Ihbraham. He cannot imagine that she is having sex with “an Arab-American with very dark skin” (TS #6 339) or indeed any “man who wasn’t Wonder Bread white” (340). Eventually, as those searching for the terrorist consider the he may not be Arab, Sam comes to wonder if “Rahman’s not the tango? What if it’s … a white guy, right, so Mary Lou’s okay sleeping with him[?]” (368) Though Sam is unaware, readers know that Mary Lou has slept with neither Ihbraham nor the white terrorist, has gotten past [End Page 12] her aversion to dark skin and her fears of being judged by others for being involved with a non-white man and of having biracial children (TS #5 395, 427).

In the other two relationship plots, which eventually intersect, race and racism play essential roles. In the primary romance storyline, between Sam and Alyssa, a black woman’s knowledge about a white man’s perspectives on race proves essential to her coming to know and trust him. Early in the novel, Alyssa declares, “Sam Starrett was full of surprises, not the least of them being that his best friend from his childhood was black” (TS #6 59). The World War II plot line involves a marriage between a former Tuskegee Airman and a white woman. This woman turns out to be Sam’s aunt Dot, his abusive, racist father’s sister. Her husband Walt serves as a surrogate father to Sam. The childhood friend is actually Sam’s first cousin once removed, Walt and Dot’s grandchild. Alyssa eventually realizes that the cousins resemble each other: “God, Sam, he even looks like you.” Sam agrees, pointing out that “most people can’t see past the different skin tones” (TS #6 286, emphasis in original).

Brockmann here presents skin color as a superficial marker that can disguise underlying similarities or affinities. Perceiving beyond surface appearances is necessary for real knowledge, and real knowledge is necessary for true relationships (Frantz, “I’ve tried my entire life”). In this story arc, interracial relationships require people to dig deeper, overcoming first impressions and socially-generated assumptions, whether positive or negative.

Alyssa, who is open minded about racial difference, must move past what she thinks she knows about Sam to make a relationship work. She stereotypes Sam from their contentious first meeting where she decides he is a “redneck asshole” (TS #1 285). She must reject her original, erroneous view of him before she and Sam can pair up successfully. Mary Lou was unable to get past a fixed notion of the unflinchingly patriotic soldier hero to love Sam as a person with foibles and flaws. Yet she overcomes dehumanizing stereotypes of violent, fanatical, monstrous Muslim men (Arjana, Lyons) to know, accept, and love Ihbraham as an individual. If Into the Night’s lesson is that racial profiling makes Americans less safe, the moral of Gone Too Far might be summed up as: racists don’t deserve happily-ever-afters. And if stereotypes are perilous for national security, the greater danger, Brockmann seems to suggest, is that they prevent real and lasting love.


Romance novels set stories of individual transformation within larger social structures to which they may pay more or less attention as author perspective and subgenre convention dictate. Contemporary novels, including those with suspense storylines, reflect on and engage with ongoing political and social controversies as well as established institutions and norms. In the case of the Troubleshooter novels, one major context is American military and intelligence involvement with the Middle East/Muslim terrorism; another is prejudice and discrimination in American society. Brockmann is less critical about the former than the latter. She does raise questions of moral injury to American soldiers and acknowledges the undeserved suffering of Middle Eastern/Muslim civilians harmed by American attacks. However, she largely accepts the basic framing of the War on Terror and American militarism. She more directly criticizes mainstream racial, religious, and sexual- [End Page 13] orientation-based bias and discrimination within the United States. In addition to characters who confront and unlearn their own prejudices, as Mary Lou does, sympathetic (gay, female, and/or non-white) characters confront others’ biases, often individual and sometimes institutional (e.g., Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the rule barring women from SEAL teams). Brockmann’s portrayal of Ihbraham subverts both contemporary American anti-Muslim discourse and romance genre norms.

