All Hail The Break-Up Song

Friday, February 16th, 2007

Last week at the Double Door I played all breakup songs. I like writing breakup songs. I like playing them. I like hearing them. I just wrote a new one over the weekend. A breakup (of sorts) is the reason I started writing songs.

There’s something about them that just about everyone can relate to. I was in my car yesterday and heard the Tom Petty song “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and was all, “Yeah, you said it, Tom.” And I don’t even smoke pot.

I think it’s possible that half of all songs are about breakups. So I’m going to do a scientific experiment here: I put iTunes on shuffle and will list the next 25 songs that come up. The ones in red I’ve categorized as breakup songs. Before I get to the list, some ground rules:

  1. Don’t judge my crappy taste in music. This is for science!
  2. I have a couple Lucinda Williams albums in there and that might throw off the sample set since I’m pretty sure all of her songs are about a guy what done her wrong.
  3. I was going to count songs about jilted romance as well, but after receiving this argument from resident music expert Kurt Hirsch, I changed my tune: “I think at least a semblance of a relationship is necessary in order for a song to be a ‘breakup song.’ I understand your ‘turned down’ = ‘break up’ hypothesis, but, at first blush, I do not think I can subscribe to it. It is a slippery slope, my friend.” So to be considered a break up song, there must be evidence of an actual relationship.
  4. I’m skipping instrumentals, sound effects, anything under 30 seconds long, podcasts, jazz, classical music, Andrew Bird songs and other misc. crap in my iTunes library. I’m also skipping my songs if they happen to come up.

Here are the results:

1 “Old Girlfriends” – John Wesley Harding: I swear I didn’t rig this. The title speaks for itself. Not really about a breakup, but come on!

2 “Shelter From The Storm” – Bob Dylan: Too bad Tangled Up in Blue didn’t come up, but I’d say Blood On The Tracks is a breakup album. I’m leaning toward the “yes” column, but I need a second opinion, so here’s what resident Bob Dylan expert Kurt Hirsch has to say (he’s all kinds of experts): “That is one of the most difficult questions I have ever been asked. In my whole life… Were I asked ‘What kind of song is “Shelter From The Storm”?’ — I would not reply, ‘It’s a breakup song.” However, if one assumes that there are two types of songs in the world — breakup songs and songs that aren’t breakup songs — than it is a breakup song.” There you go. Sweet validation.

3 “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt. 1″ – Flaming Lips: Not really any way to twist this one into a breakup song.

4 “Night Accident” – Robbie Fulks: This story might have had a breakup in its future, what with the cheating and lying and all, but the Burlington Northern took care of that. So, no.

5. “Hello” – Lionel Richie: This is the song that sparked rule #3. It’s unclear that there was an actual relationship there, which is too bad since it has all the hallmarks of a breakup song: yearning, whining, and a classical guitar solo. From Kurt: “The more interesting question is… how did Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ end up on your iTunes?” My response: please see rule #1.

6 “I Am A Grocery Bag” – They Might Be Giants: I almost disqualified this song for being only 34 seconds long, but it made it in 4 seconds over the 30 second cut off.

7 “Carrie Brown” – Steve Earl & The Del McCoury Band: Kurt and I disagreed over this one, but I have to admit that there was no actual relationship and, thus, no actual breakup. “Ultimately, if you include the ilk of ‘Carrie Brown’ (or ‘Hello’ for that matter)… you are making more of a ‘heartbreak’ list than a ‘break up’ list.” Tru dat. Either way, this song does have one of my all-time favorite folk lyrics: “I shot him in Virginia and he died in Tennessee.”

8 “Delirious Love” – Neil Diamond: Definitely not a break up song. Rather the opposite, actually. But that relationship’s gonna end in tears, you can just tell. It’s like they’re not thinking straight or something.

9 “9 Mili Bros” – Ghostface Killah: Nope. They got females.

10 “Champagne Supernova” – Oasis: I don’t know what the hell’s going on in this song, but I’m pretty sure they’re not breaking up.

11 “The Boy With The Arab Strap” – Belle And Sebastian: I sure am a sucker for a song with hand claps in it, but that’s a subject for another post. Are there any good breakup songs with hand claps? “There Goes My Baby?” I hope that comes on.

