Insecurity, Yearning, and Possession: Inside the History of "They Don't Love You Like I Love You"
i.e. "Love’s a Competition and I’m Winning"
When you see the words “They don’t love you like I love you”, what comes to mind? For me, it’s immediately Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Admittedly, it’s followed closely by Beyoncé’s baseball-bat wielding Hold Up (which I genuinely think I prefer as a song), but I think hours of teenaged pining and romanticising has permanently, irreparably warped my brain (in more ways than one). The phrase holds so much meaning in so few words in a way that is truly, just, unbeaten in my eyes.
After spending far too much frustrating time frantically failing to mix together Maps and Hold Up into a mash-up in Serato (doesn’t work, don’t try), I found myself wondering where else this phrase may have found itself in song. I assumed square one was going to be Maps, but as I went down the internet rabbit hole, I found out that our yearn-y words actually go all the way back to the 1960s. Today I’m going to take you through these words right from the beginning; forming a lineage of love and need starting at square 0.
He Will Break Your Heart – Jerry Butler, 1960
Let’s start our trip in the ‘60s, with a love song that sounds like a threat as much as it does a declaration of adoration. It’s a little hard to see how this track fits in with our narrative, but trust me: it’s important to the genesis of the phrase. Written by Jerry Butler, Calvin Carter, and Curtis Mayfield, this track narrates the story of a man essentially beginning his lover to not be swayed by a third suitor. It reached number 7 in the US singles charts, and spawned many, many, many covers and interpolations. More on that later.
This is, ultimately, a gorgeous guitar track that feels like a spiritual predecessor to Jolene in all but the pronouns. Much like the narrator of Jolene, Butler simpers through the song flattering and fantasising over his girlfriend(?)’s beau. See the lyrics from the second verse, for example:
“He uses all the great quotations
He says the things I wish I could say
Whoa, but he's had so many rehearsals
Girl, to him you're just another play.”
Somehow, this song skirts between slutshaming and simping over his girlfriend’s boyfriend. Oh, Jerry, baby – I promise there’s a more straightforward (ahem) way of dealing with your issue.
He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You) – Tony Orlando & Dawn, 1975
As mentioned earlier, He Will Break Your Heart inspired a whole raft of covers, including a fairly iconic gender-swapped version of the song by Margie Singleton. He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You) by Tony Orlando & Dawn is slightly different. For much of the song, it appears to be a fairly direct cover of the Butler original. However, the permission to cover this song was granted on the terms that some of the lines would be changed, and the overall structure of the song altered somewhat. This version of the song is, seemingly, referred to as a ‘re-release’ rather than a cover. Oh, semantics, you hold such importance in the arts. Tony Orlando & Dawn added a bridge with all-new lyrics, following on from the lyrics above:
“When the final act is over
And you're left standing all alone
When he takes his bow and makes his exit
Girl, I'll be there to take you home.”
Slightly less homoerotic. Definitely still firmly toeing the line of polyamory.
Interestingly, this version of the song also garnered a cover by Dolly Parton in 1984; re-releasing the song as ‘She Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)’. Obviously Dolly has a bit of a thing for the big yearn too. I don’t blame her.
As you can probably guess from the title of the song, this is where our foray begins: He Will Break Your Heart and He Don't Love You Like I Love You together form the words that have echoed through history to narrate fated relationships:
"He don't love you like I love you"
An important thing to note about these two (or, 1.5) songs is that at their core, they are about jealousy and insecurity; specifically with regards to 'losing' the subject of the song to someone else on a romantic level. The narrator of the two songs we've explored so far appears to be obsessing over the thought of being kicked out of their relationship by someone better, but somehow less sincere in their motives, than our down-trodden protagonists. Although it's impossible to remove the insecurity from these words, or from the intent behind these words, it is possible that these feelings of insecurity can change in cause or etiology.
Maps – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 2003
Let’s make a little jump forwards to 2003. There were so many re-hashes of the one-and-a-half songs above in the almost thirty years between these tracks, but Maps really, uh, put the phrase back on the… Yeah, I won’t go there. Sorry.
Maps, speculated to be an acronym of ‘My Angus Please Stay’, was written by the legendary Karen O to her at-the-time boyfriend and frontman of Liars. Perhaps rightfully, it was voted to be the best ‘alternative love song’ in the run up to Valentine’s Day in 2009 by the NME – it’s hard to see what could contest that even now, twelve years later (and that’s probably another article in and of itself).
Maps manages to combine vintage, gothic, Atmosphere-esque Joy Division drums with sleek guitar tones completely typical of its era of indie-rock in a seamless, sophisticated manner. While the instrumentation is obviously as gorgeous as any YYYs song, I find it hard not to be distracted by O’s direct and impassioned lyricism:
“Well, my kind's your kind
I'll stay the same
Oh, Maps. A staple of mixtapes for long-distance lovers. The perfect song for your main-character-moment as you’re going home after seeing your boyfriend, right before you try to rest your head against the windowpane and get juddered back to reality by the force of a thousand blenders surging through the train walls. I’m not speaking from experience here. Obviously.