Brockmann simultaneously deploys and undercuts stereotypes, holding difference and sameness in tension. In addition to depicting white men who confound assumptions that Southerners will be racist or soldiers will be homophobic, she individualizes and humanizes members of marginalized groups. Amy Burge has argued that Orientalist “romance manipulates its hybrid representations of religious and ethnic difference in order to create successful romantic unions” (7). She finds that “medieval and modern romance[s] require a flattening of difference—and elision of strangeness—rather than an embracing of otherness” (180-81). Brockmann, whose novels draw from and also subvert Orientalist topoi and narrative structures, values difference in part for its instrumental value. Despite the persistence of racist, sexist, and homophobic social structures, her heroes and heroines establish connections with others—family, friends, and lovers—across difference. As Ihbraham and Mary Lou agree, radical transformation of unjust realities will be a long time coming. In the meantime, there is love.

[1] Drawing on the no longer operational “Sheikhs and Desert Love” website, Amira Jarmakani (An Imperialist Love Story, ix) notes that there were 100 sheikh romances when she began her research in 2008, a number which “ballooned to 267” during her writing. Amy Burge’s study of Harlequin Mills & Boon shows a significant rise in the prominence of the subgenre between 2000 and 2009 in one publisher’s output (29). An imprecise measurement shows additional growth: an April 2017 search of Amazon’s “Books” category for “sheikh romance” returned 1490 results; the keyword “sheikh” alone yielded 4233 results. Even if inadvertent duplicates, self-published titles, and non-romance items are included in those counts, a figure closer to 1,000 would still represents an astonishing increase in commercially-published sheikh romances in a relatively short period.

[2] This framing ignores the numerous Muslims who have served in the American armed forces (cf. Curtis). Also note the military romances discussed below with heroes and/or heroines from Muslim backgrounds.

[3] Burge distinguishes among sheikh, pseudo-sheikh, and desert romance in her analysis of Orientalist romances (31-2). In some Troubleshooters novels, Kazbekistan functions, as in desert romances, as the “romance East” (14) backdrop against which American heroes and heroines have adventures and fall in love.

[4] The pair meet in TS #1, have an “explosive sexual encounter” (Frantz, “Suzanne Brockmann” 11) in TS #2, and seem to begin a promising relationship in TS #3, which is curtailed by Sam’s involvement with Mary Lou. Echoes of the relationship resonate, if only in dreams and Mary Lou’s jealousy, in the next two novels (e.g., TS #4 259-61). Sarah S. G. Frantz [Lyons] provides a compelling account of this arc in “I’ve tried my entire life.”

[5] Gone Too Far gives slightly more backstory: from a young age he had a Saudi stepfather, and spent time in the Middle East as a young man; he left Harvard and did a jihadi version of the “Grand Tour” (TS #6 496). If the sheikh’s journey is from Arabiastan to the Ivies, as explored below, “Bob” does the journey in reverse. [End Page 14]

[6] Ihbraham does not become a point-of-view character in Gone Too Far either (“Readers’ Guide” 8).

[7] Since the 1980s, Lindsay McKenna has written scores of romances featuring military protagonists. McKenna’s Taking Fire (2015) features a half-Afghan black-ops Marine sniper “shadow warrior” heroine and a half-Saudi Navy SEAL hero. Although both have “devout” Muslim fathers (330-31), neither main character is observant. Both drink alcohol (133) and eat pork (240). The heroine proclaims herself “spiritual, not religious” (331). Heroine Khatereh “Khat” Shinwari tells the hero, Michael Tarik: “You are an ancient warrior who has stepped into today’s world, in my eyes. You have the heart, the morals and values of the finest of the old guard Middle Eastern caliphs and chieftains of so long ago” (368).

[8] Teo goes so far as to claim that, “The modern sheik novel is nothing if not a vehicle for liberal feminist concerns” (267).