12 “Maybe” – Janice Joplin: Finally! Thank you, Janice! As good as it gets.

13 “Poor Little Critter In The Road” – The Knitters: Just a drinking song. Closest it gets is “something about some romancing…”

14 “I Want To Break Free” – Queen: I don’t think this one is entirely clear. On one hand, “I’ve fallen in love…” On the other, “But life still goes on. I can’t get used to living without (living without living without) you by my side.” But when it comes down to it, he wants to break free. So this is a break up song. Even Kurt agrees. Got a problem with that? Comment away.

15 “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” – John Prine: I don’t think these two break up until the next album.

16 “Cecilia” – Simon & Garfunkle: Hot damn! This is even more of a breakup song than “Maybe.”

17 “Here I Go Again On My Own” – Whitesnake: I’m on a roll. I may get to 50% yet. This was one of our softball songs. We made a CD of songs to play when our players went up to bat. You know, to hype up the crowd.

18 “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” – Iris DeMent: Thanks for nothing, DeMent. Aw, I can’t stay made at you Iris! Go ahead and sing your song about the country or dying or whatever. You’re adorable!

19 “Tangled Up In Blue” – Bob Dylan: Ha! What are the odds?

20 “Ooh La La” – Rod Stewart: I wish this song would end so I didn’t have to look at Rod Stewart’s mug on the album cover. Thanks for that feature, iTunes.

21 “Nobody Knows” – Fooled By April: This is my friend’s band that no longer exists. Luckily I can go to the source on this one. From Gordon Wright: “‘Nobody Knows’ was not intended as a break-up song. Although, I could see how someone might see this girl who’s so alone as having just suffered a break-up, but since that thought never occurred to me in writing it, I think it’s safe to say it’s not. So there.” Crap.

22 “Each Night I Try” – Robbie Fulks: I knew Fulks wouldn’t let me down twice.

23 “You Baby” – Lovin’ Spoonful: As far from a breakup song as anyone could possibly get.

24 “Drift Away” – Dobie Gray: I like your song too, Dobie. Now break up with her!

25 “Lorelle” – Divebar: Hey, it’s my brother’s band. I was pretty sure this was a breakup song, but spoke to Matt Loss, the author, who explained that “it’s more of a never had song.” It seems like there are quite a few of those never-had songs. Anyway, you can listen to it on their MySpace page and decide for yourself.

The next song, in case anyone is wondering, was “I Love My Dog” by Cat Stevens. Thank goodness that didn’t make it into the sample set.

So, 8 out of 25. That’s 32%. Not quite 50%, but not too far off, especially considering the margin for error is, oh, about 100%. Anyone else want to give this a try? I’d like to see your results. Want to question my interpretation of these songs? Lord knows I’m making it up as I go along.

Also, no Lucinda Williams after all! What a rip! I skipped ahead until a Lucinda Williams song came up. It was “I Lost It.” Yup, breakup song.


I think it’s a fair test but too small a sample. I hope others start wasting their time on this frivolity so we can have a bit of statistical significance. Rock on, Evan.

I am a big fan of Gordon’s, but his comment reminds me of something my Grandma once said to me:

“Statistical significance? Schtaishtical schmignificance!”

We sometimes had difficulty figuring out what she was saying, too.

In any event, have you heard Lucinda Williams’ new disc? (I think it just came out on Tuesday.) Oh my . . . as if her prior releases were not despondent enough, this one just ups the ante. Definitely a very good album –- possibly a great one. But man is it depressing. As you say with Blood on the Tracks, this is a breakup album. (Darn — I can’t put italics on the word “album.” Please consider it italicized.)

Does Del Shannon’s “Runaway” have hand claps in it? If it does, there’s a breakup song with hand claps. And if it doesn’t have hand claps, it should.

Best breakup song of all time? Have to say, I think this is an easy one to answer. Yes, I can be accused of having a slightly Dylan-centric view of the world. But c’mon y’all — there just ain’t no competition for “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” OK — I admit that “I Will Survive” is competition for it (Gloria Gaynor on your iPod, Evan?), but “Don’t Think Twice . . .” still wins in a cakewalk. (Oh yea, Cake does a great cover of “I Will Survive” . . .)

