Love – it’s an untamed beast. And in popular song, it’s often downright ferocious.
As the pop song poet Neil Sedaka once said, ‘breaking up is hard to do’. But it seems it’s actually pretty common anyway; common enough for a lot of songwriters to capture the many facets, feelings, and consequences of the end of love from the early days of tin pan alley to this modern age of ours. And despite the era, it seems that human reactions to break-ups haven’t really changed. There are still a number of attitudes expressed in pop songs about what it is to see love die. Some love affairs end and it’s for the best, with both parties knowing that even though the end of a relationship is always sad, that it ultimately makes the most sense for everyone in the long run. Some end with a real sense of tragedy, that the love gone wrong was a misstep of destiny, or a belated insight about how to keep love alive. Some lovers put on a brave face. Some drown in their own tears, as another poet called Ray Charles once wrote. Some leave callously. Others are left in the dirt.
Whatever the reaction, break-ups are universal – most people have experienced the heartache, or the relief, and sometimes both, of a relationship ending. Here are 10 songs that talk about it, from cordial goodbyes, to pleas of the desperate, to the taunts of the non-committed. Whatever the point-of-view, it’s often pretty easy to see our own lives, our own experiences, reflected in the garden variety break-up song.
The best possible break-up is the one where it really is ‘a mutual thing’. And the king-bee anthem to this kind of bust-up has got to be the Gershwin’s ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, a song written in 1937 and recorded by artists ranging from Fred Astaire (from the movie Shall We Dance – see the clip) to Frank Sinatra to Robbie Williams. This is the most civilized break-up tune you’re ever likely to find, with the narrator celebrating what defined love while it was alive, instead of wallowing in the misery caused by its passing. In this, it is more poignant than any song that talks about ‘not being able to live without you’ or ‘I’m nothing without your love’ etc. It is the best of all things when one considers the magnitude of love; it is bittersweet, and reverent of love’s complexities.
As I’ve said in other post, my favourite version of the song is by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on their 1957 Ella & Louis album. This tune was born to be a duet , sung by two former lovers who have nothing but good memories of what they shared together. If we’re not lucky enough to find love to last us for the rest of our lives, then this is the best anyone could otherwise hope for.
One thing that people always think of when news of a break-up is given is how it will affect the kids. In this tune by Chuck Berry, a man tries to desperately return a call from a girl called Marie who lives in the titular town. We don’t get to find out who Marie is until the end – a six-year old girl, whose “happy home was torn apart because”, as the narrator explains, “her mum would not agree.” When I think that this song was written at a time when broken homes were fairly rare, and even more rarely discussed, I marvel at Chuck’s imagination. He positioned the typical break-up song not from the point of view of an unmarried teenager (which was his usual approach), but from the position of a divorced father, trying to adjust to being apart from his child.
In some ways, it was a brave move to talk about something other than cars, girls, and no school. This was social comment about one of the most heartbreaking aspects of a break-up; the injury of the innocent who can’t understand why Mum and Dad aren’t together anymore. This situation makes the break-up more than just about two people. It’s about entire families who feel the brunt of it. Who knew that duck-walking Chuck Berry had it in him to speak so eloquently, yet succinctly, about it?
Sometimes when a break up has happened, people try to put a brave face on in order to cover up just how miserable they are. In Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tears of a Clown’, the narrator does one better – he’s downright jubilant , while inside he’s tortured. Maybe this is a guy thing, that it just doesn’t do to let people know just how crushed one is, and how vulnerable. And I think because of Smokey’s keening falsetto, he carries this idea off better than most; a seemingly happy guy who is suffering somehow make that suffering even more profound.
Like so many Motown hits, underneath the sugary surface, there lurks a lot of pain. In many ways, this song and the other Smokey single which preceded it, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’, is a standard by which a lot of pop songs like this are written; that they are empathetic with the range of emotions which go along with everyday life. Tales of happiness and joy are alright in their place, but it is interesting that tales of emotional dishonesty in the face of loss connect with so many in a more enduring way.
