The popular music of my lifetime is littered with examples of songs that became huge hits despite the fact that they advocated for, romanticized and sometimes even celebrated deviant behavior. When I was a child, I had neither the critical nor social acumen to determine the difference between a benign piece of pop confection and, say, an ode to pedophilia disguised as a love song (I’m looking at you, Kip Winger). Now, though, with the perspective of encroaching middle age, when I hear these songs I often end up feeling displaced in time, divided into two selves — the younger me who loves the songs with the indiscriminate enthusiasm of a child, and the older me who can’t believe the responsible parties weren’t dragged into a Senate hearing along with Twisted Sister and Mötley Crüe.
Of all the potential candidates for dissection, though, for me one song rises again and again above the rest. This one has everything — deception, anonymous sex, questionable judgment, cuckoldry. Every time I hear it I grow a bit more incredulous. It is, quite simply, a catalogue of aberrant behavior that somehow garnered and retains the reputation of a sweet and heartwarming ballad. It is “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You,” by Heart.
So let’s do this line-by-line.
It was a rainy night when he came into sight
Standing by the road, no umbrella, no coat
So far, so good. She’s driving on a sodden country byway after dark, and spies a man standing on the shoulder. Nothing unusual, right? God only knows what this guy’s story is — maybe he’s a drunk trying to get home, maybe he’s got a human head in a duffel bag — but it doesn’t really matter, because she’s safe inside her car, doing 60 or so, and she’ll buzz right past him. The lyrics are unclear on whether the man is hitchhiking or not. Perhaps he’s got his thumb out, in which case she, as a woman alone in the dead of night, should obviously not stop. Or perhaps he’s just standing there, not trying to catch a lift but rather staring dead-eyed at passing traffic as the rain pours down — in which case she should definitely never ever stop in a million years. In either case, let’s not overlook the clues we do have here, most notably that the guy possesses neither an umbrella nor a coat. At best he’s scatterbrained, at worst he’s a serial murderer oblivious to the weather because he’s hopped up on meth, and somewhere in between those two poles he’s a transient who may or may not harbor ill intent. But really, at this point, all is well. She’s in her car, the doors are locked and she’s got her foot on the accelerator. She’s a reasonable woman, we’re sure. And even if she weren’t, even if in fact she were a little bit cracked, she still wouldn’t be foolish enough to pull over to the side of the road. Right?
So I pulled up alongside, and I offered him a ride
You’re fucking kidding me. Really? Just like that? I understand it was a different time when the song was written — hell, even I hitched a ride once or twice back in the early ‘90s (though I hasten to add that I usually had to wait for a pickup truck to happen by, and then I was pointedly invited to sit in the bed, not the cab) — but really, has there ever been a time in America when it was considered no big deal for a woman to pick up a strange man on the side of a highway in the pouring rain in the middle of the night? Without so much as a second thought? What on God’s blue orb is she thinking?
He accepted with a smile —
Oh man, she is in trouble and doesn’t even realize it. Anyone who knows anything about psychopaths can tell you that they work very hard at ingratiating themselves to others and putting people at ease. In other words, they do things like smile broadly at women they mean to turn into soup.
— so we drove for a while
Things are getting ever weirder, here. There is no mention of any conversation whatsoever between the two — which fact, combined with her picking the guy up in the first place, has me wondering now which one of them is actually the psycho. I mean, she appears perfectly comfortable with scooping up a stranger in her car and then taking off down the road without so much as a hello.
I didn’t ask him his name, this lonely boy in the rain
Fate tell me it’s right, is this love at first sight
You know, I’ve actually been on this date before. They haven’t said a word to each other — haven’t even exchanged names, for God’s sake — and already she’s convinced she’s in love. Whatever uncertainty existed regarding who the crazy person is here has now been put conclusively to rest.
Please don’t make it wrong —
Oh honey, we passed “wrong” a few miles back.
— just stay for the night
Where? In the car?
