For some of us, Valentine’s Day is a moment when we kind of believe love exists and joyfully go out with our new fling, but for others, it’s a perfect moment to think about exes, heartbreak, and disillusion. And if the past few years are any indication, a lot of us are carrying that heartbreak baggage; the acute sense of hurt has never been stronger. We’ve sent lovelorn texts, struggled with disappointing heroes, and probably broke up with one or two exploitative jobs only to get another one.
Pop stars are also feeling the heartache. Ariana Grande gave us arguably the song of 2018 and ’19 with “thank u, next”. She boldly called out every single one of her exes by name in the song and continues to set the example for pop excellence. Selena Gomez also released “Lose You to Love Me”, which is widely speculated to be about Justin Bieber, who married Hailey Bieber last year. Following the heels of Gomez’s release, her ex, The Weeknd, gave hints that he was going to release a song about her called “Like Selena” — which appears to no longer be happening. Still, for pop stars these last few years, breakups were truly the gifts that keep giving, at least in terms of songwriting.
But, back to us: We’re a little over three years into Trump’s reign and the sense of everything being a burning pile of shit is stronger than ever. The wealth disparity in the country is comical, and what rich people can get away with feels outrageous. For example, a moment last year when we found out wealthy people photoshopped their kids into sports photos so the kids could attend colleges they otherwise wouldn’t be admitted into.
So yeah, breakups aren’t just with our disappointing lovers. They can be with your heroes, with what you thought was true, and more. Some of us gave up on Kanye West when his lackluster Jesus Is King album made more headlines for the weird celibacy vows West put his songwriters through than the actual music. Lana Del Rey on “The Greatest” certainly prepared a mournful eulogy to not only West but an American dream that was always false.
In no particular order, here are 10 songs this Valentine’s Day for whatever breakup you’re going through. If you’ve recently broken up with lovers, with ideas, with truths, with lies, terrible jobs, or outdated ways of being, this is the playlist for you.
“thank u, next” by Ariana Grande
“thank u, next” is not only one of the biggest songs of last year but also a spectacular breakup song. When Ariana Grande released the song, she had just ended her engagement and highly publicized romance with Pete Davidson. “thank u, next,” released in late 2018, also came on the heels of two turbulent years for Grande. In 2018, her ex, rapper Mac Miller, died from a fatal overdose, and in 2017, her concert at Manchester arena was hit with a devastating and fatal terrorist attack.
While Sweetener, her prior album, tackled Grande’s mindset through these tumultuous events, “thank u, next” took Grande to the next stage and cemented her triumph over everything that had gone wayside in her life. In a very tongue-in-cheek manner, Grande starts the song by naming all her exes and dropping positive one-liners about their relationships. Rather than the typical, angry breakup song, Grande chooses to see the good in her past relationships by thanking them while singing, “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex.”
With a swish of her high ponytail, she impressively brushes off the pressure of a very public relationship and subsequent very public fallout like it’s nothing. With great ease, a breakup song filtered through Grande also miraculously becomes an ode to finding self-love and looking towards the future. It’s not really a song about the dudes she broke up with, though they’re part of her story; it’s a song about her and her self-growth. “thank u, next” is Grande’s love song to herself.
“The Greatest” by Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey captures the current cultural ennui and ongoing heartache with the staggering and striking lines, “LA is in flames‚ it’s getting hot/ Kanye West is blond and gone.” She manages to encapsulate the dread and doom caused by climate change in one line and in the next, the bewilderment at what’s going on with past pop stars who simply are just, as she says it, gone. With a finger on the zeitgeist’s pulse, she croons about the inevitable apocalypse and decay of things. “The culture is lit, and if this is it‚ I had a ball/ I guess that I’m burned out after all,” she whispers.
“The Greatest” is a breakup and a eulogy, mourning a lost lover, cities, other things that are only myths now. She references past American signatures: Long Beach, The Beach Boys, the bygone days of when rock and roll ruled New York. It’s like a song played right before the end of everything, the last track played at the end of a party right before the lights come on, and you’re dancing until the last minute, knowing it’s already over.
“Lose You to Love Me” by Selena Gomez
If you’ve ever known a relationship was truly over and done for, but still wanted to revisit it to confirm, “Lose You to Love Me” will resonate. In a sparse track, Selena Gomez realizes, “I needed to lose you to find me/ This dance, it was killing me softly/ I needed to hate you to love me, yeah.” Gomez has not explicitly stated “Lose You to Love Me” is about Justin Bieber, but the pointed lines, “In two months, you replaced us/ Like it was easy” certainly suggests she’s talking about him. After breaking up with Gomez for what would be the last time, Bieber proposed to his former flame, Hailey Baldwin (now Hailey Bieber), within three months. If “Lose You to Love Me” is anything to go by, Gomez has moved somewhere past a tearful goodbye and much like Grande, transitioned to a place where the breakup is for the greater good.
“Earfquake” by Tyler, the Creator
“Earfquake” is a surprisingly sweet, imploring song to a soon-to-be ex-lover by Tyler, the Creator. It’s a strong contrast to his roots; at the beginning of the 2010s, the rapper rose to prominence as the leader of the highly influential collective Odd Future and made very acerbic, violent, and over-the-top songs about murder, kidnapping, and assault. His 2019 song “Earfquake” and album, IGOR, confirm Tyler’s sincere new direction. “Earfquake” is a mid-tempo song littered with hi-hats and garnished with soft piano flourishes. Against that colorful backdrop, Tyler earnestly pleads, “Don’t leave me, it’s my fault.”