Great idea! I’m going to do mine right now as I’m typing. Stream-of-consciousness-like. I should mention that I have a Zune, not an Ipod. I don’t know if that changes anything about the sample set. Here goes:

1. “The Believer” – Rhett Miller.

Okay, this is actually my girlfriend’s CD, so I had to quick look up what the lyrics were about. It certainly sounds like a break-up song. But, alas, it’s about the death of Elliott Smith. Good tune though, I may listen to this album on the way home. By the way, It’s tough to find lyrics online without using some spyware-laden lyric search engine.

2. “What a Wonderful World” – Louis Armstrong

Is this the opposite of a break-up song?

3. “Ignition” -R. Kelly

Girl, please let me stick my key in your ignition, babe… Uh, no.

4. The Facts of Life Theme

I’m so embarrassed. I guess it counts, it’s actually 54 seconds.

5. “Rated X” – Neko Case

This is a cover of a Loretta Lynn song, and it’s totally a break-up song. Or at least, more of a “results of a break-up” song.

6. “She’s Got A Way” – Billy Joel

Again, more of the opposite. On a side note, this song is pretty gay.

7. “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure” – Josh Rouse

Now I’m convinced that my Zune, like a TiVo, is picking out songs with a similar, love-y theme. Sorry.

8. “The History of Where Someone Has Been Killed” – Marah

Not a break-up song. But a kick-ass tune, song title, and band.

9. “Alcohol” – Brad Paisley

A song written from the perspective of alcohol, as a whole. I could see you liking this tune, Evan.

10. “Reclamation” – Fugazi

I have no idea what this song is about. I’m sure it’s not about a break-up. Probably about destroying the government or something.

11. “My Heart is Broken” – Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams comes through in the clutch! Pretty sure this is on the wikipedia page for “break-up song”.

12. “Steal Away” – Robbie Dupree

I swear I’m heterosexual. How did this get on here?

13. “Sea of Heartbreak” – Don Gibson

They may be few and far between, but my break-up songs are REALLY break-up songs.

14. “Beautiful Sorta” – Ryan Adams

I’m not sure. I don’t think this is a break-up song though.

15. “Please Do Not Let Me Go” – Ryan Adams

I have a lot of Ryan Adams. This one counts though, I think. It’s from the “Love Is Hell” album, and all those songs are about Carol Burnett’s daughter, whom he was dating when she died. So I guess that’s one way of breaking up.

16. “Size of Your Life” – The Promise Ring

Promise Ring songs are way too happy to be break-up songs.

17. “The Well” – The Band

From The Last Waltz Soundtrack. I think this song is a euphemism for something dirty.

18. “Percy’s Song” – Bob Dylan

This song is about a friend who gets thrown in jail for manslaughter. I suppose that could count in some sort of way, but not really.

19. “Stage Fright” – The Band

Nope. This is a song about stage fright, literally.

20. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” – Sufjan Stevens

This dude is weird.

21. “Gone” – Kanye West feat. Cam’ron

I thought this song would be about a break-up, but as I’m listening he’s talking about spinning rims and ridin’ on chrome.

22. “Portland Oregon” – Loretta Lynn and Jack White

This song is about getting drunk and hooking up. Kinda the opposite, once again.

23. “Crack Music” – Kanye West feat. The Game


24. “Life” – Josh Rouse

I suppose this song could be about consoling someone after a break-up, but that’s stretching it.

25. “Viva Las Vegas” – some punk band covering Elvis Presley

So that’s that 4 out of 25. 16%. That’s pretty bad.

Ev–The best songs ever written are “Break-up” songs, but your list, albeit a random one from your iPod, is rather lame. Off the top of my head, here are my Top 10 “Break-up” Songs:
1. You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling by The Righteous Brothers (May be the best song of all time)
2. Do You Love Me by The Contours
3. Don’t Be Cruel by Elvis Presley
4. Can’t Help Myself by The Four Tops
5. Ain’t Too Proud to Beg by The Temptations
6. Runaround Sue by Dion
7. Heard it Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye
8. Peggy Sue by Buddy Holly (This is a thinly disguised song about Buddy Holly’s break-up with his girl friend, Cindy Lou)
9. Tracks of My Tears by Smokey Robinson
10. Georgia by Ray Charles

In compiling my list, I didn’t allow any artist to have more than one song in the top ten, and did not consider any songs by Johnny Mathis because I never listened to the words. DUD

Ok, here’s my list. I have to admit, this whole process was pretty fun.

