Break Me Off a Piece of that Breakup SongThao Nguyen on the perverse pleasure of musical pain

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”

This article was published in Art/See Issue #45 | Winter 2009
by Thao Nguyen
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

I'd add Sister Hazel's "Your

I'd add Sister Hazel's "Your Winter" in there as well.

breathe by anna nalick

seems to be a good companion for this part of the dark night...

Lovely article. How about

Lovely article. How about Velvet Underground "Who Loves the Sun"...

I'm not sure how Nick Cave

I'm not sure how Nick Cave could be left off this list. No More Shall We Part!

Nick Cave sure did his his

Nick Cave sure did his his share of grad breakup songs, but "And No More Shall We Part" isn't one of them - i'ts actually about his wedding.

break up songs

Mr. Bungle's Pink Cigarette.
Old 97's Wish the Worst
Concrete Blonde's Someday?, Long Time Ago, and a few others, including their cover of Everybody Knows. Quite a few other Cohen songs as well. Oh and the Bosstones: So Sad To Say....and a few that Blue Saracens have done. And Black 47's Czechoslovakia, Lady of the Bronx, or I won't take you home again, Kathleen.

Danzig's Possession. Blood and Tears, Dominion.

Awww. I gotta stop now. *sniffles*

My breakup album when I

My breakup album when I broke up with my first boyfriend was <i>If You're Feeling Sinister</i> by Belle and Sebastian, particularly the song "Seeing Other People." That's such a beautiful song, with its gently stumbling piano perfectly evoking that last awkward intimacy before you finally call it quits. (<i>Dear Catastrophe Waitress</i> was actually singer Stuart Murdoch's breakup album in the wake of his breakup with bandmate Isobel Campbell, and even though a lot of the songs on there are quite cheery, there are quite a few great breakup songs on there too, particularly "If She Wants Me.") It's strange that I can still listen to "Seeing Other People," though, since there's a corollary to what you mentioned in the article—just as when you break up with someone you don't want to think about songs associated with happy times with your ex (which is why Alanis Morissette makes me physically ill now), when you get into a new relationship you don't want to think about when you were freshly single and the songs that helped you back then. And when you're falling in love, just as when you're breaking up, you feel as if the songwriters are writing for you—let's have another mix of falling-in-love songs, we need some positivity!

"The One You Really Love" actually kind of makes me laugh, though. :/ There are tons of other great breakup songs on <i>69 Love Songs</i>, though—"Busby Berkeley Dreams," "Bitter Tears" and "I Don't Want To Get Over You," to name but a few.

woah songs: ohia! hold on

woah songs: ohia! hold on magnolia is terribly sad as well

I loved this article! More

I loved this article! More Thao Nguyen, please!

Great article.

Great article! I think Cat Power could function for this category as well...


This is kind of a mellow breakup playlist.. I'm usually more angry than sad after my breakups, so I'd go for some faster and jumpier songs. I suppose the mellow-cry stuff has its place though!

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