Bonnie Raitt: I Can’t Make You Love Me
tylus 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.
A couple of years ago I read a New York Times feature on the Neptunes written by Sasha Frere-Jones, in which impresario Pharrell Williams revealed what had been inspiring him lately. Of course, it’s old news that those in the hip-hop scene love the tasteful adult contemporary sounds of acts like Phil Collins and Coldplay, so maybe I shouldn't have been too surprised to read Pharrell describe Bonnie Raitt's minor hit "I Can't Make You Love Me," from 1991’s The Luck of the Draw, as "the illest song ever." And yet I had practically forgotten about the tune, which I've had a soft spot for since first hearing it on the radio in eighth grade; despite all its "adult" signifiers, the it offered a sentiment simple enough to make me nod and say, man, that shit's true. (Never mind the fact that the main reason girls didn't love me then was that I barely knew how to approach them.)
Fourteen years later, the straightforwardness of "I Can't Make You Love Me" is still compelling. The song depicts a relationship coming to an end, and Raitt has finally accepted the inevitability of the break-up without resorting to the self-delusions of, for instance, Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well” (in which each "of course I do" comes off as protesting too much). Here, Raitt sees the situation for what it is – unrequited love – and says so directly: "I can't make you love me if you don't / I can't make your heart feel something that it don't." (Songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin supposedly stole the refrain from the real-life courtroom epiphany of a redneck who'd been arrested for shooting up his presumably diffident girlfriend's car.) But we also sense that it's been a struggle for her to reach that level of clearheaded maturity, which makes it all the more heartbreaking.
To be honest, I haven’t actually heard all that many other Bonnie Raitt songs, but I think it’s fair to say that, despite being her second-biggest hit, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” isn’t what most people consider typical Raitt. It trades the carousing bottleneck blues-guitar sound she made her name on, and which characterizes blue-collar barn-burners like “Something to Talk About,” for the sort of plaintive synth-piano common to drippy ballads of the day and some florid grand-piano fills courtesy of Bruce Hornsby (another hip-hop hero, incidentally). It’s easy, therefore, to be dismissive of the song – its Lite FM veneer allows it to dissolve into the background. But despite Hornsby’s usual showboating style, this arrangement feels appropriately trim and efficient.
After all, the focus here is on the words, which do move beyond the single-minded sentiment embodied in the title. For all of Raitt’s seemingly healthy acceptance, there’s an element of desperation in her desire to make the relationship last one more night, squeezing whatever she can out of it. There are shades of bitterness and resentment, too; first, when she repeatedly forbids her partner to patronize her (as if she knows full well he will), and then in the chorus, when she sings, “I will lay down my heart / And I’ll feel the power / But you won’t.” The offhanded final line has the ring of “I’m just sayin’,” but as any connoisseur of the passive-aggressive knows, that’s merely an excuse to make a dig at him.
The thing about the song that I really marvel at, though, is Raitt’s voice. Again, I’m betraying my ignorance of the woman’s career, but I’ve never gotten the impression that she’s been vaunted specifically for her pipes, since that whiskey-soaked rasp is often taken for granted as part of her lowdown, blues-mama style. But Luck of the Draw came on the heels of her most commercial record to date, Nick of Time, and potentially afforded her the opportunity to stretch. (As it turned out, Luck of the Draw became her best-selling album; in the slim field of musicians whose eleventh album is their most popular, Raitt is joined by Aerosmith and, depending on what you count as a proper release, the Flaming Lips. There are two vocal moments that especially impress me. In the second verse, she suddenly surges to announce, “And I will give up this fight!” which sounds triumphant but also starkly exposes the depths of her pain. And then, during the final rendition of the chorus, she lingers on the word “don’t” until her voice becomes small and quiet. In both cases, she is beautifully clear and controlled, with a pronounced feeling of weary resignation. As far as I’m concerned, if Pharrell truly loves this song, then it can only be for the best; the man’s obviously got great taste.
By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2006-05-23