All I wanna do is make love to you
Listen, I’ve got no problem with casual sex if that’s what you’re in the market for, and I would never discourage anyone from seeking pleasure in whatever form. But I do feel like in this instance she’s maybe getting a little ahead of herself. Let’s look at the circumstances: she’s picked up a homeless guy who may not even have been soliciting a ride in the first place. He’s sopping wet and grinning at her like a madman. They haven’t spoken to one another. They’re miles from civilization. It’s dark. It’s raining. And she has decided that the only thing in the world she wants is to drop the seats and make the Beast with Two Backs, right here, right now.
Say you will, you want me too
Let’s be real. This guy just came out of the rain to find himself in the midst of a Penthouse Forum letter. Smart money says he’s on board with whatever she’s got planned.
All I wanna do is make love to you
I’ve got lovin’ arms to hold on to
Lovin’ arms? I’m sorry, but that’s pure conjecture. Given the lack of ambient light, for all she knows he’s got hooks for hands. And even assuming that the object of her sudden and completely irrational lust is whole-bodied, it’s possible that his arms aren’t lovin’ at all. He could be psychologically incapable of anything resembling intimacy. He might have curly yellowed mountain-guru fingernails. He may suffer from poor circulation in his extremities.
So we found this hotel
Okay. Even though I’m still convinced that this is a terrible idea, obviously it’s happening, and given that, I’m forced to grudgingly admit that finding a hotel is a good move. It is, after all, a marginal improvement over getting frisky in the back of what is probably an ’84 Chevy Malibu.
It was a place I knew well
Now wait one goddamn minute. A place she knows well?!? I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, here, and assume that maybe she works the front desk, or else is a traveling saleswoman or something. But it’s pretty difficult not to assume that she knows this place well because she’s in the habit of picking up transients and spiriting them away to a seedy flophouse with hourly rates and rooms that smell like industrial sanitizer and regurgitated Pabst.
We made magic that night
I guess I’m not surprised, at this point, that they have apparently dispensed with the pleasantries and gotten right to it.
Oh, he did everything right
Among all the unlikely, improbable things our heroine expects listeners to accept, this, somehow, is the one thing that really sticks in my craw. He did everything right? Really? You want me to believe that this guy — who couldn’t even be bothered (or perhaps couldn’t afford) to wear a jacket in the rain — turns out to be not Toothless Pete, but Don Juan? And even if he was a talented lover, everyone who’s ever had a genuine one-night stand can tell you that, for all the big talk and romanticizing that follows, they’re usually pretty lame. You don’t know each other’s bodies, and blood alcohol levels are such that fine motor skills — not to mention erectile function — are often compromised. The best one can hope for is that the sex is just good enough that you don’t completely rue the entire tawdry episode. So already this is tough to swallow — but our narrator isn’t yet finished with the hyperbole, as demonstrated when she ups the ante even further in the next couple of lines:
He broke the woman in me
So many times, easily
I confess that, not knowing exactly what it means to “break the woman” in someone, I had to ask a trusted female source what her interpretation of that phrase might be. First, being my girlfriend, she smirked at me and asked what the hell I was talking about. I explained that I’d heard “All I Wanna Do” on the long drive home that afternoon and was trying to make sense of it.
“Is it like breaking a horse?” I asked, trying to be helpful.
She considered. “Maybe, sort of,” she said.
“Like, to saddle?” I asked.
She looked at me. “It probably involves multiple orgasms,” she said evenly.
I considered, very briefly, asking if I’d ever broken the woman in her, then decided against it.
And in the morning when he woke
All I left him was a note
Probably, all things considered, the smartest thing our heroine has done so far.
I told him I am the flower
You are the seed
We walked in the garden
We planted a tree
Couple things. First, like any good American, I’m accustomed to encountering both mixed metaphors and utter nonsense in my pop songs, but this is really beyond the pale. No matter which angle you come at it from, the whole thing explodes like a watermelon at a Gallagher show by the third line. And forget about trying to take it literally — what you end up with then is the visual of a flower and a seed strolling together through Eden, then pausing to somehow plant a tree despite the fact that neither of them has, you know, hands. Or a shovel.
