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The Art of the Breakup Song

If you have spent any time on the internet in the last week then you are probably currently being haunted by Olivia Rodrigo’s Driving Licence. The song has become the biggest-selling debut number one in five years and has broken the record for the most-streamed song in a day on Spotify, “peaking at 17 million streams on 12 January”. It is safe to say that heartbreak sells.

Olivia Rodrigo,

The eerie melancholy and audible pain that underpin the song embody everything that a good breakup song should be. Add in some highly publicised relationship drama and a little bit of brilliant PR work, and you have a hit. Not every love hurt songwriter can produce a hit of a breakup song though, but there are a slew that have captured the hurt, betrayal and number one spot perfectly.

There is a real art to perfectly capturing such a painful experience and emotion, and these songs make it look easy.

You Oughta Know- Alanis Morissette

Alanis Morissette performing You Oughta Know,

As with most of Morissette’s music, this song is angry and unapologetically so. You can hear the hurt and anger in every note and it is unbelievably rewarding and cathartic to sing along to. The rawness of the song is much like Rodirgo’s audible pain and makes the song instantly relatable. It is as if we are experiencing the heartbreak alongside them.

This is the breakup anthem of many a scorned breakup-ee and the thought of singing this directly to an ex fills me with such pure glee- not that I have ever had the courage to do so.

For a breakup song to be truly good it needs to tap into an emotion that you cannot quite express yourself but so desperately want to communicate. The anger that is palpable in this 1995 hit does just that, taking an emotion that is often hard to compartmentalise and fully come to grips with, and channelling it into the ultimate ‘screaming at the top of your lungs’ song.

A breakup song does not need to be sad, and Morissette teaches us this flawlessly with You Oughta Know.

Someone Like You- Adele

Adele has somewhat of a monopoly on the breakup song and gives Taylor Swift a good run for her money. Where the two differ is with Adele’s often positive outlook on the end of a relationship. Someone Like You is the perfect example of this.

The retrospective look back at a past relationship in light of the other moving on is not done in anger, like Morissette, but with love. A very important distinction.

Adele performing Someone Like You at the Brit Awards,

The genuine want for her ex to do well and find happiness is slightly undermined by “turning up out of the blue uninvited”, but there is something so heartbreakingly sweet about loving somebody so much that you are willing to let them go in the hope of finding somebody similar. There is no ill will or hatred in the song, which probably makes it all the more heartbreaking. Instead, this is a love letter to an ex and one that invites tears from the opening note.

A breakup song does not have to make you cry, but sometimes it is needed, and when that is the case Adele is always there to help.

Better than Revenge- Taylor Swift

A look at the art of the breakup song would be severely lacking without at least one T-Swift song. Better than Revenge may seem an odd and less obvious choice, but a revenge song is a beautiful thing and Taylor does it oh-so-well.

Taylor Swift performing Better than Revenge,

As with Rodrigo, Swift has capitalised on the public attention her relationships garner to create buzz and sales of her records. Better than Revenge is inspired by her ill-fated relationship with Joe Jonas, of the infamous 25-second phone call breakup, and the mocking tone taken throughout is the ultimate last word.

Taylor Swift and Joe Jonas, the inspiration for the song,

Whilst blaming the supposed ‘other women’ in the relationship no longer fits with Swift’s feminist ‘woke’ image, the song is fun and campy and is Swift at her best. The drama surrounding the song’s inspiration and the ruthless put-downs throughout are arguably a significant reason for its success.

This is not an angry song, instead, it is a reclaiming of power and incredibly satisfying to sing along to. Swift knows how to write a breakup song that sells, in fact, she has built a career on it, and this is arguably one of her best.

Somebody That I Used to Know- Gotye

I couldn’t tell you who Gotye is and where he went, but in 2011 this song was everywhere. A quick google tells me he is quite popular in his native Australia, but I do not think it is cruel to label this as a one-hit-wonder. A fairly big one-hit-wonder.

Somebody that I Used to Know music video,

The music video was iconically simple, two ex-partners slowly being covered in paint and bitterly singing to each other, and the anger that pulses through the lyrics is unmissable.

The song shouldn’t have been a hit, and definitely shouldn’t have stayed at number one for eight weeks on the Billboard Top 100. It is not what data shows to make a good pop song, and yet it tapped into something that people wanted. As the artist said to Billboard, the legacy of the song is “That in the context of pop, you can ostensibly break all the rules.”

We are so used to mathematical beats and the same repeated samples that a song like Somebody That I Used to Know is refreshing. What all these songs have in common is the raw emotion they portray, even if disguised in a pop song.

Heartbreak is a difficult emotion to capture and turn into art in a way that is communicable to others. A good breakup songs need to do not only that but tell a universal experience of heartbreak as well. Some songs do this through inspiring tears, others unhindered anger, but whatever the method, there needs to be a lack of barriers between the artist and listener.

What all these songs do beautifully, and what is the beauty of a good breakup song, is laying everything completely bare. Morissette’s anger, Rodrigo’s self-doubt and pain, Swift’s triumph over the ‘other women’, or even Adele’s love for the man who broke her heart, it is all completely raw and honest.

A good breakup song leaves nothing of the page. Driving License is the epitome of a good breakup song, as are the others listed, and they embody everything we wish we could say whilst crying into a tub of Ben and Jerrys.

After all, a good breakup song is like medicine for the soul, and these songs are the perfect prescription for heartbreak.

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