B-Sides: When Breaking Up is the Best


NPR did a segment on break-up songs. Tigerbeatdown devoted a week on the subject. And Thao Nguyen has written an article breaking-down the break-up song for Bitch. But I got to thinking about the break-up songs are good for you, the ones that are less about the blues and more about kicking-ass.

Setting aside those songs of the sad sappy variety (that nevertheless, even at their most cliché, are exactly what you need when you’re down), and those songs that are ambiguously-break-uppy that you project your own feelings on and make your own, I’m talking about those songs that are less about being blue than about celebrating being done with something bad.

Nancy Sinatra’s “These boots were made for walking,” Dusty Springfield’s “All Cried Out,” Destiny Child’s “Survivor,” Mary J. Blige’s “Enough Cryin,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and of course, the indefatigable “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gainer, all focus on women being fed up with bad relationships and recognizing that they’re better off after the fall. They don’t pretend there’s no heartache involved–they’ve been there–it’s just these songs are about being a stronger person after leaving a crummy relationship. They’re less about breaking-up and more a celebration of finally being rid of something that was dragging you down.

Take “Cry Me a River,” was written for Ella Fitzgerald in (and IMHO has not been topped since), another example of looking back at your tears with a fresh head. Although it starts with the pace and somberness of a funeral march, it moves to an almost playful exuberance of turning desperation around.

(This song is off of Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie! which has its share of super sad but excellent songs about being lonely).

In other break-up songs, it’s the very optimism of the music that’s uplifting. The tUnE-yArD’s “News” is sunshine in a glass, and both Lily Allen’s “Smile” and Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone,” use humor to tinge bad relationships.

Lyrics here

Then there’s the angry break-up songs, which I find particularly affirming, mostly because anger is a sentiment that women aren’t “supposed” to exhibit—they’re more likely to cry than to raise their voice. So songs like Alanis Morissete’s “You Oughta Know,” and Bratmobile’s “Gimme Brains,” are all the more cathartic. Conversely, some of the more mainstream “angry” break-up songs by dudes have a scary underlying violence, like Pantera’s “This Love” (listed by AskMen.com, the go-to site for classy gents douchebags as the #7 break-up song, casually explaining “the narrator’s if-I-can’t-have-you-nobody-can sentiment is something most people can easily relate to,”), or anything by Eminem about his ex.

The empowering break-up song can also offer up social commentary on gendered double standards. “It Wasn’t God who Made Honky Tonk Angels” was penned in 1952 as a response to Hank Williams’ “Wild Side of Life.” The lyrics counter the claim that it’s cheatin’ women that ruin relationships: “It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women/It’s not true that only you men feel the same/From the start most every heart that’s ever broken/Was because there always was a man to blame.” Sung by Kitty Wells, the song topped the Billboard Country charts for six weeks (must have resonated!), making Wells the first solo female act to do so, and paving the way for acts like Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton (who would later cover “Honky Tonk Angels”).

More recently, Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” (Beyoncé is all about the empowering break up song, I haven’t even mentioned “Irreplaceable”) does something similar. Speculating what life would be like “if she were a boy,” Beyoncé would do typical “dude” stuff like drinking beer with the boys, but when it comes down to it, s/he would treat her woman better because as a woman, she knows what its like to put up with shit from guys.

So yeah, what do you think? Did I forget to mention that song by your favorite band? This post was like staring at a five-inch thick kareoke book and forgetting EVERY SONG EVER. Let me know!

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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14 Comments Have Been Posted

I think Melissa Etheridge's

I think Melissa Etheridge's "Skin" album is probably the best break-up *album* ever, I can't just pick one song... I've worn it out.

Too obvious?

Hello, ANI DIFRANCO?! Give the most righteous babe who constantly gives shout outs to feminism some credit! A (capital F) Feminist with a huge catalogue of love songs, she manages to convey heartbreak without compromising her authenticity and feminist ideals. See "Dilate," "Superhero," "Used to You," "Make Me Stay," "You Had Time," and literally hundreds of other songs. Prolific does not even begin to describe her.

Jean Grae's "How To Break Up

Jean Grae's "How To Break Up With Your Girlfriend" is madness.

I also like...

At the risk of being uncool, I'll also add Britney Spears' "Stronger." It's even pre-K-Fed!

I'd also include Outkast's "Ms. Jackson" b/c Andre3000 is apologizing to Erykah Badu's mama for screwing up, which flips the script in a good way...

"Good Things"

by Sleater-Kinney is for sure in my top faves.

I'm vibing pretty hard on

I'm vibing pretty hard on Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" right now, which has a fair amount of heartache turned empowerment. And also, this post (and the pieces you linked to) made me realize how much I've reached for lady voices and diva songs and powerhousewomenjamz when times get tough. I want someone to tell me how processes of identification work in something as abstract as music. I think I'm looking for a musicologist? Those exist, right? At any rate, great post.

Hound Dog

Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog."

You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin' round my door
You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin' round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain't gonna feed you no more

You told me you was high class
I could see through that
You told me you was high class
I could see through that
And Daddy I know
You ain't no real cool cat

You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin' round my door
You just an old hound dog
Been snoopin' round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain't gonna feed you no more

You made me feel so blue
You made me weep and moan
You made me feel so blue
You made me weep and moan
'Cause you ain't looking for a woman
All your lookin' for is a home

You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin' round my door
You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin' round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain't gonna feed you no more

And I also love "Think (About it)" by Lyn Collins

It starts off with:

Hey, fellas
I'm talking to you, you and you too
Do you guys know who I'm talking to

Those of you who go out and stay
Out all night and half the next day
And expect us to be home
When you get there

But let me tell you something
The sisters are not going for that no more
Cause we realize two things
That you aren't doing anything for us
That we can do better for ourselves

So from now on, we gonna use
What we got to get what we want

Jennifer K. Stuller

Ben Folds. Song for the

Ben Folds. Song for the Dumped... Also, You Don't Know Me (Featuring Regina Spektor)


I've always loved Komeda's song, "Nonsense". She starts by singing:
I don't like your company, so sick of you
Don't wanna be your friend no more, leave me alone

Then the chorus, which feels nice to sing out very loud:
I'm going, gone and I'm finally out
But I'm not feeling lonely
I'm going, gone and I'm finally out
And I am feeling so fine

Alanis Morissette

Actually, i find "you outta know" kinda creepy. The whole i'm here to let you know you've upset me bit....It seems a bit stalkerish.
Though maybe thats just cause my stalker ex once quoted it at me. But i can see how it could resonate with that sort of person. (yes, i know, classy. He also once said something along the lines of "well i know you think you're a sexually liberated woman, but you know a rose by any other name.." Pure class)

joy // lucinda

joy // lucinda williams
breaking it up // lykke li
you're so vain // carly simon

think you're so vain is pretty much tops!

these boots

YES! this song: Nancy Sinatra's "These boots were made for walking," belongs on any emotional playlist, not just breakup ones!

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