New Edition: If It Isn’t Love

stylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.

Confusion. Heartbreak. Love puppies turned into dogs of war. Dreams of a make-it-all-OK-again reconciliation. Yearning. Confusion, again. Resigning oneself to the idea that the love was real, but the object false.

Sound familiar?

It's the self-questioning, self-denying, and ultimately self-satisfying chain of rhetoric that anyone victimized by a love turned sour always goes through. The romantics amongst us know the score—we're too idealistic to deny the validity of love, but too much in thrall to our own perfect vision to admit to its essential vulnerability. We would sooner admit to being crazy, wrong, or just dumb ("I made a big mistake") than recognize that the world operates by its own laws, our tender hearts be damned.

Never is this ridiculous and beautiful attitude towards love more prevalent than during our teenage years. And rarely has there been a work of art that so completely nailed this situation with such an absolute lack of pretension as "If It Isn't Love" by New Edition. Sure, there are precedents—the Motown back catalog is littered with them, and there are numerous examples in literature—but I challenge you to get as much visceral meaning out of a five hours' reading of Sons and Lovers as you can get in the five-minute span of "If It Isn't Love." If I were teaching a course on adolescent romance, I would open it with this song.

Capturing the group at the moment they emerged from pre-pubescent kiddie group to yearning young men, fastened to the framework of New Jack Swing (a young adult sound if there ever was one), "If It Isn't Love" is the consummate example of how great pop songs can take a group dynamic and make it reflect the internal space of the individual. The dialogue of conflicting voices at the 2:45 mark mirrors the painful struggle of self-reflection perfectly:
Maybe she'll take me back
(Hey girl he's begging)
I made a big mistake
(Won't you forgive him girl)
Now I can feel it
(He's never felt before)
I really love her
(You love her? What!?)
The entire range of emotion for a troubled young lover, whittled down to twenty unforgettable seconds. Hopeful abasement, tearful recognition of one's own flaws, servile self-sacrifice upon the altar of love, the transcendence experienced by the lover, and the unavoidable uncertainty of what that testament of passion ultimately means. Florid language aside, the experience is one everyone can relate to.

"If It Isn't Love" is an undoubted vocal showcase. What's so admirable about the instrumental component of it is the restraint that Jam and Lewis show in their production. Nothing here steps beyond the boundary of atmospheric support—but the swells that accompany the song's chorus and the intense drum rolls dropped behind the spoken moments and the group exchanges add immeasurable resonance. The thick layers of backing—echoing chimes, military drums, slow keys—gradually accumulate over the course of the song, fitting nicely with the increased intensity of the vocal.

Popular music is the science of painting accurate images with broad strokes of the brush. "If It Isn't Love" succeeds as both pop and art by allowing the 'moment of truth' to be just another moment—subject to the same rules as any other, vulnerable to the same trolls tunneling underneath the foundations. "The truth is in the tears I cry." If we only had the strength to live our lives while accepting that kind of self-doubt, God only knows what the results might be. Instead, as the song does, we return to the tangible sensations of pain and insatiable longing—"Why does it hurt so bad / Why does she stay on my mind?"

In the end, asking this is unnecessary—the sentiment, the questioning is all—the fact that she does stay on your mind is proof enough that something there was worth being troubled by. So, we're back to the beginning—the unresolved tension of boys who examine themselves and the girls who love them. The accuracy of this song is almost painful: emotions are bared, tension is exposed, nothing is resolved.

Hey, kinda like being a teenager.

By: Mallory O’Donnell
Published on: 2006-04-17
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