Breakup Songs I have Earned, One Love Song I've Lost, and One I Can Always Keep

Yes, friends: more breakup content. I am doing okay— shockingly well, in fact, given the particulars of this split— but it’s still preoccupying my thoughts to a great degree, hence: I have some more thoughts for YOU! This week, they’re about the music people make to process these feelings. 

Much of this movie and book have aged poorly, but this question is an eternal one.

I have, my adult whole life, had an affinity for breakup songs. Love songs can sometimes seem subject to Tolstoy’s rule of families— all happy love songs are alike; each unhappy love song is unhappy in its own way. In fact, thinking it over, I think that axiom works much better for love songs these days than it does for families. The specific details of a broken relationship, its furious hurt and miserable anger, are often so much more concrete, and more pressing to communicate, than the diffuse joy of happy relationship. 

My whole adult life, however, this love of heartbreak songs ran counter to my ability to, by and large, outwit romantic ruin. It’s not that I was never heartbroken or love-lorn or lonely— I am human, ergo I was all of those things, and often more than one at a time— but prior to the last three years, I had never had a sufficiently enticing invitation to hurl myself wholeheartedly after anything. The temptation to do something messily romantic was never greater than my distaste for the possible consequences; I was always Elinor Dashwood, never Marianne. 

As I got older, I began to chafe against this practical avoidance of passionate pitfalls. I started to feel like the collectible toys my mom kept on the top shelf of the closet when I was little— in mint condition, with original factory packaging. I was keeping myself so neat and safe, but to what end? 

Little did I realize how much disaster I could bring down upon myself once a sufficiently alluring bad bet came along. I wanted to find someone worth dinging myself up for. I wanted to be made real by love, like the Velveteen Rabbit. I just made the mistake of handing myself over to someone who, without entirely knowing it himself, was more Sid than Andy and, well. No one would describe me as being in mint condition anymore.

In some ways, it’s an extraordinarily uncomfortable feeling— Marianne was always ready to be heartbroken. She knew what do to with it, she knew how to revel in the ruin. When you’re an Elinor whose feelings don’t sit right unless they have hospital corners, this riot of emotion is intensely confusing. But it did leave me feeling like, finally, I had earned my affinity for all these sad songs, I had earned my right to love them with such ferocity. I didn’t know when I found them how much I’d need them now.

“How Am I Different” — Aimee Mann

I listened to Aimee Mann in my twenties like I was studying something. Like I was strength training. I think, on some level, I believed that if I soaked up enough of her world-weary romantic cynicism, I could skip the part where I had to learn these lessons with my own hurt and jump straight to wry detachment. I was wrong. But at least, when I was standing amidst the ruin of the relationship I thought I’d had and my ex invited me to bet again on an improbable pledge of improvement, Aimee had taught me exactly what to say: when you fuck it up later, do I get my money back? 

“Roll With the Punches” - Dawes

Dawes, more than any other band in the world, makes me cry. Their songs aren’t sadder than most bands’, I have just lived with them more than almost any other musicians’, so when Taylor Goldsmith sings, it feels like he’s talking directly to me. I haven’t 100% earned this song about a messy divorce (although I have a wealth of newfound respect for ANYONE who's survived one) but coming out of this, I have been realizing how many emotional blows I took, how many punches I rolled with that I should have felt. And so this one makes me cry more, and differently, than it used to. I am crying for all the blows that came too fast and furious to even register until now.

“Night Shift” - Lucy Dacus

This song is, flatly, both a masterpiece and one of the best break-up anthems of all time. And it has also been a thorn in my side for more than a year because, when its hurt first spoke to me, I was reeling from the brutal loss of a relationship I’d valued, but I had been the person who chose to end it. I worried that Lucy would resent me identifying with her sadness— if I’d chosen to leave, did I have the right to feel this sorry for myself? This recent decimation, however, has signed over the rights to me entirely. Now when I sing “You don’t deserve what you don’t respect, don’t deserve what you say you love and then neglect,” I don't have to worry that Lucy would say it wasn't for me. Me and Lucy, we’re on the same team now. Maybe we always were.

“All I’ve Ever Known” - Nabiyah Be and Damon Daunno from the off-Broadway production of Hadestown, written by Anais Mitchell

Of course, not all wisdom has felt like a gain. For every heartbreak song I understand anew, there’s a love song I’ll never feel the same way about again. Of those, this one is the most gutting loss because it articulates so perfectly what I thought I’d found in the relationship I’ve just lost. I had spent so long keeping myself safe, worked so hard to make myself independent, that I truly didn’t think I wanted a partner. I couldn’t imagine finding anyone I’d trust enough to hold. The good times in this relationship, they made me feel like I’d really found that. They taught me I could love having it. But, somehow, I didn’t spot the threat in identifying so closely with a relationship as tragic as Orpheus and Eurydice’s, particularly as depicted in Hadestown. Now all I hear is how misplaced Eurydice’s trust is, all I can think is how she should have waited to hold someone who was strong enough to hold her, too, whichever way the wind blows. 

“Challengers” - The New Pornographers 

But nothing can take this love song from me. I imprinted on this song at 21 and thus, forever and always, “whatever the mess you are, you’re mine, okay” will be the most profound expression of love I can imagine. I may not have a romantic partner who can say that to me right now, but I have friends who can, and do. I have a true north to point my ship towards. And that’s more than plenty of people can say.