Why we love breakup songs like 'End Of The Road' [November 1, 1992]
Plus: The Shamen, Erasure, Shakespears Sister, and Arrested Development
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of November 1, 1992.
📰 In the news this week, Bill Clinton is the new President of the United States! Ross Perot gets almost 20% of the vote, the highest of any independent ever.
📽️ Neil Jordan’s thriller The Crying Game causes a stir at cinemas.
📺 On TV, BBC gets in hot water after their mockumentary Ghostwatch upsets everyone in Britain and gives some kids PTSD.
🎶 And there is a new Number One song in the UK! ‘Sleeping Satellite’ gives way to…
This week’s Number One: ‘End Of The Road’ — Boyz II Men
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there have been many chart hits about physical pain. Nobody’s ever written a banger about standing on an upturned plug, or getting hot chip fat in your eye, or having a There’s Something About Mary-style mishap with your zip.
And yet, emotional pain is a common subject for pop songs. At the time of writing, the entire Billboard Top 10 is dominated by the queen of breakup ballads, Taylor Swift. Back in 1992, the year’s ten best-selling singles included weepies such as:
‘Stay’ by Shakespears Sister (“If you try to go alone/Don't think I'll understand”)
‘Please Don’t Go’ by K.W.S (“I’m gonna miss your love/The minute you walk out the door”)
‘S.O.S.’ covered by Erasure (“What happened to our love? It used to be so good”)
‘I Will Always Love You’ by Whitney Houston (“Goodbye/Please don’t cry/We both know I’m not what you need”)
That list also includes ‘End Of The Road’ by Boyz II Men, a song where one of the Boyz announces that he would rather die than go through the pain of a breakup.
Personally, I agree with him. Stepping on an upturned plug is nothing compared to a breakup, which is always horrible, always, no matter the circumstances and no matter who is doing the dumping.
The question is: if breakups are so rotten, then why do we love songs about them?
I can't sleep at night without holding you tight
We love breakup songs (and other sad love songs) because they speak to the trauma of our own romantic failures.
Or, at least, that’s the received wisdom on the subject. Various psychologists and therapists have written things like this:
…breakup songs can provide a kind of reverse empathy as you feel for another person going through what you are experiencing. This feeling can help you recognize your own feelings and also distract you from your own predicament.
Or, perhaps a sad love song can help us through the healing process, as argued by one of NPR’s music guys:
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…it's your heart's way of purging emotional toxins. It hurts, but it's helpful.
But do these theories really explain the appeal of sad love songs?
Here’s the thing: everyone loves breakup songs, even kids and folks who’ve never experienced a major heartbreak. People who married their childhood sweetheart and lived happily ever after can still grok the sentiment of ‘End Of The Road’. It speaks to something innate in us.
So if these songs aren’t a form of therapy, then what are they?
Love me again like you loved me before
Earlier, I said that breakups hurt no matter who is doing the dumping.
That’s not true. That’s something you say to make yourself feel better after you’ve dumped someone. Being dumped is always awful, no matter how it happens. Even if you wanted out of the relationship, it’s still a rejection. It still hurts. It still feels like an icicle through the heart.
And this isn’t a metaphor! Social rejection can feel exactly like physical pain. Researchers demonstrated this by gathering a group of recently dumped people, sticking them in an MRI, and showing them images of their exes.
We further demonstrate … physical pain by comparing activated locations in our study with a database of over 500 published studies. Activation in these regions was highly diagnostic of physical pain, with positive predictive values up to 88%. These results give new meaning to the idea that rejection “hurts.” They demonstrate that rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing—they share a common somatosensory representation as well.
Put simply: being dumped hurts in exactly the same way as stepping on a plug.
And nobody likes being hurt.
I'm just in so much pain baby
Yesterday was Halloween, the day when people dress up as their greatest fears (or a sexy version of their greatest fears.)
Halloween also means horror movies. Horror is a genre that seeks to exploit a specific part of your brain: the fight-or-flight response, which exists so that we can respond quickly to sudden threats.
Tickling your fight-or-flight can be fun, if it’s done right. A good jumpscare gives you a sudden jolt of adrenaline, followed by the relaxing sense of safety when you realise you’re not in danger. According to one horror expert:
Because horror movies do such a good job at simulating threatening situations, this means our emotional responses to them are similar to those we'd experience if we encountered a real-life threat. As a result, horror movies are a risk-free way to vicariously experience threats and rehearse one's responses to those threats.