This gorgeous song has predictably spawned many, many covers, from artists ranging from Camp Cope to Keaton Henson, but my favourite is probably the glorious Anderson .Paak version. Pure genius. It was already evident that Maps had a colossal impact on contemporary rock and pop music, but once Beyoncé got involved it became impossible to describe the affect of this song as anything besides seismic.
Hold Up – Beyoncé, 2016
There is nothing left to say about Lemonade that hasn’t already been said, that I could say any better than what has already been said. It is an indubitably perfect album. Hold Up is no exception to the perfection of the rest of the album, from its opening monologue to its flawless pop culture interpolations to the delightfully cathartic (and fantastically golden) music video that came with its release.
Hold Up has a pretty disparate list of credited songwriters thanks to the shopping list of pop culture references spattered throughout the track. Core songwriters (alongside Beyoncé, obviously) include MNEK, Diplo, Emile, Father John Misty, and others. Of course, the chorus of our old friend Maps is interpolated flawlessly in the chorus:
“Hold up, they don't love you like I love you
Slow down, they don't love you like I love you
Back up, they don't love you like I love you
Step down, they don't love you like I love you”
Alongside this lyrical homage, we can hear an instrumental sample of Can’t Get Used to Losing You by Jerome Pomus and Mort Shuman. Can’t Get Used to Losing You is a pop heavyweight too; in 1963 (bringing us back to the start of this journey) it was performed and popularised by Andy Williams, and laterally in the 1980s it was covered by The Beat. Finally, in the outro, we can also hear a Soulja Boy lyrical motif, as taken from Turn My Swag On. Hold Up comes together like a scrapbook of iconic music moments and important musical voices, presented as a cohesive item on its own.
This track brings the theme back to jealousy, but as opposed to the cloyingly possessive tone of some of the earlier tracks we discussed, this jealousy is entirely founded. As much as anything, this song is maybe less about jealousy, or possession, but all about betrayal: the feelings of disrespect and pain are starkly clear throughout all of Lemonade, and the sheer anomie of Beyoncé beating the shit out of a street scene in slow-motion (in that gorgeous canary-yellow dress no less) represents spectacularly.
Truly no one does it like Beyoncé.
Love Taste – Moe Shop, Jamie Page, Shiki-TMNS, 2016
Okay. So. This track came out five days before Hold Up came out, somehow. So technically, I guess our chronological ordering is fucked. But don’t you find it super weird that two tracks came out within a week of each other interpolating the same refrain? Perhaps even more puzzlingly, a quick peruse of fan-made Genius lyric annotations (of which there are many) appear to gloss over this fact entirely; completely unaware (or perhaps, unlike us, just disinterested).
Love Taste also sees a YYYs interpolation, placed somewhere around the bridge:
“I know one thing's true,
they don't love you like I do
They don't love you like I do”
The first time I heard this song while clicking around on YouTube, I feel like I wasn’t really paying attention to the lyrics up until that Maps interpolation jumped up and hit me in the face. On further listens, it has become retrospectively evident that Love Taste is about being hit in a whole lot more places than just your face. The story told by this track is like a pastel-neon retelling of Stephen King’s Misery, set to a retro-futuristic neo-disco sonic backing, narrated largely by vocal synthesiser software and character GUMI and [human] vocalists Jamie Paige and Shiki-TMNS.
So, initially I had assumed this was an interpolation of Hold Up, or a YYYs interpolation on the back of the release of Hold Up, but clearly there was just something in the air in 2016 making us all needy as fuck. I’d argue it’s still in the air. Please tell me I’m not the only one who’d say that. That aside, it’s safe to say that Moe Shop’s take on the theme is distinctly of the terrifyingly possessive and jealous ilk.
Honey and Smoke – case/lang/veirs, 2016
Oh my goodness. Another one from 2016? What was happening? (Probably best we don’t go there.)
I must admit, despite my admiration for all those involved in the creation of this beautiful track (Neko Case, KD Lang, Laura Veirs) I wasn’t actually aware of Honey and Smoke until I was researching this article. I should’ve known it wasn’t possible to write an article about yearning without looking at the gay cowboy perspective (Oh KD, we’re really in it now).
