I have said it once, and I’ll say it again: it’s likely that nearly every single pop artist has sung a number of love songs during their time in the music industry. Of course, things would get (more) monotonous if all of these were upbeat, cheesy tracks about being happy in love, and so we find many lyrical sub-topics including unrequited love, missing someone, lovers changing their personality over time, and so on. However, one of the most interesting categories within pop love songs are those written about cheating – a miserably common phenomenon in relationships. Leaving aside the countless tracks written from the perspective of the person betrayed and heartbroken by their partner’s behaviour, what I find far more original is how pop singers, over the years, have written songs from the perspective of the cheaters themselves.
Of course there are many songs about cheating in which the overwhelming tone is, as expected, regretful. What’s interesting about the songs which fall into this category is how all of them seem to describe the act of cheating as something inevitable, a force they can’t fight even though it’s evidently making them feel unhappy. The most popular example is probably Rihanna’s Unfaithful, in which she describes her affair as “more than love” but also laments “being happy with some other guy” while seeing her boyfriend “die a little more inside” every day. Some tracks create a striking contrast with woeful lyrics and an uplifting melody. In Careless Whisper, which is ideal for slow-dancing, and renown for its romantic saxophone riff, George Michael reproachfully tells us he’s “never gonna dance again” and how guilty he feels for cheating “a friend”.
What I find even more original are the unapologetic songs about cheating. This idea in itself seems dissonant to me: these tracks tend not to describe the character of the person they are betraying- are they kind, faithful partners? Are the protagonists of these tracks then just contemptible human beings? It’s hard to empathise with a pop track in any way when you don’t really like the personality of the main character. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean you can’t get some catchy tunes out of them – Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me talks about being caught ‘red-handed’ while cheating. However, more than being regretful about betraying his partner, the singer seems to lament forgetting that he had “given her an extra key”. The flippant lyrics which describe how the girl “caught” him combined with the upbeat rhythm give us a very relaxed, light-hearted track on what is usually an emotional subject.
There are also tracks which discuss being with someone who is cheating on their partner for them. Much like the regretful tracks describing cheating on a significant other, these songs also suggest an incapability of the protagonist to escape their attachment to a committed person. However, these tracks often tend to have a more optimistic outlook. More than pain, songwriters often focus on their attraction and infatuation towards the unfaithful lover. Whitney Houston’s Saving all my Love For You talks about being with a married man, and how she “tried to resist, being last on your list / But no other man’s gonna do”. Most of the song focuses on her looking forward to being with the subject of lyrics. Xscape’s My Little Secret romanticises the singer’s affair, going as far as to say, “The fact that she don’t know / That really turns me on”, making it sound as if her lover’s other commitment brings a spark to their relationship.
While I clearly struggle to empathise with the more unremorseful songs about cheating, I have to say that I admire how pop music has something for everybody: given the topical variety, it seems that anyone associated with cheating in any way can find something that speaks to them.