1. “The Entertainer” – Billy Joel. This song’s got it all: cheesy synth part, rockin piano, banjo, break downs. But alas, not a break-up song.

2. “Fireworks Over Ithaca ” – Andy Germak. Cool song by my favorite NYC singer/songwriter/MBA student.

3. “She’s Always a Woman to Me” – Billy Joel. Hmmm, the lyrics are a bit ambiguous. It’s not clear that there was a relationship, but I’m guessing there was given the degree of bitterness. I’m counting it.

4. “Always the Weekend” – Sam Winch. Hey, let’s go check out Sam Winch at the Hideout this weekend… Nope, not a break-up song.

5. “This is Not a Love Song” – Fooled By April. Might have to confirm this with Gordon. I’m counting it for now, despite the title.

6. “Something” – The Beatles. This is a tough one. He keeps saying “I don’t want to leave her now,” so I have to assume they haven’t broken up yet.

7. “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” – Lyle Lovett. This is actually sung by one of his backup singers. Not a break-up song, but it’s got a lot of ‘tude and a killer sax solo.

8. “Broken and Ugly” – Beth Hart. I bought this CD while looking for a good song for Kelly to sing at Duffy Idol last year. Not a good purchase. And it’s not a break-up song.

9. “A Case of You” – Joni Mitchell. Niiiiice. No doubt about this one.

10. “Twice as Hard” – Black Crowes. “Twice as hard as it was the first time I said goodbye.” Yup.

11. “Atlantic” – Keane. Keane lyrics are often pretty vague and this song’s no exception. I think it’s a break-up song. I’m on a roll…

12. “Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen (yes, the original version). Well, the streak comes to a screeching halt with this dirge. Great song, but don’t think it’s about a break-up, unless I’m missing something.

13. “The Good Book Song” – The New Main Street Singers. Waaayyy to happy to be a break-up song.

14. “Everybody’s Everything” – Santana. This one’s even happier, and with more congas!

15. “Aicha” – Outlandish. Well, this proves I’m not rigging my playlist. Yikes. Not quite a break-up song. He just wants Aicha.

16. “Julianne” – Ben Folds. “I don’t miss Julianne!” Yeah! This belongs in the small sub-category of happy break-up songs.

17. “M&M’s” – Blink 182. This song stinks, even for Blink 182. It’s a crappy break-up song.

18. “One Less Set of Footsteps” – Jim Croce. This song doesn’t stink. Now this is how to write a break-up song.

19. “Tuesday Heartbreak” – Stevie Wonder. This is how to write a funky break-up song.

20. “Nothing in My Way” – Keane. Ugh, another Keane song, but it does keep the streak alive. I’m starting to think all of their songs are break-up songs. Lucinda Williams may have some competition.

21. “I Feel For You” – Chaka Khan. Not my favorite Chaka Khan song, but it does include just about every 80’s synth cliche in the book. Not a break-up song though.

22. “Goodbye, Cruel Girl” – Robbie Fulks. You don’t get any more obvious than this. Another happy break-up song.

23. “Don’t Look Back in Anger” – Oasis. I wish I didn’t like this band, but they really do have some awesome songs, this being one of them. And it’s a break-up song.

24. “The Great Intoxication” – David Byrne. This song is weird and cool, but nope, not a break-up song.

25. “Rapid Roy” – Jim Croce. Why don’t people write songs about stock car racing anymore? Something to ponder while I add up my score.

Wow, I had 12 out of 25. That’s 48%. Not too shabby, and pretty much in line with Ev’s theory.

~ Aric Jacover      

I am going to skip any of the All-Time Top 100 TV Theme Songs, despite the degree to which my iTunes enjoys playing them. Other than that, I will be honest, even if my iTunes embarrasses me. I can’t bold or italicize, so I’ll put an asterisk next to the breakup songs. Here goes….

