Is there anything more cathartic than sing-screaming along with Taylor Swift's "All Too Well" — or the heartbroken yet triumphant lyrics of Adele or Olivia Rodrigo or Billie Eilish or anyone else — until your throat is raw? Doubtful.
But the real question is: Why?
"You'd think we'd have gotten tired of listening to songs about heartbreak after a millennium," musicologist Nate Sloan tells Yahoo Life, "but that’s not the case."
Clearly not, as Swift’s re-released Red broke Spotify single-day streaming records last week, Rodrigo's Sour and Eilish's Happier Than Ever were among the biggest debuts of 2021, and Adele is sure to make history when her eagerly awaited 30 drops on Friday.
"When we hear someone share their heartache through the ineffable medium of music," notes Sloan, co-host of the Switched on Pop podcast and assistant professor of musicology at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, "we understand that we are not alone — that someone else has experienced the same loss and despair as us."
Remember, he points out, that this specific form of expression has been beloved for centuries. "Music has always been obsessed with heartbreak, from the plaintive love songs found on Egyptian papyrus back in the 13th century BC all the way up to Adele. [Renaissance madrigal composer] John Bennet sang 'weep o mine eyes and cease not…so that I may drown me in you' in 1600, and 350 years later Ray Charles," in his 1956 Billboard No. 1 single, "wished he could ‘drown in my own tears.'"
But how can Eilish's furious "You were my everything, and all that you did is make me f***ing sad" and Rodrigo’s simmering "guess you didn't cheat, but you're still a traitor" resonate with everyone from married moms who have not been jilted in decades to tweens who have not yet experienced a relationship, let alone heartbreak?
Video: Taylor Swift dedicates new 'All Too Well' to fans
Annemieke Van den Tol, a music researcher and lecturer at the University of Lincoln in Lincoln, England, says this type of music speaks to young people, especially girls, because of what many past studies have found about music being tantamount to forming an identity at this stage of development.
As adolescent psychologist Barbara Greenberg explains, "Even if they're not in relationships, their fantasies are all about relationships — love stories and breakups, so it resonates with their fantasies. Imagine being a tween, alone with your feelings, and then a song comes on with just what you're fantasizing about. It's very validating."
And if you're an adolescent attracted to pop music, it's pretty hard to avoid breakup songs, points out Waldie Hanser, a music-psychology researcher at the Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, in the Netherlands, and frequent collaborator of Van den Tol.
"Most popular music songs deal with some sort of romantic relationship or issues related to them, including breakups," he tells Yahoo Life, and a reason we might be so attracted to them is because of the strong emotions they convey. "I'd say Adele's 'Someone Like You' is pretty powerful even if one doesn't listen to the lyrics or [hadn’t] just had a breakup," but focus on the lyrics, and you're reeled in for sure. "Just a mere sentence from a song may be why we're so attracted to [it]," he says, pointing to a 2020 study showing that songs containing a lot of second-person pronouns (you, yours) are more commercially successful than others.
"An idea is that through these second-person pronouns, especially when the pronoun is the object of a sentence, listeners relate this message to someone important to them," Hanser explains. "So, for instance, in the Adele song, the [phrase] 'someone like you' might be key to the song, while the rest of the lyrics may matter less… So, while some people might listen to the song because of just having had a breakup, or having had a painful one in the past, or feeling troubled in general unrelated to a breakup, others might simply enjoy these songs because of the powerful emotional message, and the social aspects of some bits of the lyrics."
Diving in when you're down
A lot of the power of songs about heartbreak comes from the music being there to wallow in when you’re feeling angry, sad or rejected.
"There’s no way around sadness, only through," says Sloan. "Music helps us process our emotional experiences by allowing us access to our feelings rather than pushing them aside. This is the reason that music therapists find popular hits so effective in unlocking mental health — music can help break down defense mechanisms and walls that keep us from processing grief or trauma."
A New York Times review of Swift's re-released "All Too Well," a lavish, 10-minute swim through a bitter breakup, points out that the power is not only in Swift and the sway she has over fans but in the listeners' personal memories. The truth, it pointed out, "was that the song isn't just about him anymore. It's also about the fans, the depths they'd heard in it before anyone else, and whatever and whoever they still wished they could forget."
Finally, while heartbreak is far from a new feeling, the current state of the world, with all its losses and traumas, is likely fueling the need, at least in part, that so many have for the darkness of a divorced Adele.
"Popular music in the 21st century is probably more reflective of people’s fears and anxieties than at any moment besides the 1960s," says Sloan. “Then, you could turn on the radio and hear songs about Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Today you can hear songs about the climate emergency, Black Lives Matter, and the opioid crisis. That is surely a sign that people are struggling in unprecedented ways — but it also might be encouraging to know that pop music can serve as a site for collective catharsis and social movements. I'm eager to hear what sounds the future holds."
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