Some of the most heartbreaking break up songs are not the ones which describe the depths of pain in detail, but rather the ones which are focused on what comes after, the replaying of the past which goes on that talks about what could have been. Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album covers this theme across a number of songs. This is popularly known as Bob’s ‘divorce album’, although Dylan himself has caused this assumption to be questioned, as is his custom when absolutes are placed upon his work. But whether or not the song is autobiographical or not, ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ wins the gold for most heartbreaking, song on the record, which is saying something when considering the competition. In this song, we get a new point of view still, the voice of a man so disconnected from his former love, that she never makes an appearance. She’s just a ghost trail to the memories of a former life. ‘She might be in Tangiers‘, says the opening lines, which succinctly puts the intimacy of love into context with a separation; those once close now separated by vagueness as much as by oceans and continents.
Maybe one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the song is that the narrator realizes what has caused the dissolution of the relationship only now, when his former love is long gone, becoming a little more than a disembodied name, one he hears as he ‘roams from town to town’. Only now does he realize what he contributed to the ending of his relationship, and that his love was right to leave despite remembrances of the night he ‘tried to make her stay’ . In fact, he finds that he always has ‘respected her, for doing what she did and getting free’. The knowledge of this makes this song no sunnier. And this is its power, I think; that knowledge and insight often comes too late, which is the real tragedy in most relationships.
The annoying thing about break-ups is that they’re so intrusive. You can’t go to the places you used to go, hear that song, see that movie, enjoy that memory, without the knowledge that you once shared those things with someone else. This song talks about how the pain of a break-up can invade every aspect of one’s life, and that the broken connections between one person and another are often felt the most painfully in the mundane details of daily living. This song was written in the early 1960s by Burt Bacharach and Hall David, and has since been recorded by the likes of Dionne Warwick who had a hit with it in 1967, R.B Greaves in 1970, and Sandie Shaw in 1985.
My favourite version is the one by Naked Eyes in 1982, their sole North American hit. I remember first hearing it at a school dance. I heard it on the radio again much later, but it was the Greaves version and I remember thinking, ‘that sounds like that Naked Eyes song, only old!’. I had yet to discover how old the tune was. There was a whole range of break-up songs to discover, I found, many of which were written decades before I was born. It seemed that the emotions attached to them, the magnitude of the loss of love, would be the same no matter which era it came out of.
“I think we should just be friends” may be one of the most debilitating sentences (in two senses of the word sentence…) in the English language. Many of us know that being dumped is no fun. But it’s the dealing with the imbalance of it long afterwards which is the hard part; loving someone who no longer loves you, and having to settle for friendship, or the pretense of friendship, as a result. One of my favourite songs which opens up this idea best is ABC’s “All of My Heart”, which was an anthem for the 80s sensitive guy, who knows that he can no longer slough off his feelings of pain over being left behind with feelings of love for someone who doesn’t, and possibly never did, share them. And he can’t win anything back by thinking that’s it’s all for the best, ‘a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.’
One thing that comes across is the line ‘the kindest cut’s the cruelest part’. The idea of letting someone down easy by offering friendship seems to be a myth for the most part. And in this song, this kind of kindness is still a ‘cut’, which seems to show that unrequited love still sucks, no matter how you handle it. And also, the song is a reminder that the risk of loving someone doesn’t often pay out. Sometimes, you put everything you’ve got on the table, and you get taken. The dark side of love that makes the contrasting rewards all the more glorious is of little comfort here.
Sometimes you just have to get out. Escaping abuse and all of the psychological implications and influences that go along with it is a drawn out process for some, but there comes a time when what is needed is a cheap hotel, a refuge, a place to go to reboot one’s life and start again. More importantly, there is a need to get to a place when one realizes that one is never really trapped in a relationship other than by traps of one’s own making. Ron Sexsmith’s 2001 song from the album Blue Boy tells this familiar story from the point of view of a mum in an abusive relationship, breaking the cycle of “first he’d be sweet to her and talk for hours/then lay right into her, and buy her flowers.”
