Break Me Off a Piece of that Breakup Song
No one pays attention to breakup songs until they need them. When you first hear one you are probably not interested; you are probably turned off by its utter depression, and so you skip ahead to the next upbeat track, something with shouting and hand claps in the chorus, something for happier people.
Fortunately for you, the dirge you just flitted by is secreted away and catalogued in the depths of your mind's ear for your future employ. Months, years, possibly hours later, the shit goes down, and you are so sad. And you’re searching, searching. You’re pretty sure the only thing that will make you feel better is listening to something that makes you feel…sadder.
Why does one crave the wallow? I do not know. But one does. You want full immersion in the dissolution. You don’t want to just take the language courses. You want to go live in the country of origin; you want to stay with a host family.
Enter the breakup song to function as a vessel, a vehicle, a holding pen. It is the sauna where all your emotions gather after work and sit and talk shit or breathe deeply and with each action make themselves hotter and sweatier until there is such frenzied perspiration you are crying on the outside, probably alone in your car. The breakup song serves a very specific role in the triage of heartbreak. I’m not saying it’s healthy to delve and wallow—but I am saying everyone I know does it, so let us honor the sad, slow breakup song for the fucked-up and necessary friend it is.
The best breakup songs tap into thousands of years of romantic tradition: the questioning, the regret, the disappointment, the moaning. That last bit is tricky—the moaning should sound like pain. It should not, ever, sound like sex—that would be cruel. (The Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You” is a fantastic example of painful, nonsexual moaning, which makes sense given that Michael was 11 at the time it was recorded.) Such songs strike you as though they have borne witness to the ascent and decline of many dimensions of your personal relationship.
And, in fact, we relate to breakup songs as though they were written specifically for us because, in a way, they were. I have never been nominated to speak on behalf of ASCAP songwriters, but I think the breadth of classic heartache anthems is so great because when songwriters purge and process their own romantic ends, it is natural and just to fall back on time-tested traditions and ride the wave of common tragedy: We are crying; we want to make you cry. And to do that, we try for what has made all of us cry. Lucinda Williams is a most adept channeler and purveyor of The Good Hurt, and has been for decades: The longevity of her romantic grief is enough to make you wonder why she keeps getting into questionable relationships—when you are not busy silently thanking her for doing so. (Update: The other evening I saw footage of Williams getting married onstage at one of her shows. She looked very happy. I am confused and worried for the future.)
You know why else breakup songs will always have their glory? Because at the end of a relationship there is an anthology of songs you will no longer listen to, ever. It won’t be dramatic—you will just subtly, steadily avoid them because your methods of self-preservation are tailored to evade the past and its stinging, sweet memories while embracing the present and future of solitary pain. You will throw away mix cds; while in the car you will adroitly handle the radio dial and straddle the pauses between songs, willing an almost telepathic sense for what is next. Hearing the first few chords of any number of songs will churn your insides. You will grow resolute in your abstinence and stalwart in your avoidance. Waiting in the wings like stage moms, breakup songs are ready to hold and lightly stab you, marking the transition from one type of membership to another—albeit with kazoos instead of trumpets.
We are grateful for these mood crashers for the same reason we might question their perversion: They keep us rooted in the heartache. These songs allow for introspection and the full acknowledgment that something very important has ended. They are imperative for counteracting the moments of distraction and dissociation and recklessness we engage in post-breakup, when we crank loud, good-time, watch-how-I-don’t-give-a-shit music and we go out urgently looking to forget. Those thumping beats are terrible for decision making. Many, with their deceitful powers, help encourage the premature release of emotions and attachments. If ever you wake up or come home from wherever doing whatever with whomever, feeling even more terrible than you did before, managing not a clean, pure sadness but rather the dirty, sleazy kind, you might consider a retreat to your coping pocket to re-collect yourself in the honest light of a good thing gone. Take a sweet, mournful song as your companion. Blow on a kazoo.
Thao Nguyen's Wallow-worthy Breakup Mix
1. Karen Dalton "Just a Little Bit of Rain"
2. Prince "When You Were Mine"
3. Jackson 5 "Who's Loving You"
4. Lucinda Williams "I Envy the Wind"
5. Karen Dalton "Something's on Your Mind"
6. Magnetic Fields "The One You Really Love"
7. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles "You Really Got a Hold on Me"
8. Songs: Ohia "Just Be Simple"
9. Neil Young "Harvest"
10. Cowboy Junkies "Blue Moon Revisited"
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