There’s something about raw, unadulterated pain that inspires the greatest art. It’s no secret that countless songs have been inspired by breakups, and often go on to become some of the artists’ biggest hits. It almost seems unfair — and maybe even voyeuristic — that we, anonymous listeners, could have such a personal glimpse into their personal lives. But if the process is cathartic and they’re willing to share these songs, we might as well enjoy. And somedays, we may be the ones who need them.
Paul: Fleetwood Mac — “Storms”
With the lifetime’s worth of makeup/breakup anthems Fleetwood Mac produced in their prominence, “subtlety” is a word that seldom comes to mind. The band’s massive commercial success made it difficult to ignore the members’ tumultuous personal history, but their headlining romantic drama sure made for some timeless music. On the stripped-down “Storms,” Stevie Nicks solemnly acknowledges her aching heart following a breakup. While lyrically more grounded than usual, she uses natural symbolism for the end of the song. “Never have I been a blue calm sea, I have always been a storm,” she sings with compelling self-awareness. At our most vulnerable, Nicks reminds us that we need to allow ourselves emotional release, whether we become a light shower or a raging, thunderous storm.
Maria: Outkast — “Roses”
It’s hard to go wrong with OutKast, and when it comes to breakup songs, “Roses” is the absolute perfect kiss-off to that used-to-be-special someone. A notably more humorous break-up song in a sea of saccharine ballads, “Roses” emphasizes that in order to be a suitable partner, an attitude that’s not “potty” is vital. So, in case you’re looking to diss your former girlfriend or boyfriend in the most epic and fun way possible, just sing them the chorus and they’ll get the point. In the meantime, find yourself some better smelling roses.
Belicia: No Doubt — “Bathwater”
In this reggae-infused song, lead singer Gwen Stefani captures the feeling of loving someone despite knowing you’ll never be their first priority. The song perfectly describes what goes on in our minds when we know they may be pining after someone else, but we “love to think that you couldn’t love another.” It’s irrational. It’s illogical. It’s downright painful. Yet we fall for them anyway. As the song wanes, Gwen conveys our tendency to want what we can’t by repeating, “No, I can’t help myself.”
Emily: Dry the River — “New Ceremony”
My relationship with Dry the River was never casual. I first heard “New Ceremony” when I was 16 and heartbroken over someone who I wasn’t and never would be actually dating, as all young teenagers are. Finally, finally, someone understood the desperate longings of my lovesick heart. The song tells the story of the quiet questioning right after the loss of love and the desperate hope that it can be rekindled: “It's anybody's guess how the angel of doubt came down and crept into your bed,” singer Peter Liddle croons. It’s a tragically beautiful confessional that reads like a diary entry from every journal I’ve ever kept. I hold it close to my heart for the nights when the world feels both small and large. “I know it's gotta stop, love, but I don't know how,” Liddle repeats until the song comes to a quiet close. I want to sit down with Peter Liddle in a quiet coffeehouse and tell him it’ll be okay, right before I pick his brain about how he managed to know exactly what I was feeling.
Britny: Alanis Morissette — “You Oughta Know”
As someone who has never actually gone through a breakup, I’m not personally qualified to the know the pain involved. But, that being said, the first time I heard Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” I was floored. This woman is so angry. In this ‘90s jam, Alanis perfectly summarizes the side of a breakup that isn’t about heartbreak, but pure, palpable rage. When someone breaks your heart you’re sad — but it also pisses you off, and Alanis feels that. When she snarkily remarks, “Does she know how you told me you'd hold me until you died (‘til you died), but you're still alive,” she’s expressing the outrage of every woman that has ever been scorned. And it’s spectacular.
Bryan: Green Day — “Whatsername”
The final track on Green Day’s sprawling 2004 rock opera, “American Idiot,” features the album’s main character, Jesus of Suburbia, lamenting a love lost. Whatsername was Jesus’s hero, his liberator, his escape from the drudges of the everyday and a gateway to a life of excitement and meaning. He gave her his heart, and she held onto it like a hand grenade. It’s too bad she had to pull the pin. The soft-loud dynamics appropriate both the dull ache and throbbing agony of loss. “And in the darkest night, if my memory serves me right, I’ll never turn back time, forgetting you but not the time,” lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong wails at the song’s end. It’s a sobering, grounding moment on an album loaded with political rage and bombast. One that refuses to tie up loose ends and makes Jesus resign himself to a boring, hollow life. But then again, maybe art just mimics reality.