In the aftermath of one of the most romantic holidays of the year, it’s likely that some people are trying to keep that loving feeling alive for as long as possible, while others are bidding the day a rueful good riddance. The character at the heart of Billy Bragg’s 1988 ballad “Valentine’s Day Is Over” is likely in that latter category because she is declaring her independence from a relationship doing her far more harm than good.
Bragg is well-known for his political activism and his musical output is generally seen in that light as well. Yet what really sets his songwriting apart is his willingness to tell the truth as he sees it no matter what the subject matter and no matter how ruthless and unforgiving that truth might be. In the case of “Valentine’s Day Is Over,” he shines that unsparing light on the would-be romancer of the story while demonstrating touching empathy for the battered but resilient narrator.
Featuring a wounded melody and little more instrumentation that Bragg’s trebly guitar, some tinkling piano, and a lonely horn, the song, found on Bragg’s 1988 album Workers Playtime, sets an unsentimental tone right from the very first lines: “Some day boy you’ll reap what you’ve sown/You’ll catch a cold and you’ll be on your own.” The woman telling the story relates how this guy’s romantic gestures are in stark contrast to his typical behavior.
As the song progresses, the clues to his deepest crimes come fast and furious in the lyrics: “Don’t come round reminding me again how brittle bone is”; “That brutality and economy are related now I understand”; “Your ideal of justice just becomes rougher and rougher.” He’s not just a run-of-the-mill bad boyfriend. He’s a domestic abuser.
Suddenly it becomes clear that, for the narrator, Valentine’s Day symbolizes this destructive relationship she’s trying to shake. She shows ironic gratitude for both his meaningless trinkets of loyalty and his hard lessons: “Thank you for the things you bought me thank you for the card/Thank you for the things you taught me when you hit me hard.” With that, she cuts him free, packing up his belongings unexpectedly and telling him off for good: “Surprise, surprise/Valentine’s Day is over.”
“I wanted to write a song about an abusive relationship from a female perspective, contrasting the version of romance that we’re sold on Valentine’s Day with the brutal reality that this woman faces,” Billy Bragg tells us over e-mail. “Some feminists criticized me for writing this song, saying that I could never really know what a woman feels like when she’s the victim of male violence. I agreed on that point, but told them that I didn’t write this song for women – I wrote it for other men, to state clearly that, as a man, I believe that abuse in a relationship is totally unacceptable.”
So feel free to indulge in the happy endings of Hollywood movies and the gooey emotions of love songs as much as you like. Just don’t forget to acknowledge those suffering from Cupid’s misfires. Should you choose to do so, Billy Bragg’s “Valentine’s Day Is Over” is a cathartic place to start.