In a beautifully cyclical moment for our story, Honey and Smoke sounds like a 1960s love song, without the excessive misogyny. It is truly impossible to listen to the narrator of this track without being swayed onto their side: they look on in longing at the subject of their affections as they are being swept around by undeserving lovers:
“'Cause I know
It's all honey and smoke
They don't really love you
Like I do”
I really feel like this song is where we go ‘full circle’ and hear the story that is being told by He Will Break Your Heart from a new voice. This time though, we manage to keep the lens of the song entirely focussed on the person on the receiving end of the song, instead of the undeserving ‘someone’. To me, that shows more sincerity than the previous instances of this notion, which appeared to revolve more around competition, possession, and bravado – treating love like something to be won.
They Don’t Love You Like I Do – Maximum Love, 2017
Can I just say that there is, sadly, shit all information about this beautiful song on the internet?
It’s immediately clear from the title that this number is also interpolating Ms O. The only lyrics for the duration of the track are the title, sung through vocal effects evocative of Daft Punk off-shoot Stardust. There are no other words needed to convey the longing, the yearning, the need in this song besides that simple tried-and-true refrain:
"They don't love you like I do
They don't love you like I do"
An animated music video accompanies this song, padding out the story a little – in this context, the song is about grief and longing for a loved one after death. Wanting and missing someone, and feeling insecure in your bond with them, is a huge, uncontrollable cryptid of a feeling to begin with: sometimes you want someone so badly you can feel yourself turning into a messy tumblr kid all over again, cryptically sharing overly emotional posts featuring miserable quotes scribbled on bathroom tiles with lipstick that, just, don't really fit your situation at all. When this longing is for someone specifically entirely unreachable due to loss, that feeling is blown up to be the size of a 15-wheeler. Maximum Love repurpose this phrase for the context in a truly perfect and touching way with They Don't Love You Like I Do.
As it turns out, this song is starting to get Tiktok'd.
Like You Do – Joji, 2020
Joji has, quite possibly, the character arc of the century. But we know this. Let's take a look at how he fits into this lyrical puzzle.
Like You Do brings the tone of this theme back to that of a pure, honest yearn – totally undiluted by weirdly possessive notions of love. Nice one for circling back, man.
Before the release of Nectar, Joji’s 2020 dreamy trip-hop album, a fair share of Joji’s discography perhaps falls into the ‘I’m talking more about myself, or about the perceived interloper in my romance’ camp. In this context, I’m particularly eyeing Will He; a tale of daydreaming about the actions of his lover’s other with fairly longing eyes, and how he will shape up to him. Like You Do seems to manage to place the onus of the pining directly onto the ‘you’ in question. ‘You’ appears to be a flame that is sadly flickering its last light. It’s hard not to feel at least a little sucked in by the sweet longings expressed in the song’s haunting prechorus:
“If you ever go
All the songs that we like
Will sound like bittersweet lullabies”
Or maybe I’m just gay. Who knows?
Like You Do takes the words from our beloved Maps and turns them around rather:
“Lost in the blue
They don't love me like you do”
In this instance, the person being pleaded to stay isn’t being told directly of the love the narrator has to offer: instead, the love of the subject is being praised. In some small sense, I can understand how that perspective might not convince someone to stay. Throughout this track, it’s hard to see the ache as adoration for another person, so much as a fear of losing a nurtured connection. This sets this song apart from some of the others we have looked at a little in my eyes.
Throughout our musical adventure ([very Bill and Ted voice] Excellent!), we’ve toed the line between justified jealousy, outright possessiveness, and yearning pretty freely from song to song. Sometimes we see the phrase as a war cry attempting to defy a world that wants to disrupt a divine union, sometimes we see the phrase as a declaration of ownership, and seemingly on the odd occasion, we sometimes see this phrase used with the intention of getting in the middle of two – or more – people. It’s hard to see if the notion of begging your lover to say has changed in meaning temporally, or if the meaning simply depends on whose mouth the words are coming from; whose relationship it’s getting inside of.
When I was researching this article, I found it amazing to see how this feeling has been repurposed. Throughout the chronology of these lyrics, refrains, and motifs, we find ourselves dancing pretty frantically between tenderness and possession. Although the words are entirely pure by themselves – I love you; please need me – it’s remarkable how in a way, they can also orchestrate a sense of competition in love. What is it with our need to be the ‘best’ at loving our person? Is it most significant to ‘win’, or for our person, or in fact our people, to be as loved as much as humanly possible?
Perhaps as we move on culturally from viewing love as a way to monopolise an individual, we will see a shift in the intention behind convincing, or begging, or berating a sweetheart to stay with us from being possessive – as noted in the earliest iterations of this saying with Tony Orlando & Dawn – to being that of a triumphant declaration of commitment, adoration, and devotion - like the way this phrase was used by Karen O and KD Lang. I think that ultimately, love remains relatively stable throughout the ages, including the way we express it in song – but maybe as our perceptions of love and relationships change and evolve, the way we assess and express these feelings will change too.
Listen to all of the songs mentioned in the article here:
Toni Oisin H.C. is the Head of Audio at QSO Media. Read more of his writing here.