Breakups suck. Naturally, like most things, people handle them differently. Some people need to drink hard as a distraction, some seek comfort in food or exercise, and others pick up a guitar and turn those feelings into a song winning them Grammys and plenty of money. Nowadays, it’s hard listening to the radio and not hearing a song referencing a bad break-up, especially as many musicians seem to have chosen it as their go-to formula. So is the oftentimes not-so-subtle dig at the other person entirely acceptable to use as material, or is the publicising of a relationship through a song an immature and shameless exploitation of a personal issue? Let us go on a journey of breakup ballads to decide.
The ‘70s to the ‘90s had their fair share of heartbreak and sorrowful ballads, with tracks such as the popular karaoke choice and song from the ’80s, “Don’t you want me?” by The Human League. Because of its unique inclusion of both sides of the story (something that is lacking in most songs that followed), the track was well-received and has continued to feature in top breakup song lists in modern times. Other popular breakup ballads include Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” for her melodic and heart-breaking rendition of the Dolly Parton original, The Cure’s “Pictures of You”, the perfect song for angst-ridden teenagers and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart’, a sepia-filled melancholic ballad of mourning, perfect for dwelling in one’s misery. All these examples of breakup ballads, while obviously a personal song for the musician/band, refrain from actually naming (and shaming) who has caused them pain, choosing instead to express their heartbreak in a way that makes it relatable to people feeling a range of emotions, thereby explaining the longevity and popularity of the songs. While the themes of these songs correlate to the notions of loss, the way in which they are interpreted is left up to the listener to decide, instead of the force-feeding nature adopted by breakup ballads to come.
The 21st century brought a change in the nature of breakup ballads, with these songs taking on a more personal, scornful attack on the person who caused all the suffering. Blame it on the rise of narcissism. Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” was an unsubtle ballad about his breakup with Britney Spears and her supposed infidelity, even going as far to hire a Spears-lookalike for his music video where he stalks her in her house. Most early nineties kids will remember the popular one-hit-wonder song of 2003 by Eamon called “F**k it (I Don’t Want You Back)”. That song became the anthem of the year, as fans sang along to the notably bitter and expletive-filled track (even winning the Guinness World Record title of most expletives in one song). The song was popular for its controversial lyrics, even prompting a reply track from Eamon’s supposed ex-girlfriend Frankee, who claimed to be the subject of the song. All of a sudden, listeners were treated to the dirty laundry-like nature of breakup songs. However despite Eamon shooting to fame for his honest and brutal track (and Frankee having her 15 minutes of fame), Eamon never quite managed to recapture the honest bitterness that made his song so popular in the first place. However his lyrics, filled with expletives and sexist language, are still immortalised across the web, and available on YouTube and other music channels.
When talking about a bankable breakup ballad the first musician that usually comes to mind is Taylor Swift. Popular for her catchy, saccharine lyrics that receive plenty of airtime when they’re new and then thankfully fade into obscurity, she has made it her business to use her personal life as material for her songs. Her breakup songs are incredibly one-sided, with the subjects of the song often finding themselves having to deal with their personal lives made public, and the scorn of a million Swifties targeting them after she drops a track. What separates Swift from someone like Adele is the subtle hand applied to each song. Swift, like a love-scorned teenager, has made it incredibly obvious who each song is about- going after ex-boyfriends and their new girlfriends- yet her fans seem to lap up her forthright transparency. Many of her songs are written about her being dumped, such as “Better Than Revenge”, written about Joe Jonas dumping her for actress Camilla Belle, “Dear John” penned after her relationship with John Mayer soured, and “Picture to Burn” after her teenage boyfriend broke up with her. In the album version of the song she sings about how she’d tell all her friends that he was gay and then date all of his friends. Granted, she was 16 when she wrote the song, but two factors remain- firstly, these types of songs are out there, they’re attached to Swift and her brand, and therefore her young fans are exposed to them. Secondly, many consider her a role model, and therefore they may think behaving in the way she describes is justified and advocated by Swift, which is a dangerous notion. Swift has publicly apologised for some of the songs she has written before, yet she has not stopped with the scathing ballads that follow after her short-lived relationships inevitably end.
Writing songs after a bad breakup may be a form of therapy for musicians to channel their feelings, and many fans are appreciative of it, for their relatability and assistance for when it comes to getting over their own breakups. Who hasn’t listened to Radiohead on repeat and gone on a gin and gin diet after breaking up with their significant other? (or maybe that’s just me).The nature of a breakup ballad, in its attempt to expunge all feelings whether scornful or apologetic, is undoubtedly a personal one. Yet, how personal and pointed the final draft is when the ballad comes out, is the subtle difference between usable material and the exploitation of it.