Getting over someone? These breakup songs might help you through the five stages of heartache.
Whether you’re the dumper or the dumpee, breakups suck. Heartache can range from being bummed out over the loss of a summer fling to having your life obliterated by a nasty divorce. But there is one thing all heartache has in common: it compels songwriters to write some of their best material. And their songs can comfort the rest of us too.
The 5 Stages of Grief
In 1969 Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Though she was writing about death, the five stages have since been applied to many kinds of loss — including the end of a relationship.
As she continued to study the five stages, Kübler-Ross eventually came to understand that the stages are not progressive or linear but that they instead represent common experiences for those suffering a loss and can occur in any order or not at all. The model has also been used to explain a wide variety of distressing experiences, such as a sports fan lamenting their team’s loss or a voter grieving their chosen political candidate’s election loss.
Breakups definitely cause feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, ultimately, acceptance, because that’s what the five stages of grief are really all about: coming to accept the loss and eventually heal. And music can help. Here are five of the best breakup songs that have gotten people through all five stages of heartache.
1. Denial: ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Written by Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore and Marv Tarplin, “The Tracks of My Tears” was a huge hit for The Miracles in 1965. Tarplin wrote the iconic guitar riff after listening to Harry Belafonte’s “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” and Smokey Robinson later came up with the idea for the lyrics while shaving and studying his face in the mirror.
Few songs represent denial as well as “The Tracks of My Tears.” It tells the story of a man who has recently broken up with his true love. In an effort to get over her, he becomes “the life of the party,” telling jokes and dating new women, but it’s all just a cover for his heartache. Outside, he’s masquerading. Inside, his hope is fading.
The emotional peak of the song comes when he sings, “My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you. Baby, take a good look at my face. You’ll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it’s easy to trace the tracks of my tears.”
2. Anger: ‘Before He Cheats’ by Carrie Underwood
After winning the fourth season of American Idol, Carrie Underwood released her debut album, Some Hearts, which went on to become the best-selling solo female debut album in country music history. The album featured the blistering breakup anthem “Before He Cheats.”
The song tells the story of a woman scorned who takes revenge on a cheating partner, mostly by destroying his property. She describes the carnage: “I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive, carved my name into his leather seats. I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights, slashed a hole in all four tires. Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.”
Though most of us would never perform the acts of vandalism described in the song, many of us have been angry enough to fantasize about it, and it can be downright therapeutic to live vicariously through Carrie Underwood as she gets her petty revenge in a crime of passion and also gets the last word: “The next time that he cheats, you know it won’t be on me.”
3. Bargaining: ‘The Scientist’ by Coldplay
Inspired by George Harrison’s songs “Isn’t It a Pity” and “All Things Must Pass,” and written on an out-of-tune piano, Coldplay’s “The Scientist” is a haunting, cryptic ballad with an eerie music video. Though the lyrics defy easy analysis, I’ve always thought they tell the story of a man trying to make sense of a shattered relationship, only to find himself “running in circles.”
The poignant center of the song is in the chorus: “Nobody said it was easy. It’s such a shame for us to part. Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be this hard.” In an effort to get out of a situation that he’d never imagined being so hard, the protagonist finally pleads: “Oh, take me back to the start.” Which is obviously — and painfully — impossible. And yet, this thin and desperate thread of hope is all that holds him out of the abyss of heartache.
4. Depression: ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ by Sinéad O’Connor
It’s hard to imagine a more depressing song than “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Prince wrote it for one of his side projects, but Sinéad O’Connor’s cover became a worldwide hit in 1990. As if the song weren’t depressing enough, the music video is heartbreaking, with Sinéad O’Connor eventually shedding real tears in extreme close-up, demonstrating the song’s emotional turmoil.
The despondency begins with the opening lyric: “It’s been seven hours and fifteen days since you took your love away.” For more than two weeks, she’s been “a bird without a song,” going out every night and sleeping all day. She tries eating in a fancy restaurant, putting her arms around every boy she sees, and finally visiting the doctor. But she can’t escape her depressed reality: “Nothing, I said nothing can take away these blues. ’Cause nothing compares to you.”
As a side note, check out this amazing cover by Chris Cornell of the band Soundgarden. His stripped-down acoustic version and pained lead vocal breathe new life into the song.
5. Acceptance: ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ by Poison
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, hair metal was one of the hottest genres in music and the power ballad had reached its apex. The band Poison had their only number-one hit in the U.S. in 1988 with their country-tinged ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” which lead singer Bret Michaels wrote in a lonesome Dallas laundromat after a somber call to his girlfriend at the time.
From the resigned deep breath at the beginning of the track to the lyrics in the chorus, the song is all about accepting the end of a relationship and realizing even beautiful things in life can hurt you, hence the song’s central metaphor of the thorny rose.
Wounds heal, the song reminds us, but the “scar remains.” And the lyrics exemplify acceptance: “Every rose has its thorn. Just like every night has its dawn. Just like every cowboy sings his sad, sad song. Every rose has its thorn.” Preach on, Brother Michaels!
Breaking up is never easy, but music can help with any stage of heartache. The notion that music can heal has been around for centuries, and there’s even a field called music therapy that explores the curative properties of music. No matter what you’re going through — denial, anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance — there’s a song for you.
In fact, there are so many great breakup songs that I had a difficult time narrowing down my list. What are some of your favorites? And how have they helped you through a difficult breakup?