In conjunction with the rest of the songs on IGOR, it feels like he’s coming clean, baring some version of the truth and demanding the same from love and a lover. “Take your mask off,” he sings on “Running Out of Time”. “Stop lyin’, I know the real you.” Much like Tyler the Creator, when confronted with a love that might leave us wishing for tenderness and something more underneath, we’ll embrace the chaos that comes with and confess, “Don’t save, don’t save, don’t save/ It’s a low tide (I’ll be fine)/ I found peace in drownin.’”
“Hardly to Blame” by Sheer Mag
“Hardly to Blame” is the most delicious banger about telling your ex exactly why it’s over. It’s the title track on indie rock band Sheer Mag’s 2019 album, A Distant Call. The track is inspired by events in singer Tina Halladay’s own life including a breakup, the death of her estranged father, and losing a job. “Hardly to Blame” is one of the songs on the album that is less overt in explicit events it’s referencing, but its sheer exuberance and demand for an ex to realize a breakup is a two-person thing, feels cathartic. Halladay’s piercing voice shines on the track, as she sings, “I bet ya think you’re/ Hardly to blame,” and admits unreservedly, “I tried to love ya/ I tried to tell ya/ I tried, I tried, I tried, yeah.”
Click ahead for more of our favorite breakup songs…
“None of Your Concern” by Jhené Aiko ft. Big Sean
I’m going to come clean. This song is on this list because Jhené Aiko put her actual ex as a feature on a track that’s about the aforementioned ex. That’s what we call a power move, and I respect the hell out of her. Aiko and Big Sean’s attitudes on the track and towards their previous relationship are absolutely chaotic in their different tone, approach, feelings, just everything. On one hand, Aiko sincerely sings, “Is it even worth it?/ Is it gonna work anymore?” and on the other hand, Big Sean brags, “I made you cum nine times in one day.” Are these two on the same page? It’s a solid Aiko song, with her signature sweet vocals and lyrics that are surprisingly raw. “Get your bitch ass off of my phone/ Please leave me alone/ I am not your girl anymore,” she pointedly sings, emphasizing the words “bitch ass.” Like I said, Aiko’s got my respect.
“Cellophane” by FKA twigs
Achingly quiet and vulnerable from the start of the track, FKA twigs released “Cellophane” after her struggle with fibroid tumors and a period of low confidence. “Cellophane” and Magdalene, her 2019 album, seem to obliquely address twigs’ struggle with her high-profile relationships (she dated Robert Pattinson and Shia LeBouf). On “Cellophane”, twigs sings, “I don’t want to have to share our love/ I try but I get overwhelmed.”
However, it would be a disservice to reduce “Cellophane” and Magdalene to just twigs talking about her exes. In the end, the works are explicitly about her, her struggles, and her thoughts on femininity. “Cellophane’s” firmly about her interior life when she asks an ex-lover, and perhaps even herself, “And didn’t I do it for you?/ Why don’t I do it for you?” The music video for “Cellophane” gives hints to what twigs is grappling with in negotiating the public’s eye, her own eye, and a lover’s eye. In the video, she’s a gorgeous pole dancer demonstrating skill and strength, a strong contrast to the fragile, brittle lyrics of asking a lover why she’s not good enough anymore.
“Twist the Knife” by Chromatics
Chromatics are back after a long hiatus. Their last album release was in 2012, and skipping over the long-teased sixth album, Dear Tommy, they headed straight into their seventh album, Closer to Grey. The band is atmospheric as ever on an album that retains their detached ’80s, dreamlike haze but takes on a distinctly darker mood. The album feels like one long, dark, and supernatural landscape of lovers breaking up and running away from an unstable love into something else, only to end up where they were in the beginning. The track “Twist the Knife” is a testament to that feeling as lead singer Ruth Radalet sedately croons, “We could try to play it straight/ Sometimes love feels just like hate/ Every time I close my eyes/ You twist and turn the knife.”
“Playing Games” by Summer Walker
Summer Walker had a breakout debut last year. Her album, Over It, became the most streamed R&B album by a female artist of all time, breaking the streaming record set by Beyonce’s Lemonade. In “Playing Games”, Walker confronts a wishy-washy lover, asking, “Did I ever ask you to take me to go/ Shopping in Paris or go/ Sailing overseas and just/ Drape me in Gucci? No/ All I ever asked was you to/ Pick up the phone when you alone.” Sultry and vulnerable, reminiscent of late ’90s R&B, “Playing Games” is personal and delivers the heartbreak while giving you a tune to hold your half-hearted lovers accountable to.
Honorary mention from Walker’s Over It are the lyrics, “I would never shoot you, baby/ Maybe just wave it around” from the song “Me”. She’s tapped into a particular messy mood, the one where you’re feeling chaotic after being open and vulnerable to a partner, and they, in turn, deliver on nothing.
“Follow God” by Kanye West
I know, I know. No self-respecting listicle should include Kanye West’s admittedly disappointing new album, Jesus Is King. But in the name of West’s integral influence on the decade and our slow, prolonged, breakup with him, he’s here. While West moves on to something different, our relationship to him and his music is tenuous and under negotiation with every release. If Jesus Is King and “Follow God” showed us anything, where West is heading feels disconnected and a far cry from when he could say truths that people were waiting for somebody to speak into existence. Even on an album about Christianity and the greatness of God, West can’t escape the materialistic rich people problems that characterize his social media presence and are also out of tune with the masses. His issues, as he describes it on “Follow God” are, “Looking at the ‘Gram and I don’t even like likes.” If these happen to be the spiritual challenges West is facing, it’s not particularly compelling.
Is this the beginning of our breakup with Kanye West? Personally, I’m holding out for West’s next album, but I’m one more song with a mention of Instagram issues away from tossing in the towel.