It’s interesting that the cheap hotel, the refuge to which she takes her children when her husband steps out, is looked upon as both a blessing and a curse; that she is both glad to leave and hates to leave at the same time. As with most things, the emotions involved are not black and white. Leaving a bad situation and starting again leaves a lot of room for improvement. But in this song, there is a lot of uncertainty too along with the sense of empowerment that goes along with saying enough is enough; “god bless” and “goddamn” the cheap hotel are on equal footing here. Sexsmith leaves enough space in his song not to judge this one way or another, being as he is one of the best songwriters working today.
When in a relationship that one knows is ultimately unsalvageable, one thing which often happens is the need to carry on regardless, to continue to slog through because feelings and attachment outweigh the sense of inevitability. In other words, denial is not just a river in Egypt when it comes to breaking up. Beck’s “Lonesome Tears” is about getting out of this cycle, to realize that the energy spent on a relationship which is doing more harm than good is wasted, ‘riding farther than I should, just to meet you there’. This could very well be an angry song, a song of defiance. Yet, it’s ultimately sad, filled with the narrator’s love of another, yet with the knowledge that such a love will cost too much to both.
The 2002 album Sea Change, which Beck released to follow up his more celebratory and more carnal Midnite Vultures, is an understated affair in many ways in the singer-songwriter tradition. Traces of his trademark irony are entirely gone, and this is perhaps the most striking thing about it. In “Lonesome Tears” particularly, we get the sense that his songwriting is meant to be an emotional release after a breakup of his own, an approach that he’d not engaged in fully before.
Sometimes a break up happens in a matter of hours as opposed to a matter of years. And this being the case, there are songs which give voice to the scoundrel, to the good-natured rogue, to the one who isn’t interested in holding hands and talking about “little plans” with would-be life partners. Australian group Jet cover this territory well with ‘Cold Hard B*tch’, an anthem for the scramble-out-of-bed-before-she-wakes-up set. They took a lot of heat when the song came out, because I think a lot of people assumed that the CHB in question was supposed to be the woman in the picture. I personally think it’s about the man, making his paltry excuses and running out the door – that’s cold.
To me this song is about poorly communicated expectations. For the guy in this song, “she was shakin’ her hips/that was all that I need”. Yet, for the woman in this particular song it’s all about “holding hands and talking about little plans”. So many hearts are broken over this kind miscommunication. But for loud, testosterone-fueled rock anthems, this is fa song to inspire the ripping up of seats everywhere, with the voice of the commitment-phobic leading the charge.
Break-ups can take a long time to get over. But sometimes, it works the other way too, that once things are settled, the other person seems like someone you dreamed about, not someone who you were tied to in real life. When you meet the person randomly years later, there is no murmur of heartache so much as a feeling of strangeness, as if a character from one novel shows up in another novel, turning the overall story which might have been a tragedy into something that more closely resembles a comedy. In “You r Ex-lover is Dead” by Stars off of their album Set Yourself On Fire, there is a feeling of bemusement in meeting an old flame, with the feelings of regret supplanted by a detached sense that one was never really touched by the other person in the first place. This is a song that reminds the listener that sometimes a relationship is very much of its time, that it has no place beyond its own ending.
The most powerful line to me in this song is “I’m not sorry I met you/I’m not sorry it’s over/I’m not sorry that there’s nothing to save.” In many ways, this brings us full circle to ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, although this kind of resolution is less celebratory, and contains a more clinical view of one’s romantic history. And yet the sense of resolution is the same. And resolution is really what we’re all after, post break-up. So, this is a hopeful view of a break-up too then, knowing that if time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds, it certainly gives new perspectives in that what is important at one time may not apply in another.
Break-ups; a human experience that not many of us enjoy when we’re the ones being dumped. To be fair, even the dumpers have a hard time with it. And like most common human experiences, popular song has them well covered, in all of their complexities, giving voice to the vulnerable and the callous in equal measure. In some ways, making art or appreciating it can add all manner of value to one’s life, particularly in times when we need to be reminded that what we’re going through is common. Songs – lyrics that resonate, melodies that keep us company by playing in our heads – help to remind us that we’re not alone in the times where we feel that we are. And what is a more basic human need than that?