When my kids were little, and I'd be playing and talking about music with them, they'd say, "Dad, what is this song about?"
You can probably guess my answer. Because eight out of 10 songs (not an official stat) are about the same thing: Love. Of course, that one simple word cannot begin to explain that very complicated subject as it lyrically weaves itself in and out of every genre of music. This is especially true with the dark side of love. You know, heartbreak.
Gather Round While Dad Bums You Out I'm still teaching my kids about music, and these days I tell my teenagers, "As much as you love music now, you'll never begin to understand its power until you fall in love."
I continue, "And you'll never fully understand its power until you've had your heart broken."
Chances are -- if you are older than, say, 25 -- then you know the understanding to which I refer.
First, you joined the "hopelessly in love" club, which made the music light and wonderful, just like your new love. Every song was your song.
"Gee, I think I'll make her a mixtape" (Today, they're called "playlists," and they don't take nearly as much effort, but no doubt the mushy thoughts propelling the effort are the same.)
Then said love ripped out your heart.
Welcome to the Lonely Hearts Club As that sickening emotional feeling set in, a whole new batch of songs jumped off the page. You joined a whole new club. The rotten bastards and unfaithful bitches in all those songs now have a face. Lyrics you didn't even notice before suddenly seemed like they were written just for the world's saddest loser, you.
I distinctly remember the first song that came on the car radio just minutes after my first heartbreak: Jigsaw's "Sky High."
Not exactly John Lee Hooker (in Minot, North Dakota in 1978, there's wasn't exactly blues music being played anywhere), but it was painful nevertheless. I'd heard the song many, many times before -- but never had truly thought about the girl in the song blowing it all sky high by "telling a lie . . . without a reason why" to this poor, loving dude.
Of course, nearly every other song took on new meaning for the next few months. It didn't help me get over my broken heart any quicker, but it was a nice to have the companionship of all those artists who also had been hurt.
Eventually, I moved past it, but the membership in the club will always remain.
Two of my five kids (my 22- and 30-year-olds) have joined. They know the not-like-any-other-kind pain of heartbreak. Chances are, at some point my other three will join as well. It seems the only way to avoid it is not to fall in love.
I can't recommend that to them . . . so the best thing I can do is help them prepare.
Okay, there's no preparing for heartache.
But I can reassure them it won't last forever . . . and keep reminding them of the musical reward at the end of the dark tunnel (and this blog!).
The Blues Are All right I'm reminding them that not only will the music help you through the heartache, but once you are through, those wonderfully sad songs will serve as a reminder. A reminder of what heartbreak feels like -- and the fact that you don't currently have one.
I just celebrated my 17th wedding anniversary, so luckily it's been a long time. But I've got tiny scars -- because I was never afraid to fall -- little ones hang around somewhere deep.
I say "tiny" because only the very best heartbreak songs will bring 'em to the surface. There are literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, and they all do it when you're actually heartbroken, but only the very best will remind you 20 years down the road when you're feeling all right.
In other words, Jigsaw doesn't do it anymore.
But there are some songs that occasionally do: Songs where the artists have put so much feeling into it, where the music is just so painful, that the feeling of "I'll do anything to get you back" is just palpable. Those are the ones that I use to try properly explain the feeling of heartbreak to my kids.
It won't work ahead of time. As good as the musicians are at expressing the pain, the kids won't know the actual feeling until it happens.
But from that point on it'll work forever.
9 Songs That Reveal the Nature of Heartbreak
Graham Nash -- "I Used To Be a King" The phenomenal Songs for Beginners album is full of heartache, but this song is the pinnacle. I actually went and looked up the song to see who he was longing for . . . and it turns out it was Joni Mitchell. That's Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia (from the Grateful Dead) playing bass and pedal steel, in case you were wondering.
Bonnie Raitt -- "Love Has No Pride" If you haven't heard Bonnie's amazing album Give It Up, you owe it to yourself to do so. When Bonnie sings this song, you will come as close as you can to understanding just how big of a fool you will be willing to make yourself just to get your love to stay.
Whiskeytown -- "Turn Around" All he wants her to do is turn around. You can hear how desperately in Ryan Adam's voice. The same desperation we all feel as we cope with the idea that our loved one is gone, and not coming back.
Stevie Wonder -- "Another Star" The desperation of losing someone is often coupled with the even-worse thought that your loved one has found someone else. In addition to Stevie's wondering (pun not originally intended), the thing that really makes this song stand out for sorrow is the fact that it comes directly after the mighty "As," which makes an equally excellent attempt at relaying enduring love.
Etta James -- "I'd Rather Go Blind" I'm not a big Beyoncé fan, but I like the way she portrayed Etta singing this song -- which is a classic in the blues ranks, yet may be unknown to youngsters -- in the movie Cadillac Ranch. When Etta says she'd rather go blind, you believe her.
Eagles -- "Wasted Time" I think Don Henley has written a number of songs that speak with honest emotion from a guy's point of view without making him look like a wuss -- and this might be his best. It speaks wonderfully to the time in the heartbreak where you are sorta beginning to put it behind you -- starting to think clearly -- but not quite yet.
Bobby "Blue" Bland -- "Shoes" I could have made the whole list blues songs. Easy. But I only listen to the blues about 20 percent of the time, so I'll throw in a couple of the best. Listen to Bobby as he laments the man with the shoes stealing his woman away. What a voice.
Nina Simone -- "My Man's Gone" The ladies on this list can really emit that painful singing -- and Nina is just as woeful as woeful can be on this fantastic song. Another one-of-a-kind voice that can mix genres like a champ.
Laura Nyro -- "Woman's Blues" Last but not least. Maybe it should be at the top. Admittedly, I've sorta fallen in love with Laura Nyro over the past decade -- mainly because this song, and so many others in her arsenal, are written and sung so well that I feel like I actually know her (and her spectrum of varied emotions). This song is what I'd call "moving anguish" (read the lyrics on the YouTube link).
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