1. “Help” – Howie Day (I Am Sam Soundtrack)
He’s sad. He needs help. But not because of a breakup.

2. “Tweeter and the Monkeyman” – Traveling Wilburys
I don’t think this has anything to do with breakups. War, yes; breakups, not so much.

3. “Stories I Tell” – Toad the Wet Sprocket
Whining about having someone to listen to his stories, but more philosophizing than breaking up.

4. “I Live For You” – George Harrison
Pretty much the opposite of a breakup song. George really knew how to write a love song. My shuffle adores this song, and feels the need to play it every time I start shuffle on my iPod or in iTunes.

5. “Nitrous Fall” – The Samples
Depressing song about nature, as most of their songs are.

6. “Grin” – Guster
Sounds sad, but he’s actually bragging about how he is happy and everyone else isn’t. “Watching the others struggle through makes me grin…” Now that’s not very nice.

*7. “The Girl From Back Then” – Kings of Convenience
Repeating the same line over and over, but sounds like a breakup to me.

8. “Winding Road” – Bonnie Summerville
She is lost and hopeful. But not broken up. I’m not doing well here so far.

9. “Honky-Tonk Blues” – Rolling Stones
Not so much.

10. “Gold To Me” – Ben Harper

11. “Lovesong” – The Cure
I think my shuffle knows what I’m doing here, and it is trying to sabotage me.

12. “Cayman Review” – Trey Anastasio
God knows what this guy is ever talking about. But this one is actually not a nonsensical song, and it isn’t about breakups.

13. “Bang Bang Lulu” – North Mississippi Allstars
More nonsense, about drinking and banging on various objects, but not about breakups. They do play a mean blues, though.

*14. “Fair” – Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds is often a sign of a breakup song, and he doesn’t fail me now. A deceptively happy song specifically about fights between lovers. I am deciding that the line “All is fair in love” does not negate the rest of the song.

*15. “The Dumbing Down of Love” – Frou Frou
I’m not sure why I have Frou Frou in my library, because I skip it every time. Sounds like it is about a breakup, but I can’t understand half of what she is saying. “Jaded by anger/Love underwhelms you/No box of chocolate…” Good enough for me.

16. “Ice Age” – Pete Yorn
Love this man and his breakup songs. But this isn’t a breakup song.

17. “Guinnevere” – CSNY
Not one of my favorites. Not about a breakup; just some stoned guys talking about a hippie girl. She did have golden hair and green eyes, and someday they will all be free…

18. “Fun” – Sly & The Family Stone
Let’s go hit up Studio 54!

19. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” – James Taylor
Argh. Thought JT would come through. Maybe this theory should be a percentage of songs about love in general, which I would guess is about 75-80%.

*20. “Contact” – Rent Soundtrack
Thank you iTunes for selling me out. OK, I admit it; I love Rent. This is one of the worst songs from this show. And the one song in the whole show not about a breakup – until the last line where everyone says “It’s over!” and breaks up.

*21. “Don’t Make Me Laugh” – Gomez
He’s hitting the road and saying goodbye without ever looking backwards. Jackpot!

*22. Radio Cure – Wilco
We have a winner! And there is that famous Wilco feedback that makes me skip the very end of all of their songs.

23. “May Your Glass Be Filled” – Widespread Panic
Nope, just a wish for happiness for a friend.

24. “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35” – Bob Dylan
How do I hate this song? Let me count the ways. Shuffle couldn’t have picked Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands? This is most certainly not a breakup song.

25. “Stonehenge” – This is Spinal Tap
Yes, I have Spinal Tap in here. And this song is not about breakups. But at least I left you with the image of dwarves and 18” high sculptures.

OK, that makes 7/25, one of which is ambiguous. A whopping 28%.

I tried this a few more times, as I have quite a bit of free time on my hands these days, and this is entertaining. I got 9, 4, and 11. So I guess my data doesn’t support the theory. Sorry to be of no help.

~ vicki      

Oh wait. Yes, I have. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have it in me right now to type it all out again. Besides, it was just ramblings anyway. You didn’t want to hear me go on and on about this, right?

I don’t know who you are, but you should definitely type it all out again. Do you have some sort of JOB that requires your ATTENTION or something?

~ evanjacover      

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