BREAKUP THERAPY: 15 Backhanded Love Songs
The best love songs are about mixed emotions because the best loves mix you up. Contrary to healthy relationship wisdom, the person we can never forget tends to be the one who has us pulling our hair out. People don’t write songs about emotionally available non-jealous types. Here are a few backhanded love songs for when your voodoo dolls and bop bags need a break.
LEONARD COHEN — CHELSEA HOTEL No. 2
‘I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin…’
Ouch… This last verse contains a theme that defines the backhanded love song: that is saying you don’t care about someone you cared enough to write a song about.
In this case, that someone was Janis Joplin, the one ‘giving me head on the unmade bed…’ She and Cohen hooked up in the Chelsea Hotel back in the day.
If the song is anything to go by, she wasn’t very nice to him:
‘You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception.’
There’s a generous universality in that line. I feel like I’ve been told that, in so many words. I think that’s why people play Leonard Cohen in wildly inappropriate settings (I heard ‘Hallelujah’ performed at a one year old’s birthday party in Korea the other day.) Cohen’s just so damn true. This is the modern-day hymn of the one night stand that meant more than we let on.
ARCTIC MONKEYS — FLUORESCENT ADOLESCENT
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‘You used to get it in your fishnets,
Now you only get it in your nightdress…’
A scathing taunt directed at a former wild child who’s getting bored with Mr. Stable. With harsh truth delivered in the form of dirty couplets–‘that bloody Mary’s lacking in Tabasco/ remember when you used to be a rascal?’–Alex Turner (or the narrator) lets her know that he knows that she knows she’s fooling herself.
JOHN MAYER — DEAR MARIE
‘From time to time, I go looking for your photograph online,
But some county judge in Ohio’s all I ever find.’
When you write ‘Your Body’s a Wonderland’ you’re bound to attract the kind of attention you wind up resenting. In 2014, a sadder and wiser John Mayer penned this almost sweet reminiscence about first love. While ‘Marie’ might not be flattered, he gave the rest of us a beautiful line about Googling an ex.
TAYLOR SWIFT — WE ARE NEVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER
‘I’m really gonna miss you picking fights
And me falling for it screaming that I’m right
And you would hide away and find your peace of mind
With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.’
Cynics might say they want to hear that indie record that’s much cooler then hers, but those people suck. Swift has been a master of the bitter break up tune since she first came on the scene, and I don’t think it’s too early to say–new classic.
The Atlantic compared her to Leonard Cohen, and they’re right. No other pop artist has mined so much out of heartbreak and drama. Her aesthetic has more in common with Keats and Byron than Carrie Underwood and Katie Perry.
OASIS — MARRIED WITH CHILDREN
‘I hate the way that you are so sarcastic
and you’re not very bright.
You think that everything you’ve done’s fantastic,
your music’s shite, it keeps me up all night…’
This song is that rowdy single friend, who plays club rugby on the weekends, saying just what you need to hear about what’s-her-face before you’re ready to hear it.
TWO GALLANTS — NOTHING TO YOU
‘And we’ll walk beneath the street lamps forever
You’ll say you remind me of you
It’s so damn cliche that it’s clever
It’s so fucking false you think that it’s true’
Now for something local:
True to the conventions of the backhanded love song, the narrator here sounds slightly superior to the song’s subject but desperate for that subject’s attention at the same time. You’re such a predictable narcissist, you’d see yourself in anybody, but oh my God do I want to be that anybody…
ALANIS MORISSETTE — YOU OUGHTA KNOW
‘I want you to know
I’m happy for you…’
Alanis comes out swinging. In just the first verse she calls out her replacement in terms of oral sex skills and maternal competence. That realness is probably why we still play this one.
One of those icky feelings nobody likes to own up to is the fear that a breakup is a commentary of one’s sexual performance. Alanis goes there in ‘You Oughta Know.’
The male singers on this list are all about ego: trying to avoid that pit in the stomach at all costs, they make it about intellect and their ex’s taste in music. Morisette forgoes ego in favor of vulnerability and rage.
