I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
I have many strong, immovable opinions about pop songs. “Simply Irresistible” by Robert Palmer is about a man tricked by very good plastic surgery. “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon, like most Carly Simon songs, is about her obsession with a well-endowed man who has nothing else to offer. But the opinion I return to, again and again, concerns “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” by Sophie B. Hawkins. It is simply one of the saddest songs about unrequited love I’ve ever heard, and I think about it almost constantly.
This started for me years ago, when I heard a hookup story from one of my closest friends. I feel fine retelling this, because it’s been over a decade and she agrees, it’s haunting. Her date was a nice young man from an Ivy League institution (I won’t name which one, but imagine the worst one, because it was that). He very earnestly wanted to set the mood for their make-out session, and he chose to play “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.”
It didn’t work. “I couldn’t stop laughing,” I remember her confessing. I agreed, laughter was the best response. “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” is a very silly song to make out to. It’s distracting, mainly, from the task at hand. It gets stuck in your head whether you like it or not, mostly because the chorus is repeated in delirium. You know that much from hearing it on the radio, but please remember the chorus now, with me. It’s mostly just Sophie saying “Damn, I wish I was your lover” as many times as she feels it. And she feels it a lot of times.
This isn’t the kind of song that approximates socially acceptable speech — we can forgive it for that much. It’s meant to be filled with the secret, yearning stuff you’d say at night but never in the morning. The lyrics are lovably pathetic, if also unbearable. At one point, in the middle of all the damns (there are so many), she says “Shucks.” Shucks! You get your chance to say all the things you want to say, to a person you’d like to seduce, and you say shucks? Language is a prison.
That being said, when Sophie sings “Don’t say you’ll stay, ‘cause then you’ll go away,” doesn’t it also feel … honest? Isn’t the only thing to say after that, the only thing anyone could possibly say after exposing themselves so fully, just … damn?
I have looked far and wide on the internet, and it seems as if only the user TangledWeb from SongMeanings.net gets closest to understanding this song. I feel like we’re friends, or maybe I am secretly TangledWeb and I forgot my password to SongMeanings.net. Back in October 2006, TangledWeb explained:
This song is actually a true story for Sophie B. She had a good friend who was straight that she fell for and this friend was trapped in an abusive relationship. It’s all self explanatory … I think I read in an interview that the girl’s name is Sarah but I could be wrong on that. Gay or straight I think we’ve all been there …. stuck in the role of “shoulder to cry on” while the object of your affection goes on and on about how unhappy they are in their current situation. And you’re sitting there thinking “Dump them and go out with ME, already!”
It is “actually a true story for Sophie B.”? “We’ve all been there”! Who is Sarah?!
The thing is, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” was totally groundbreaking in 1992, in a way we’re past now thanks to its boldness. It was a hit song when there had been no songs explicitly about lesbian love on the charts. The song predates Melissa Etheridge’s mainstream breakthrough Yes I Am, an album that declared itself gay, gay, gay with both its title and the single “I’m the Only One,” a soulful guitar-face barnburner that I also love dearly and could talk about at length.
Unlike Melissa, Sophie was not hard and fast about her sexuality. She said she was “omnisexual” in the press, and no one knew what that meant in 1992. Her song was not interested in “labels,” man, even though it feels very forward — it only uses clarifying pronouns once, and you can kind of glide over it, like I did for years. But the song’s narrative, as TangledWeb already said so well, is self-explanatory and can apply to any situation, regardless of your sexuality. There is someone or something holding the object of Sophie’s desire back, and Sophie wants to set them free and be let in.
On its face, the earnest wish to be with someone is not overwhelming. But it has the potential to overwhelm, both the object and the subject. This song is, if anything, overwhelming. It’s a sonic imposition. Don’t you feel how urgent the matter of seduction is here, without her saying who she wants outright? Can something like what she’s describing exist under so many expectations?
I often feel reflexively embarrassed by and drawn to what I feel I shouldn’t be witnessing. One time, at a karaoke bar, I saw a guy sing “Don’t Change” by INXS with his eyes closed the entire time — it was brutal, I was rapt. I deeply love so many embarrassing things: inappropriate novelty T-shirts, the chorus of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” an excessively confident Paul Giamatti, just to name a few sublime examples. But surprisingly, I’m too impatient for social awkwardness. I roll my eyes watching anything where someone ruins a bystander’s day with his selfishness.
What I prefer instead is harmless, goofy, performative pride. I like the feeling that what’s being expressed can’t be helped. I like the mortification of the dopily honest. And really, I like all of this because I can’t see myself ever being so unhinged. Maybe someday, if I’m lucky. Until then, I get a vicarious thrill from someone like Sophie B., putting it all out there, saying “shucks” in an attempt to get laid. It feels like a very loud, clumsy secret. And I’m too nosy to pretend I didn’t overhear.