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WPGM Commentary: The Evolution Of The Heartbreak Song

The heartbreak song movement took a dark turn when Big Sean released his hit song “IDFWU” off of his 2015 album Dark Sky Paradise. The explicit middle finger of a piece to his now late ex-girlfriend, Naya Rivera, sold 1,268,000 copies and peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, allowing hard-hitting heartbreak music to garner a cult-like following.

Hip Hop is not a genre for the soft and faint-hearted, so I believe Big Sean masked his pain behind the bravado of a catchy melody and a bouncy beat typical in hip hop music. Different music genres handle matters of the heart with differing levels of gentleness and resentment, with the 21st-century artist taking a no-holds-barred approach to what they reveal to their listeners about lost love.

A subtweet, a shortening of ‘subliminal tweet’, is an internet phenomenon popularized by Twitter and adopted as a way to mention a person in a message indirectly. The human urge to insult another without directly mentioning them is satisfied through subtweeting, and songwriters are cleverly employing the tactic for some of the most prominent artists of our generation.

Our nosiness is making us eat it up, applauding the crafty use of insulting metaphors and dysphemisms. The Weeknd (Here We Go Again), Beyonce (Hold Up), Taylor Swift (Style), and Drake (Life Of The Party) have subtweeted professional and personal relationship heartbreaks in their music. This proves that heartbreak music has the power to intrigue and connect as much as love does.

The best heartbreak songs reject the sensationalism that accompanies writing a painful emotion into the music. It is surprising to see that some artists were able to take some notes from old-school heartbreak songs and make beautiful art from them that can gently hug a healing listener.

Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor”, Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart”, and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” are a masterclass of how to structure a heartbreak song lyrically and vocally. The template from the iconic releases has been tweaked to match the life and times of the modern listener. Here are five releases from the first half of 2022 that I believe gracefully capture broken hearts worldwide and fill them with a comforting, upbeat hope.

“Lost One”, from 2-time Grammy Award-winning singer Jazmine Sullivan’s critically acclaimed album Heaux Tales: Deluxe Edition, tells a painful story about the one who got away. Jazmine’s clever use of the harmonies and runs creates a sense of longing, forcing a deep sigh in the listener’s chest in the same position.

As the heartbreaker, you hang onto the hope that the heartbreakee has at least forgiven you and will allow the good memories to speak on your behalf. The song is stripped down to sound unplugged, adding to the rawness and honesty of its message.

Richard Saunders, known as RichMusicRich, added soul into his rendition of Outkast’s “Ms Jackson”. As the former member of the trio Thirdstory, Rich is accustomed to singing about love and loss beautifully, arranging his voice in ways he knows will get to the heart quickly.

While Outkast’s original take on “Ms. Jackson” is funky and bouncy, Rich orchestrates the pain of hurting Ms. Jackson’s daughter with more sorrow. The simple chord progression, slowed drumbeat and the violin in between emphasise the apology well, creating room to rebuild after the wrongdoing.

We have no tolerance for other people’s mistakes, but Nanette’s compulsion to repeat her errors is the basis of her single “Same Mistakes”. As the heartbroken, Nanette expresses confusion about her mother’s sympathy and frustration for her foolishness.

Mama said I’ll understand when I am older / But I’ve made the same mistakes over and over” is the relatable outcry of the heartbroken stuck in their ways. Old habits might die hard, but to survive, we must find a way to break the cycle and start a better one.

“Party Started” by pop duo Broken Hearts Club has an assertive take on heartbreak and what it takes to grow and reunite after a tough time. ONUR & Harvey Whyte join forces on this pop-rock party anthem that acknowledges the bitterness of loss but celebrates the endless possibilities brought by reunion and reconciliation.

The beat has a very walk-it-off and shake-it-off vibe, reminding us to enjoy the good times while we still have them. We can never know if starting a party is the best way to deal with grief, but it is fun to celebrate and enjoy what you still have.

“Love Me Or Give Me Red Wine” is a single from Asa’s album V, where she protests against a former lover’s disinterest in her needs. “Why why you no warn me / Instead you pick up your things and walk away” resonates well with many who have experienced the coldness and thoughtlessness of a heartbreaker. Asa seems willing to participate in an understanding resolution but finds herself in a better agreement with her red wine.

Assembling a playlist for the heartbreakers and the heartbroken is a feat that requires you to know the elements of a good heartbreak song because it carries the responsibility of preparing a heart to love again.

Hope is the presumed remedy for the broken hearted, whether you are Ms. Jackson, the one who got away, you make the same mistakes, you love red wine, or you prefer to party through the pain. The right heartbreak song can help you survive. Listen to all the songs mentioned above and let the healing begin.

Words by Nonjabulo Malinga

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