I Will Always Listen To You...

[From Guardian UK]

I will always listen to you

Simon Jeffery asks radio DJs why Whitney Houston and other tragic songsmiths are such perennial favourites on Valentine's Day

Simon Jeffery
Guardian Unlimited

Thursday February 14, 2002

For a lucky few it will genuinely feel like almost 10 years since Whitney Houston was at the top of the charts with I Will Always Love You. At the end of 1992 her power gospel cover of an old Dolly Parton number held fast to its position for 10 weeks - who would have thought in the decade to come that we would see the birth of the world wide web, a single currency for Europe and a man with the same name as the then outgoing US president, George Bush, in power in the White House talking darkly of "evil" in Iraq.

Of course, you may remember the song as if you heard it only yesterday. Or today even. A Guardian Unlimited straw poll of Valentine's Day requests on commercial radio stations across the UK suggests that is extremely likely, revealing it as a still immensely popular choice. Why? you may wonder. Dolly Parton spoke of it as a song that came "totally from the bottom of my broken heart" and a quick glance at the lyrics ("So goodbye, please don't cry / We both know I'm not what you need") would hardly suggest it is quite the number to fire lovers' hearts. But you have to guess that the often repeated "I will always love you" line goes a long way. As it does with Houston's frighteningly powerful vocals.

"The irony is that these songs are all about tragedies," says Kevin Johnson, who co-presents the 102.8 Ram FM breakfast show to Derby with his wife, Rae. After 12 years in radio, and despite all the countless love songs released in that time, he says there are only three tracks requested regularly in mainstream radio, each of them at the less than happy end of the emotional spectrum: I Will Always Love You; Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On; and I'll Be Missing You by Puff Daddy. The latter, of course, commemorating the murder of his friend and collaborator, the Brooklyn rapper Biggie Smalls.

Pat Sharp, now presenting a morning show on London's Heart 106.2, agrees that Valentine's requests are not uniformly joyous. His most requested tracks include Eric Carmen's All by Myself (revived on the Bridget Jones soundtrack), George Michael's Father Figure, Wishing on a Star by Rose Royce and Spandau Ballet's True, tracks that he says have different meanings to different people depending on their mood and personal circumstances. "All by Myself is great for people who are not with somebody," he explains. It hardly needs to be said that Father Figure ("I will be you father figure until the end of time") is not about the throes of passion.

Sharp's stationmate Nigel Williams, who presents a 10pm to 1am week night show called Late Night Love Songs and has written a book, Love Letters Straight from the Heart, knows what his listeners like to hear, and why. Leanne Rimes's How Do I Live is the current choice for separated couples (he says there's always one song they adopt at any given time, and it has been Rimes for a few years now) while the current No 1, Enrique Iglesias's Hero, deals with the powerful subject of laying down your life for love. Another station says kids are asking for it for their mums and dads.

Angels by Robbie Williams, which Mr Williams the radio show presenter gets more requests for than any other, has a "universal appeal" for many times and events, including weddings, funerals and birthdays. And then there is I Will Always Love You, which he says "I guess I will always be playing." To further complicate its appeal and your emotional response to the song, you may be intrigued to learn that it was played at Ronnie Kray's funeral. As the gangster's coffin stood in an east end church, the 1.57m seller was played over the PA ("Bittersweet memories / That is all I'm taking with me," etc.) and his brother Reggie was led outside in tears.

But there is no getting away from the fact that, regardless of which demogrphic the individual stations play to, many of the most popular love songs are a little naff. Richard Clarke at Hereford and Worcester's Wyvern FM lists Kate Winslet's What If among his station's most requested. He says a lot of guys are asking for it for their girlfriends. Wet Wet Wet's Love is all Around and Bryan Adams's (Everything I do) I Do It for You demonstrate the enduring popularity of movie soundtracks. "People do tend to go for the obvious ones," says Mark Chivers of Surrey-based Eagle 96.4 FM, after listing The Glory of Love by Peter Cetera, two Whitney Houston tracks (Saving All My Love for You being the surprise new entry), Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton, Berlin's Take My Breath Away and Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing.

All of those songs were big hits, but certainly not the biggest. Out of the 10 top selling singles in the UK, only two (those previously mentioned by Houston and Adams) are love songs in the manner of the slushy and slightly nauseating end of night favourites so beloved of mobile DJs. Two - White Christmas and the Princess Diana-inspired rewrite of Candle in the Wind - must receive the least radio airplay of any big seller, but there are others, such as the Beatles's I Want to Hold Your Hand, that you might conceivably want to hear on Valentine's Day. But we never do. February 14, it would appear, is a day to be soppy, or maybe even maudlin. It is not even a time for Barry White.

And what are the chances we will be still be hearing Houston's I Will Always Love You in February 2012? Very high I should imagine. The former Pop Idol contestant Rik Waller is releasing his own version of the Dolly Parton track in March. Whitney's hold on the ballad looks secure.



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