Second, I find myself wondering if these are the words she actually wrote in the letter to her lover, or if this is some kind of paraphrase. My desperate hope is that the latter is the case, that the actual note said something like “Dear Pete, thanks for a great time last night. Wasn’t that crazy? Sorry I had to split so early. Check-out’s not until 11, so feel free to sleep in a bit. xoxo”
Don’t try to find me, please don’t you dare
Just live in my memory, you’ll always be there
I’d venture a guess that if she did, in fact, use the flower/seed/garden/tree metaphor in her note, there’s very little danger that he’s going to make any attempt to find her. So, mission accomplished.
After a repeat of the chorus, there’s this little breakdown:
Ooh, we made love
Love like strangers
You don’t say.
All night long
We made love
Alright, once and for all, can we please dispense with that pervasive lyrical filler “all night long”? Can we all get together and admit to ourselves that it’s bullshit? That no one in the history of humanity has ever actually, literally had sex from dusk until dawn? That it’s probably a lot more like “Ooh, we made love for, like, seven minutes or so, at which point he pleaded exhaustion and asked for a time-out, which was sort of a relief because he was dripping sweat in my eyes like Chinese water torture, and he flopped onto his back and lit a cigarette, which we shared, and when that was done we started up again and this time it lasted maybe five minutes tops, after which I took a shower while he turned on Letterman, and when I came back I found he’d gone to the vending machines and bought a bag of Cheetos, which he was eating in bed, which was mostly fine because it’s not like it was my bed at my house or anything”?
Anyway. Now we encounter the song’s coup de grace of iniquity, also known as the third verse:
Then it happened one day, we came ‘round the same way
You can imagine his surprise when he saw his own eyes
So, wait. It’s at least a few years later, and she now has a child, and this child … is Toothless Pete’s? Putting that aside for (only) a minute, can we talk about the fact that this song was released in 1990? By which I mean that period when good, God-fearing, straight white people were finally clueing into the fact that HIV didn’t just prey on gay men and heroin addicts? Because what we’re coming to understand, now, is that the song’s narrator didn’t merely pick up a random guy on the side of the road, drag him to a hotel and have anonymous sex with him, but she did so without protection at pretty much the height of the AIDS epidemic. The mind reels. I had unprotected sex once in 1990, and spent the next six months checking my tongue for thrush every day; such was the atmosphere of terror and paranoia at the time.
But we’re still not done with the horrifying revelations:
I said please, please understand
I’m in love with another man
And what he couldn’t give me
Was the one little thing that you can
Wait — she’s fucking married?!? And not only has she been cheating on her husband, but her tryst with Toothless Pete was less about a night of ill-advised passion and more about getting pregnant? Because her husband, whom she loves so much, is sterile? Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, what is going on here?
Even though this retroactively makes the flower/seed/garden/tree metaphor slightly less nonsensical, I have to ask, has this woman never heard of a sperm bank? Why, when she could hand-pick the seed of a 6’3” investment banker to “plant her tree,” does she instead risk rape, murder, dismemberment, disease, a scarlet letter, bedbugs and divorce on a single sex act that statistically will result in pregnancy only 5 percent of the time? And by the way, if her husband is in fact sterile, and knows it, then how in hell did she explain the fact that she was suddenly pregnant?
Or wait — was her husband IN ON IT?
And this is the point at which — even as a man approaching mature adulthood — I finally lose it. I could continue to speculate about the husband’s involvement, but those speculations spiral quickly down to a dark place of coercion and/or voluntary cuckoldry that I don’t really want to visit. Better to leave it alone. Better still, probably, to try and continue to listen to the songs of my childhood with the ear of a child. After all, thanks to a sweet harmony and Ann Wilson’s opera-ready voice, “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You” still sounds very romantic — so long as you don’t pay a lick of attention to the lyrics.