Why Exactly Are We So Obsessed With Songs About Heartbreak?

We spoke to a bunch of experts about why we like to scream Cher's "Believe" in the aftermath of a break-up.

|
May 26 2017, 1:29pm

The first time I got my heart broken I was 11 years old. His name was Jordan and I'd been in love with him ever since I witnessed him breakdancing to the Bomfunk MCs during our Year Five talent show and saw the way he flung his floppy hair around. Our romance was fleeting – two weeks and four days according to my diary – but it still hurt like hell when he dumped me after failing to turn up to our after school park hangout. Sniffling through the demise of my courtship with "the fynest boy in the world" – again, according to my diary – I honestly thought this would end up ruining my life. But then a bright, shining CD in my mum's collection provided the gateway into a post-Jordan world: Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill.

The album walked me through my heartbreak like no friend ever could. The self-righteous disbelief of "All I Really Want" was there when I saw Jordan with his new girlfriend Jodie; the nurturing, reassuring line of "everything's gonna be fine, fine, fiiine" in "Hand In My Pocket" when I couldn't face the playground at lunchtime; the way Alanis Morrisette sings like she's gritting her teeth in "You Oughta Know" as I imagined that I was her, flinging the words at everyone who had ever wronged me while I stomped and swung around my bedroom floor like a propellor. The album made me feel invincible; it understood me when I felt vulnerable and allowed me to walk through the school gates with my head held high, refreshed and ready to take on the world – one Jordan at a time.

It's no coincidence that so many of the world's best-selling pop singles – like Cher's "Believe", Gloria Gaynor's "Survive", Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know", all of which have sold well over 10 million copies – are tethered by feelings of heartbreak. It's a subject so universal and central to our human experience (name one person over the age of 21 who hasn't been dumped, other than Beyonce) that even though the artist doesn't know us, we feel as though they're singing about our experiences. This kind of ubiquitous lyricism, usually teamed with an impassioned, soaring delivery or a fist-pumping chorus, grant us the relief that we're not alone – that someone else out there understands what we're going through. But why do we usually turn to songs about loss and despair in our times of need, instead of blasting more upbeat songs like Pharrell's "Happy" on repeat?

"Primal feelings of loss are always with us, but we often defend against them to survive, thinking they make us weak or bad company or 'Debbie Downers'," psychotherapist Mark O'Connell tells me. "But music allows us all to experience our collective heartbreaks, our collective feelings of separation of loss, in a way that is safe, contained and shared. The music reaches our emotions, deep in our bodies as opposed to our heads. Music also moves, and moves us along with it, so that we can let our feelings take us somewhere, rather than feeling stuck with them." In other words, by experiencing the collective catharsis of songs such as Miley's "Wrecking Ball", we not only feel less alone but we are also enabled to move on and process these feelings in a comfortable, fun environment.

In that way, listening to songs about heartbreak in order to help us through shitty times works in a similar way to when exposure therapy is used to treat patients of PTSD – I know it sounds weird, but bear with me. "When we go through a break-up, the pain and addiction centers light up in the brain," Dr Mike Dow, psychotherapist and author of Healing the Broken Brain, explains. "Having a cathartic experience can help to rewire the brain by helping us to immerse ourselves in the feeling. In some ways, this is similar to the exposure therapy I use to treat a veteran with PTSD. By recalling a painful or traumatic event, you help the brain to reprocess the memory. Sometimes, that can help you go 'through' something instead of going 'around' it."

But surely there's a huge difference between sobbing to the chorus of "Unbreak My Heart" alone while swigging red wine in your eight-day old pyjamas and throwing yourself head-first into a pit with your mates while "Since U Been Gone" reverberates through the dance floor? According to psychotherapist Abigail Burd, though, they basically have the same effect when it comes to getting over your crappy ex. It's all about "emotional regulation" – AKA that by hearing someone else who's sad or angry, you can understand your feelings without them directly belonging to you. "Listening to sad music makes us feel better by 'normalising' our emotions," she tells me, "You realise, 'if this is a common human experience, I'm not alone, and it will get better'. Sad music is also a safe way to appreciate the emotional complexities in life. Without the lows, the highs are not as sweet."

This is all well and good, but what about the actual science behind it? Apparently, as humans, we instinctively want to surround ourselves with people who are like us in order to survive. Songs about heartbreak tap into certain chemicals in our brains that allow us to experience this sense of togetherness, so we enjoy listening to them. As clinical psychologist Dr Dathan Paterno says, "Listening to powerful music releases dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine is the energetic neurotransmitter; a rush of dopamine is like a high," he says. "Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that helps regulate stress and anxiety – it's often described as the 'warm and fuzzy' biochemical that mothers release when they cuddle with or nurse their newborn child. It breeds a sense of closeness and bonding, which is a highly rewarding feeling."

As incongruous as it sounds, the catharsis of listening to music that you love – even if it's about something that makes your stomach sink as much as having your heart trampled on – can produce a feeling akin to a high. In my very scientific way of looking at it what Dr Paterno's said, you could experience this in different ways. For one, there's the lurch that sweeps you into a banging chorus, and lets you release the tension you've been feeling in the same way a scream does when you're frustrated. Seen from another angle, the soothing structure of a song itself – say, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and its jump from the chord's base note to the major fourth, looping throughout the song – pushes out the dopamine rush that comforts you. When the lyrics relate to what you're feeling, and that smashes head-on into the sequence of notes that make a pop hit particularly "sticky", you're in firm heartbreak banger territory.

It can feel reductive to try and explain away the power of pop with science, but it's also clear that our obsession with songs about heartbreak exists because they help us digest, process and move on from a situation we have found ourselves in. They allow us to deal with the breakup in a fun – rather than traumatising – way, where we can face our demons head-on by flinging our limbs around in a sweaty, packed-out club, shout-singing the lyrics to ourselves in the bathroom mirror or letting the screeching guitars of a noise record drown out that squeezing pain in your chest. The Whitneys, Beyonces, Bjorks, Drakes and Bon Ivers of the world tell us what we want to hear when we need to hear it and, in turn, release the kind of chemicals that make us feel good and powerful – it's no wonder that we return to them time and time again.

You can follow Sammy on Twitter.

(Lead image by CelebrityABC via Flickr)