We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the offers for window installation cleverly disguised to look like valentines are many smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, why breakup songs are about more than just wallowing.
Simona Subonj writes: "Does good breakup music exist, or does it all just wallow in pain and heartbreak? Will any playlist I attempt to construct inevitably deteriorate into a blues- and indie-folk-infused explosion of sad? I'm asking for a friend, of course."
Great breakup music absolutely exists, and in great abundance, but there are points in your life when it has to be set aside. I would never speculate as to the mindset of your friend — heaven forfend! — but breakup music really only complements certain stages of recovery. At the risk of over-generalizing, breakup songs are for heartache, not heartbreak; melancholy, not misery.
I've noticed, in my own life, that if I'm annoyed by something — a sore back, a sports-related mishap, a song or TV show or movie I don't like — I can fill the air, or at the very least Twitter, with a caustic fog of complaints and quips. If I'm genuinely upset? Truly sad? Actually depressed? It's paralyzing; there's nothing to say. If I unleash a great outpouring of angry huff-and-puff, that's how you know I'm fine, because it's all toy anguish. If I weren't at least 51 percent kidding around, I wouldn't have the strength to rend my garments, drop to my knees, plunge my fists heavenward and yell, "Nooooooooooo!"
Breakup music is exactly the same way. If you're still in the blast zone of a terrible breakup — the all-consuming ache or numbness, that horrendous sense that a limb is suddenly missing — it's almost ludicrous to imagine putting on Blood on the Tracks or For Emma, Forever Ago or The First Days of Spring. It would be physically difficult to take. But in a breakup's aftermath, by the time you're ready to expose your ravaged heart to an aching ballad, you're not heartbroken so much as pre-healing.
When I was a kid and I'd come running to my parents after a horrible nightmare, my dad used to explain to me that "nightmares are your brain's way of taking out the garbage" — that, essentially, you're processing fears by dumping them far away from your waking life. The "explosion of sad" you mention, once you're ready to withstand all that mopey music, is part of the same phenomenon; it's your heart's way of purging emotional toxins. It hurts, but it's helpful.
Alan Haburchak writes: "I've always wondered if there's a good way to reclaim a band that has been sullied by a breakup. Like a band you know is awesome, but you can't listen to them anymore, because all it reminds you of is past unfortunateness. Not only with love songs, either — for me, it was Lady Gaga's first record."
Your greatest weapon in the battle to reclaim emotionally fraught music — and I agree that you've got to reclaim "Poker Face," because that is a seriously awesome song — is a potent little thing called spite. (Feel free to swap in the word "defiance" instead of spite, in case you'd like to feel all noble and brave about it.) If you can crank a song you shared in a new context, it can feel like a transgression against your memories, and that's not such a bad thing when those memories are keeping you in crisis.
The same impulse that compels a dumpee to blast Cee-Lo (seriously, thank you, Cee-Lo) or the complete collected works of Kelly Clarkson (you, too, Kelly Clarkson) can be channeled into a sort of grand reclamation of music you'd shared with your ex. It can feel heartless toward the ex, or even toward the piece of music itself — as if you're using a song for something other than its intended purpose — but neither party is in a position to know or care. Take back Lady Gaga! Make "Poker Face" yours again by redefining it as the sound of a post-moping mindset.