Tragic love stories do something similar. Melodrama gives you a taste of loss, rejection, grief and other painful emotions—not enough to actually hurt you, but enough to allow you to roleplay heartbreak and think about how you would respond.
In other words: Boyz II Men allow you to safely microdose trauma.
And hey, that can be healthy! We’ve always needed art to help us connect with these big, scary emotions. Tragic romance stories are thousands of years old, going back to Greek bards telling the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and they themselves were probably just repeating a song that was handed down to them.
We all carry this huge ocean of feelings inside us. Sad love songs allow us to stand on the shore without worrying that we might drown.
Got a favourite breakup song? Or can you not stand them? Let me know in the comments!
And if you liked this, please share it!
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 6 (New Entry): ‘Boss Drum’ — The Shamen
So, The Shamen deleted ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ because it was hanging around the charts for too long and they wanted to clear a path for the next single, which is this: the title track from their album Boss Drum.
Doubtful. I think they deleted ‘Ebeneezer’ because the controversy got too much, plus they were worried about being seen as novelty song merchants. ‘Boss Drum’ in fairness is a very sophisticated track with some nicely layered rhythms. A good showcase for a great band.
Number 10 (New Entry): ‘Who Needs Love Like That’ — Erasure
Fun video, and I absolutely love Andy’s giant cowboy hat. It looks an even bigger version of Kurt Russell’s enormous hat in The Thing.
Number 22 (New Entry): ‘Too Much Too Young’ — Little Angels
You might expect this to sound like ‘Too Much Too Young’ by The Specials. You’d be wrong.
It sounds like ‘Footloose’.
Number 23 (New Entry): ‘Hello (Turn Your Radio On)’ — Shakespears Sister
This one sounds like ‘Satellite of Love’ crossed with ‘Life On Mars’, and that’s absolutely fine. It sounds great, and Marcella gets a guitar solo.
Number 35 (New Entry): ‘Poing’ — Rotterdam Termination Source
This newsletter has been very harsh on novelty rave songs recently, especially those that use stupid samples.
In “Poing”, we have perhaps the stupidest sample in the world: a single “boing” sound that is either from an 8-bit video game, or created by twanging one of these guys over and over:
And you know what? It’s absolutely brilliant. Just an insane, infectious gabba track that knows its job, which is to drive ravers completely mental. A work of demented genius.
Album of the Week
3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… — Arrested Development
Hard to believe that there was a moment when Arrested Development felt like the future of hip-hop.
They were socially conscious act like Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest, but they had this clean, radio-friendly sound that pre-empted The Fugees and, sadly, Black Eyed Peas.
This approach led to three absolutely monster hits, starting with ‘People Everyday’. The radio version of this banger (which borrows a chorus from Sly & The Family Stone) is very poppy and dancey, but the album version is a lot more stripped back:
They also produced ‘Mr Wendall’, a slightly cringe song about homelessness, and ‘Tenessee’, an outstanding track about Southern racism that serves as the last word in that Neil Young/Lynyrd Skynyrd beef:
And the deep cuts on 3 Years… live up to the singles. ‘Fishing 4 Religion’ is a very funky atheism screed; ‘Give A Man A Fish’ celebrates education; ‘Children Play With Earth’ calls for a return to nature. All of these tracks are smart, snappy, and full of hooks.
So, what happened to Arrested Development?
The follow-up album, Zingalamaduni, which landed with a loud plop in 1994. By then, the rap scene had been completely upended by G-funk and the scorched earth effect of albums like The Chronic and Doggystyle, while Tupac and Biggie were shocking people with their raw, lyrical honesty. Nobody wanted to listen to didactic bands like Arrested Development (or The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy) deliver lectures on homelessness.
3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… seemed like the template for a new era, but it turned out to be an elegy for something that was drawing to a close. The good news is that people went on to make tons of smart, socially conscious rap, and they still do today (check out Open Mike Eagle). Arrested Development blazed a trail for such acts, by showing that you could be meaningful and commercially successful.
People also kept making hip-hop that’s radio-friendly and easy to dance to. Have you ever heard of these guys called Black Eyed Peas?
Where would you rate Arrested Development in the pantheon of 90s hip hop? Let me know in the comments.
And if you enjoyed this, please share it!
Oh man! I'd completely forgotten about "Who Needs Love Like That?"! That'll be stuck in my head all morning, I' m sure. :)
A think I love about your newsletter is I get introduced to a lot of '90s bands that didn't make it over to the States. I tend to love more UK/EU britpop/indie/madchester/etc sounds so getting introduced to new to me bands makes my heart happy.