[9] Teo suggests that “the sheik romance (perhaps more so than most other romantic subgenres) is about the white heroine’s empowerment in a variety of ways: sexually, emotionally, financially, and socially” (281). Erin Young remarks on the transformation of heroines (206), but it is their Asian-ness that is transformed by the hero’s whiteness/Americanness. Here, Mary Lou’s racist whiteness must be transformed so that America can become what it ought to be.

[10] Arab-Muslim literature also contains tropes of dangerous black sexuality (Malti-Douglas 1991). Such (racialized) monsters are increasingly familiar in paranormal romances, which features possessive and violent alien, vampire, and shape-shifting heroes.

[11] Another Muslim-ish hero struggling with alcoholism is the half-Italian, half-Iranian Reza Iaconelli from All For You (2014), in Jessica Scott’s “Coming Home” series, which highlights war’s effects on active-duty soldiers and military families. Islam is never mentioned, only ethnicity. A fellow soldier harasses him: “I know that like half of them are your cousins and all but I really fucking hate Iraq.” He responds, “My mom was Iranian, shithead. Not every brown guy from the Middle East is an Arab” (145). Despite this blithe dismissal, Reza later admits to the heroine, Emily: “Let’s just say that there are some members of my family who wanted me to think long and hard about fighting a war against our people.” This sense of religio-ethnic loyalty is not merely an Arab/Persian/Middle Eastern characteristic: it is his father who, by having “married a non-Catholic Persian woman” became “the apostate of the family” (232).

[12] Stereotypes are both powerful and malleable. What is charmingly exotic at one moment can be merely unintelligible, or even strange and threatening, the next. Writing about cinema, Arjana notes that “[t]he language of normative humanity is English; the language of the Other, the foreigner, and the monster is babble” (152). Mary Lou refers to Ihbraham’s spoken language as “gibberish,” “strange language,” and “babbling” (TS #5 277, 278). After Mary Lou and Ihbraham become involved, his speech becomes more intelligible; where previously she “couldn’t understand” (278), now she gets the gist without knowing the words: “She’d never heard Ihbraham curse before, and she wasn’t quite sure she’d heard him curse now, because whatever he said it wasn’t in English. She suspected, though, that it was the Arabic version of holy shit” (TS #6 459, emphasis in original). His accent becomes “musical, faintly British” (458).

[13] All Through the Night, in which Jules weds his partner, was the first romance from a major publisher to feature two heroes. (On Brockmann’s treatment of this character, [End Page 15] consult Kamblé, Making Meaning, 124-27, 128-29.) Homophobia and assumptions also play key roles in TS #8, Hot Target, which Brockmann dedicates to her gay son.

[14] In Taylor’s Temptation (TDD #10), the hero is part Native American, and the heroine Irish-American, but their ethnic differences, treated in a brief meta-commentary (421), pose no obstacle to a relationship. In the Troubleshooters universe, what impedes a relationship between Max Bhagat, who has one Indian grandparent, and Italian-American Gina Vitagliano is not ethnic difference but a two-decade age difference as well as a traumatic past incident (their story is resolved in TS #10). In Vinh Murphy and Hannah Whitfield’s relationship (TS #13), neither their racial differences—she is white, he is mixed-race (TS #7 41-42)—nor her deafness hinders their union; instead, Vinh still grieves the murder of his wife, who was Hannah’s best friend.

[15] In the first Troubleshooters book, Joe Paoletti’s sister says, when her daughter Mallory gets involved with an Asian-American (David Sullivan, who is adopted), that her “babies would have slanted eyes” (TS #1 348-9). Similar themes emerge from an African-American perspective (Foster); Erin Young analyzes one novel’s treatment of undesirable mixing from an Asian perspective (213).

[16] This reference early on to Mary Lou’s (impossible) marriage to Jesus alongside occasional references to Ihbraham as Jesus-like in his dress and calm, desexualized in his manner suggests the possibility of reading his character as a Christ figure. [End Page 16]


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