I’ve talked about love songs here so it seems natural now to move on to another quintessential song topic – the break up. There is so much you could say about break up songs, there are infinite ways of expressing a pain which feels at once unique and universal. The break up song says to the heartbroken listener “you are not alone” but obviously, due to recent or not so recent circumstances, you are.
I want to discuss two very different break up songs which I think have some really interesting parallels; the songs in question being Irreplacable by Beyonce and Does Not Suffice by Joanna Newsom. Both use the central image of a closet as a symbol of shared space in a relationship and go on to use the moving of objects as a way of tracing the disintegration of a relationship.
Irreplaceable was written by six people, including Beyonce Knowles but the song was mainly written by Ne-Yo, originally for himself from the male perspective.
“…with a guy singing it, it comes across as a bit mean and kind of brash. With a woman, it comes across as empowering like, ‘I’m a strong woman’. With a dude it’s more like, ‘He’s a player, he wasn’t loving anybody anyway’. ” (from an interview here)
Obviously this is interesting in about 3000 ways. The idea that the gender of the voice changes the whole meaning of the song – that a female voice is being cheated on whilst the male voice is the cheater is fascinating. As is the concept that by giving the song to Beyonce Ne-Yo is empowering her and other women. Having said that the song is amazing, and is largely amazing because of Beyonce and her voice, so guess I’m pretty glad he gave it to her. I love the way the song declares independence but you can hear all that dependency and vulnerability in the voice. I first heard it whilst driving through some intense rain in the Moray Firth in Scotland and the song seemed sorrowful and angry to me rather than positive and defiant. I think the ambivalence in the song is a testament to how powerful vulnerability can be and how fragile post break up declarations are.
This same fragile strength can be found in Does Not Suffice. The song comes at the end of Newsom’s Have One on Me, already an insanely rambling yet intense odyssey. But this song is just unbelievable. Its long, with a repetitive melody and structure using that folk thing where there’s just verse after verse with no chorus to provide respite. It is littered with specifics and objects which express the same kind of offhanded carelessness of Beyonce’s opening hook – “To the left, to the left.” By concentrating on the material aspects of the disentagnling of two lives, both songs at once deny and convey the real emotional turmoil at the centre of them.
Newsom and Beyonce are both addressing their exes in these songs, although Beyonce’s is in a much more direct conversation set up, whilst Newsom’s is more of a monologue addressed vaguely to ‘you’ (although I guess the nosy listener can’t help but think about that ‘you’ as Bill Callahan, which makes me feel a bit weird). Overall, because of this monologue style and because of the progressesion from the material to the interior world, Newsom’s song is much more intense than Beyonce’s. The most powerful verse declares:
“It does not suffice for you to say I am a sweet
Or to say you hate to see me sad because of you.
It does not suffice to merely lie next to each other
Like those who love each other do.”
This complete reduction of a failing relationship to its bare bones is SO BRUTAL. Beyonce’s equivalent middle eight is nowhere near as powerful. “So since I’m not your everything, how bout I’ll be nothing.” But it does similarly convey that kind of bluntness necessary at the end of a relationship.
Both songs focus on possession and ownership. The last lyric of Does not suffice is “Everywhere I tried to love you, is yours again and only yours.” This is a key difference between Beyonce and Newsom’s songs. Newsom uses the possessions aa a metaphor for what does not suffice, for how unsatisfying the relationship became and how meaningless that possession is. But in Beyonce’s song her possessions are an expression of her own power, her financial power over him.
Both songs are freaking amazing in different ways, and both women are totally great and obviously both could get a new boyfriend in a heartbeat should they need one. So in the end I guess that’s not that helpful if you’re going through your own break up, but these songs are great for all times of life! Listen to them whilst washing up maybe?