Valentine's Day: A Bloody History and a Couple of Mixes

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Have you ever seen the movie (or read the book) High Fidelity? It’s a story that perfectly combines the themes of love and music, telling a story of heartbreak and redemption through the eyes of a vinyl record junkie.

It contains a powerful central question, one that I think is particularly poignant on the approach of Valentine’s Day:

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

A worthy subject to ponder on a day where some of us celebrate love, and others bemoan the absence thereof. Popular music is the perfect source for meditation on both. It is thus that I present to you, in tandem with a very brief history lesson, two competing playlists, one for celebrating and one for bemoaning.

Word of advice to the latter of you: no bemoaning while wearing headphones in public. You’ll freak people out.

Whichever way you plan on doing Valentine’s Day, history is on your side. A quick look back at the holiday’s bloody origins suggest that, indeed, this is an occasion both to celebrate love and reflect on its brutality.

So before we dive into the music, let’s find out why February 14 is what it is.

A Brief History of a Messed Up Holiday

Back in ancient Roman times, Valentine’s Day was pretty much exactly the same holiday except instead of making dinner reservations and buying flowers, all the men got naked and whipped the women with the hides of recently sacrificed goats and dogs.

Obviously, like us, the Romans had romance on their minds. It was believed that the lashing improved fertility. So in fact, ladies actually lined up for this event, eager to be paired off for the evening’s feast and drunken orgy. According to NPR, the holiday was then known as Lupercalia and was held annually between February 13 and 15.

Right away, you can see how love is kind of a mixed bag. Sure, there’s feasting and orgies, but there’s also lashing and waiting in line. I hope that’s warm consolation to you single folks.

And how did the holiday come by its name? Ah, now that story would make a great romantic comedy: A twisted tale of fate and coincidence, in which two men, both by the name of Valentine, both living in third century CE Rome, were executed by the same emperor, on the very same date, in two completely different years.

Ok, so it wouldn’t make a great romantic comedy, but a studio would definitely green light the idea. Anyway, each of these men was executed on February 14, making this day a natural fit for recognizing their shared martyrdom.

It happened that this day overlapped with Lupercalia. The coincidence proved convenient for fifth century Pope Gelasius I. As part of Rome’s conversion to Christianity, the Pope sought to discourage the empire’s pagan tendencies (naked, drunken orgies and public lashings among them). Merging St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia proved the perfect opportunity.

Still, the day retained its association with fertility, a good thematic choice given that the most obvious alternative was execution. Increasingly, the holiday came to discover its romantic side. Valentine’s Day’s bloody origins were a thing of the distant past by the time its themes of affection and romance were celebrated in works by Shakespeare and Chaucer.

NPR suggests that their writing actually helped to popularize the holiday throughout Medieval Britain and Europe. And for those of you convinced that this holiday was simply invented by Hallmark to sell merch, it might surprise you to know that it was already customary by the Middle Ages to mark the day by exchanging handmade paper cards.

It wasn’t until 1913 that Hallmark transformed it into a holiday designed to sell merch. That turned out to be a pretty good plan. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans (including me) will spend roughly $18 billion on some manner of heart-shaped disposable nonsense in preparation for this Valentine’s Day.

Mixed Bag

As you can see, the history of Valentine’s Day is sort of a mixed bag, and not the most romantic of bags at that. (In private conversation, our editorial staff reached consensus that the Lovesac is almost certainly the most romantic of bags.)

But I digress. A look back on ancient February 14th celebrations reveals a holiday ultimately contrived to celebrate love, but not necessarily one boasting the loveliest of histories. This means that you’re not wrong if you choose to resist the day’s romantic charms. (To be fair, we’re not your significant other, so please please please, don’t skip it just ‘cause we said you could. It’s best to feel out the room before you tell your partner that you’re boycotting the act of expressing love and giving gifts on the basis of principle. It might not be worth it.)

The whole point is that, because Valentine’s Day is a mixed bag, we made you a bag of mixes (well, just two, really, but you can have a bag with just two things in it). Here’s what you need to know before you get down to the music:

We’re pro-love here at The Quad. All You Need Is Love. It’s scientifically proven. So if given the choice, we’d rather silence our inner-cynic—that loudmouthed little jerk who can’t help but point out just how commercially repugnant this holiday is—and instead join in the celebration of love. It’s more fun that way. And we believe, without a whit of patronizing, that love is for the romantically unattached too. You can choose to mark this day by expressing your affection for all the loved ones in your life.

If this sounds like you, we’ve put together a soundtrack of love songs—some current, some classic, some staggering in their emotional depth and others infectious in their blind, stupid, cheesy, love-dazed euphoria—all brimming with the kind of warm, gooey feelings you might see etched into a chalky, inedible heart candy. Check out our newest playlist, Just Like Romeo and Juliet, here below. Best listened to on shuffle.

On the other hand, if all of this sounds like a bunch of sappy, sentimental, Hallmark-sponsored bull-dung to you, perhaps you’ll enjoy our soundtrack to Singles Awareness Day, the calendar’s counterpunch to the coupling impulses of Valentine’s Day. Only the Lonely is a mix of songs for the dumped, tunes for the perpetually solo, and declarations for the defiantly independent. If you’re in search of catharsis, or confirmation that love stinks, this could help. On the other hand, it might just make things a lot worse. Either way, best listened while eating ice cream straight from the carton.

Listening Notes

Just a few things worth mentioning before you dive in. Just Like Romeo and Juliet features, among many other tunes, a few highlights from this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Congratulations to Bon Jovi, the Cars, Dire Straits, the Moody Blues, Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Class of 2018.

On a sad note, our playlist also includes a love note To the Faithful Departed. Dolores O’Riordan—the singularly voiced singer for 1990s alternative boom band The Cranberries—passed away in mid-January. May she rest in peace alongside all our other recently departed heroes.

Outside of that, no further explanation is required. If, like me, you have mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day, you should probably check out both lists.

Beyond that, mark this occasion however you’d like. We’re not here to judge, only to soundtrack.

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