You’re listening to New York’s favorite choice for soft, romantic hits—WPIX: Nothing But Love Songs. Top of the hour now, we’ll have traffic on the 10, but first, here’s Whitney Houston singing about the greatest love of all…
By early 1987, I’d acquired a driver’s license and WPIX had begun shifting away from the soft rock format. But during most of 1986 I still spent a sizeable chunk of time riding in my parents’ cars. Having the radio on wasn’t always a given, though both of my parents liked music. It had to do with nerves and tension. If there was room for music in the car, they made it, but it needed to be kept light.
Commercial radio is known for flogging certain songs to death, and in 1986, Whitney Houston’s version of “The Greatest Love of All” was inescapable, worming its way into heavy rotation via multiple FM formats. There was no avoiding it, particularly in the realm of “soft romantic hits.” To this day, the song is branded on my brain, and yet I never liked it much.
Thing is, “The Greatest Love of All” isn’t a very romantic song, but radio delivered it in the context of a love song. The woman who wrote the lyrics, Linda Creed, had found success writing for Philly soul giants the Stylistics and the Spinners in the 1970s. She wrote Houston’s monster hit after being diagnosed with cancer, and it spoke to her survival instinct. It was initially a hit for George Benson in 1977 when his version got used at the theme for The Greatest, a biopic about Mohammed Ali. But Houston’s determined, assertive, and impassioned interpretation came much closer to the spirit in which it was written. It shot to #1 in three countries, hit the Top 20 all over the world, and went on to become one of Houston’s top three commercial achievements.
Learning to love yourself/It is the greatest love of all…
Especially for a 16-year-old, this is a difficult concept. It’s an age that finds many kids wondering about the different kinds of love and what they might feel like, or how one knows when they’re engaged in a loving relationship, what’s expected of them, and, of course, what this notion of ‘falling’ is all about.
Certainly the kind of love they sang about on WPIX was different than the love one generally feels for parents, for siblings, for the household pet. We’re raised in a culture that puts an inordinately high value on this mysterious kind of love that sweeps us up, that we’re somehow helpless to resist, even if it may upset people around us and drastically alter the course of our lives (which, incidentally, might be a frightening prospect for a kid who suspects they’re homosexual). And yet, this ‘self-love’ Whitney so assuredly yammered about was apparently the stuff of pure gold.
I was a pretty cynical teenager, so Whitney’s declaration shot my bullshit meter into the red, despite not really understanding what she was getting at. The idea that she hadn’t written the song didn’t occur to me at the time. But marketing is a powerful tool, and while it’s clear to me now how it’s not a traditional love song, I couldn’t really wrap my head around the fact that it’s essentially about survival and legacy. It’s as if, having been forced to sit through the song so many times, I tuned out right after, “I believe the children are our future” (because what 16-year-old wants to be bothered with that horseshit?), only to tune back in somewhere around “can’t take away MY DIG-NIH-TEEEE.” For years I went on assuming that Whitney was working on herself so she could be a better lover elsewhere or something like that. In retrospect, I can see how the whole angle about pride and raising our children with values was completely lost on me.
As LGBT folks, we hear about self-love an awful lot, probably because we do battle with issues of self loathing. We’ve come up in a culture that lets us know: Despite improved tolerance over the last twenty years, we’re not ideal. And so this concept of learning to love oneself rears its head when we talk to counselors, read self help books and just generally, when we try and find ways to take better care of ourselves. In my own experience, and for anyone else that’s struggled with ‘–isms,’ it surfaces again in recovery circles. It seems like everywhere I’ve turned for thirty years, there’s Whitney, making her big declaration. But especially given the issues that plagued the latter half of her career, it’s been a challenge to take self-love seriously. After all, she was the first one to bring it up.
It never helped that this idea of loving oneself has been publicly panned as an obnoxious Stuart Smalley-ism. I picture someone in that illusionary pose where it looks like a second person is hugging them but they’re really hugging themselves—miming being hugged. Barf. And the idea that I need to achieve that state in order to be a true romantic partner with someone else? It’s enough to keep me single for the duration.
But at the same time, it also seems like the saying about ‘needing to love yourself before you can truly love someone else’ simply cannot be true. A quick review of loving relationships we’ve witnessed seems like proof. We’ve all known plenty of people that clearly loved someone else but did not necessarily love themselves. I believe that Whitney Houston loved Bobby Brown, but she very obviously did not love herself.
Turns out, it’s all been misconstrued.
The term self-love was long associated with vanity and selfishness—a moral flaw. But German writer Erich Fromm set a different train of thought in motion with The Art of Loving, which became his most popular book after being published in 1956. Fromm had made his way to the United States after Nazi’s invaded Germany and began a distinguished teaching career. His blended use of philosophy and psychological concepts as vantage points for social and political criticism made him a celebrated thinker. And it was Fromm that coined the saying about not being about to love someone else until you learn to love yourself.
But Fromm was skeptical about the human concept of ‘falling in love’ as some intangible, magical and mysterious happening that renders us helpless. Instead, he believed loving was a learned skill and not something that humans loan themselves to all that easily. The idea of falling into a state of love, he argued, is really sentimentality in disguise. Cold, no? But maybe he was onto something.
So, when we look closely at Fromm’s iteration of self-love and how it relates to love between two human beings, it’s not the same correlation that most people are making when they tell us that we can’t love someone else until we love ourselves. What Fromm was getting at and our modern interpretation of it are different things. The closest parallel I can draw is to what we might call self-care. Fromm defined self-love as a blend of caring, self-knowledge, respect, and a sense of responsibility. It applies to both ends of the equation. So, you must learn to properly care for, understand, respect, and take responsibility for yourself before you can truly do those things for another person, which is what Fromm posited that truly loving them really means. To be clear, the idea that you must love yourself in order to be romantically fit to fall in love and, in turn, have something worthwhile to bring to the table in that resulting relationship was not what he was getting at. And yet, I think most people have interpreted the saying that way.
Our romantic notions of love make for great, thrilling dramas—in theater, in song, in films, and in our imaginations. We tend to focus on that rather than the hard work that real loving entails. Fromm believed that we’re all basically alienated from one another and that true love, as he defined it, is more than most humans want to deal with. Our tendency to couple up and marry, he seemed to think, was about avoidance of loneliness before it has much to do with real love.
Maybe Linda Creed nailed it when she wrote “The Greatest Love of All.” Perhaps her great declaration, her great epiphany (not Whitney’s, as I now know) was one of those rare, universal moments of truth, afforded her in the process of contemplating her own mortality.
Regardless, merely liking myself will have to be good enough. There was plenty of hard work entailed just getting to this point. I’ll leave “The Greatest…” to someone else.