Singapore based comic Dan McGrath has a funny bit about thinking she was singing ‘the crossed-eyed bear that you gave to me.’
MAGNETIC FIELDS — I DON’T BELIEVE YOU
‘You tell me I’m not not cute
its truth or falsity is moot,
‘cause honesty’s not your strong suit
and I don’t believe you.’
It’s unclear whether there’s been a breakup yet, but our hero is just starting to realize that he’s involved with a liar who’s not all that into him.
JAY-Z — SONG CRY
‘I was just fucking those girls, I was going to get right back.’
He admits he was wrong to chronically fool around, he just can’t believe he’d get divorced over it. Now he’s crying in his Lambo.
ROLLING STONES — THE LAST TIME
‘You don’t try very hard to please me,
With what you know it should be easy…’
Slut-shaming has never been so charming. Like every song on this list (except maybe ‘Snatch the Cat Back’) this one has a turn that hints at the possibility of reconciliation. The narrator is unable to let go. Jagger sings, ‘Maybe the last time, I don’t know.’ That ‘maybe’ is what gives conflict and depth to what otherwise would be a simple fuck you track.
CARLY SIMON — YOU’RE SO VAIN
‘I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee
clouds in my coffee
clouds in my coffee!’
The ultimate example of I don’t care, but I care enough to write a song…
There is a whole field of scholarship devoted to figuring out who this song is about. David Bowie’s wife suggested that she might be the ‘wife of a close friend’ and that the vain one is Mick Jagger.
Simon whispered the secret to Taylor Swift before they performed together. Swift called it the most direct song ever written about a breakup. She said the power of the song is that every girl in the audience has a guy in mind who the song is (not) about.
Marylin Manson’s cover (feat. Johnny Depp) is fantastic. He kept the rattling bass line in the intro.
BOB DYLAN — QUEEN JANE APPROXIMATELY & JUST LIKE A WOMAN
Dylan isn’t afraid to let admirers know who wears the tight black pants in the relationship. His borderline paranoia that he’s getting used is part of what fueled and later burned out his genius. If you need an entire backhanded love album, look no further than Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.
‘Positively 4th Street’ is the bitter Dylan tune everyone knows, but it’s not necessarily about love. ‘Just like a Woman’ uses one of the oldest tricks in breakup grieving, the ‘I never gave a fuck to begin with’ argument. He compares his time with the woman to quenching a near fatal thirst. She just happened to be his drink.
‘Queen Jane Approximately’ knocks a spoiled brat down a few pegs. When Queen Jane gets sick of her rich friends and predictable fun, Dylan offers her ‘somebody you don’t have to speak to.’
AMY WINEHOUSE — ME AND MR. JONES
‘What kind of fuckery are you?
…I could swear that we were through,
But I still wonder ‘bout the things you do.’
Amy had the blues, that’s for sure. Like T. Swift, she isn’t afraid to sing about being totally dependent on an unstable guy who isn’t right for her. In ‘You Know that I’m no Good’ she sings about deliberately getting carpet burns to make another guy jealous.
KHIA — SNATCH THE CAT BACK
‘I wish I never let you fuck this pussy,
Let you suck this pussy,
Thugs love this pussy.’
Khia’s pissed. Not a lot of grey area in this one.
ADAM GREEN — WHO’S YOUR BOYFRIEND?
‘Who’s your boyfriend on this coast?
I bet your boyfriend hates you most.
I joke around but I don’t look down,
Because you could break my heart.’
A lovelorn seducer offers someone the chance to be the next girl he checks the hallway for while sneaking out of the party with someone else. At least he’s up front about it:
‘Someone like me should not have a phone, jumping the gun despite grief I’ve known…’
America’s Serge Gainsbourg, Adam Green has single handedly invented a new genre: post-lounge.
What are yours? Post your High Fidelity-esque breakup playlist and breakup music stories in the comments.
Featured Image: Max Vadukul