Don’t underestimate the power of a breakup song

Written by Jenny Stallard

There’s a magic power behind songs like Miley Cyrus’s Flowers that is actually very good for you. Here’s why there is far more to the experience of listening to Little Mix’s Shout Out To My Ex, Beyoncé’s Irreplaceable and Adele’s Someone Like You.       

Adele’s Someone Like You surely wins the prize for best breakup belter. But wherever a song lands on the scale of heartbreak ballads and clap-back anthems, there’s something special about the way music can unite us. And the response to Miley Cyrus’s latest single, Flowers, has certainly refreshed discussion around the genre.  

Consider Flowers a moment where breakup song meets feminist anthem, with lyrics that some fans believe echo and then reverse concepts vocalised by heartache connoisseur Bruno Mars’s song When I Was Your Man. But, beyond the theories and sultry beats, there’s a quieter magic behind a popular breakup song.

Psychotherapist and life coach Hilda Burke suggests that, despite the source of the song, it’s the deep feeling of loss that we can all relate to (and often struggle to articulate for ourselves. “Breakup songs are the metabolisation of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance,” she explains.

It’s easy to assume that a breakup song automatically veers towards the ‘grief’ stage in particular. But there’s much to say for the ones that speak to other emotions, too. “Depression, sadness, heartbreak – there are so many songs that wallow in and express the sadness and the pain of a breakup,” Burke adds. “[But] Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next, a particular favourite of mine, is a great example of the acceptance mode, where she lists what she’s got from each breakup. What unites all breakup songs, however, is that they remind us we are not alone.”

And, as bleak as it may sound, there truly is a breakup song for everyone. From the jaunty melody of South Pacific’s I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair to the aching anger of Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know, there’s a cathartic nature to all of them. But perhaps it’s the quiet defiance of Cyrus’s Flowers that has resonated so quickly for many. 

The commonality of breakup songs is no coincidence, Rachel DiBiaso, songwriter for Dvrk Romantics, tells me. She explains that the chorus is often the pinnacle point of emotional vulnerability: “A phrase that resonates and gives a sense of either empowerment (you can get over this), longing (I miss this) or reflection (what could have happened differently).”

If we’re looking at the far-reaching success of the songs that have come before with a more critical eye, perhaps the reasoning is simpler. As DiBiaso says, memorability is key.  

“It needs to use words that etch into people’s minds, whether that’s common phrasing or using combinations so random that they stick,” she explains. “One of the lines in a song of mine is ‘I’m terrified of your love again, no sacrifice for my heart again’ – it’s simple but relatable. We’ve all been scared, and we tend not to enter relationships looking to be heartbroken. Whether the song itself is sung in a major key or a minor key, it doesn’t really matter. The song has to be honest, it has to resonate and it must show emotion: just something that makes you feel. That to me is the magic formula.”

Perhaps you’re not usually a Miley Cyrus fan, but you’re wondering why the chart-topping song resonated with you almost immediately. Burke says that it’s the element of hope, too, that can draw people into a song that signifies the end of one relationship but manages to give a glimpse of a happy life after it as well. And if, like Cyrus, there’s also a vintage YSL dress in that future, then surely that’s a bonus.

“Someone listening to the Miley song after a breakup might not be quite there [in terms of their own relationship trajectory], but would like to be there,” Burke explains. “Hearing those words of hope and triumph remind us that, ultimately, we can survive” even though we might not feel it at the time of listening. “Even though you feel alone in your suffering, this is a universal experience. And it can be a message of hope and something to aspire to.”

And if all else fails, it reminds us we can buy ourselves flowers, rather than waiting for someone else to. 

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