Ah, Valentine’s Day…a day to snuggle up to the person you love or to blast your favorite break up song in the hopes of getting over the sweetheart who got away. We know we couldn’t get through our worst splits without the perfect soundtrack, but did our favorite break up songs also help our favorite artists get over their exes? Or were the songs just passed on to them by songwriting pros?
In the past, we’ve uncovered the stories behind such classics as “Yesterday,” “You Oughta Know” and “Someone Like You.” In honor of Valentine’s Day, we did a little more digging on 10 more of the best break up songs of all time to uncover whether ballads like “Nothing Compares 2 U” or empowerment jams like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” came out of Sinead O’Connor and Taylor Swift’s real pain, or someone else’s studio session magic…
“Irreplaceable” by Beyoncé
The Story Of The Song: In what’s one of Beyoncé’s sassiest songs, a woman kicks out her cheating boyfriend by imploring that he puts all his possessions in a box “to the left, to the left,” and reminds him that he’s not “irreplaceable.”
The Story Behind the Song: Beyoncé has publicly claimed to have written this song for her “girls,” but it was actually written by Ne-Yo. The singer-songwriter didn’t draw upon his own experiences, but he did intend the song to be from the male perspective. The song’s country twang comes from Ne-Yo’s interest in Shania Twain ballads. Eventually, Ne-Yo listened back to the song and felt it would be stronger with a female vocalist. Chrisette Michele was originally supposed to sing it, but Swizz Beatz told Beyoncé that she’d be “crazy” not take it for B’Day.
Queen Bey had some suggestions for Ne-Yo. She wanted drums added, different vocal arrangements and to hear the song at a higher register. Ne-Yo obliged, Beyoncé recorded it and the single became the sassy break up anthem of women world-wide.
Oh, and the “to the left, to the left” hook came from Ne-Yo’s aunt.
[Photo Credit: Eleven, Interscope, Chrysalis & Big Machine]
“Tainted Love” by Soft Cell
The Story Of The Song: In this eternally hip and hypnotic New Wave jam, a moody male voice sings about a horrible relationship that he’s struggling to break free from.
The Story Behind the Song: “Tainted Love” was never the story of a New Wave break up, but the work of a 1960s singer-songwriter named Ed Cobb. Cobb was a member of a quartet called The Four Preps that gained some small success in the early college folk scene, but lost their edge when folk went political. We don’t know if a specific woman (or man) inspired “Tainted Love,” but the song was meant to be another garage rock song (like Cobb’s other most famous hit, “Dirty Water”) for The Standells, who turned it down. Soul singer Gloria Jones recorded the song and it became an enduring soul hit in the UK.
Fast forward to the New Wave era… British band Soft Cell was familiar with the song and decided to cover it (along with the Supreme’s “Where Did Our Love Go?”). The Soft Cell version became one of the most universally known break up songs of all time.
“Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson
The Story Of The Song: This empowering break up song tells the story of a romantic relationship that started out great, but grew ugly. It’s only Clarkson’s narrator is free of the romance that she finds happiness.
The Story Behind the Song: “Since U Been Gone” might tell the story of a romantic relationship gone sour, but its behind-the-scenes saga shadows a professional feud between Clive Davis and Kelly Clarkson. The song was written and produced by pop song dynamos Max Martin and Dr. Luke for P!nk, but she passed. Next on their list was Hilary Duff, but she couldn’t reach the song’s soaring high notes. Super music mogul Clive Davis convinced them to give the song to Kelly Clarkson.
Martin and Luke weren’t crazy about giving their song to an American Idol alum, and Clarkson didn’t like the overly pop sound of the still unfinished song. She fought to add drums and guitars to the arrangement.
In his memoir, Clive Davis says that Clarkson came into his office in hysterics because she didn’t want to record the song. Clarkson refuted this and has called it “bullying.”
“Don’t Speak” by No Doubt
The Story Of The Song: “Don’t Speak” is your classic break up song. Boy and girl break up. Girl is sad. Girl demands that the boy “don’t speak.”
The Story Behind the Song: Unlike a lot of the other songs on this list, this ballad was inspired by a real-life romance. No Doubt’s lead singer Gwen Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal had been together for seven years when they broke up. Stefani was devastated, even more so because she had to keep working alongside Kanal with the band. She wiselyput her feelings down in this ballad which she co-wrote with her brother and (then) bandmate, Eric Stefani.
At first this song was awkward for the rest of the band to play, but it soon became one of their biggest hits of all time. Tensions got so high within the band that they almost broke up the day before the music video was shot. No Doubt chose to go ahead with the shoot and used it as their “therapy.”
“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor
The Story Of The Song: “Nothing Compares 2 U” is as famous for its haunting music video as for the story of the song itself. Nevertheless, the ballad explores some of the most beautiful and devastating emotions of a woman who is plunged into a depression following a break up.
The Story Behind the Song: Sinead O’Connor recorded the song after the death of her mother, but she wasn’t the song’s muse.
Prince wrote the song for his funk side project, The Family, and there are three urban legends as to who inspired the emotional ballad. One is that he was inspired by the death of his father, with whom he had a troubled relationship. Another story says that it’s about his personal assistant who had to suddenly leave town when her father died. The last, and most probable, backstory is that it’s about Susannah Melvoin, whose sister, Wendy, was in The Family.
“Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone)” by Bill Withers
The Story Of The Song: “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a fairly straightforward break up song that details the anguish of a guy who can’t enjoy life now that his younger lover is gone from his life.
The Story Behind the Song: Bill Withers got the idea for the song after watching the Jack Lemmon movie, The Days of Wine and Roses. He was captivated by the love story of two destructive alcoholics.
The third verse is famous because of the repetition of the phrase, “I know.” In fact, Withers sings it 26 times. Initially, Withers planned to write a more verbose third verse, but the musicians he shared the song with encouraged him to keep it as is. At the time, Withers was a nobody who worked in a toilet seat factory, so he went along with it.
“Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood
The Story Of The Song: A vengeful woman details how she is destroying her wandering lover’s car in retribution for getting drunk and hooking up with another woman.
The Story Behind the Song: Even though the song is about a woman taking sweet revenge on her boyfriend, it was written by two guys!
Nashville songwriting superstars Chris Thompkins and Josh Kear (who was also behind Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now”) co-wrote the song. So, even though it’s possible Underwood has felt the sting of being cheated on, the song is a complete fantasy written by two men who crank out hits for a living.
“Without You” by Harry Nilsson (and Mariah Carey)
The Story Of The Song: The song tells the story of two lovers who have said goodbye to each other and the narrator explaining that he/she “can’t live if living is without you.”
The Story Behind the Song: The song was written by a band called Badfinger, which was supposed to be the heir apparent to the Beatles. Paul McCartney even produced some of their music. The verses were written by Pete Ham (and were inspired by his girlfriend at the time, Beverly Tucker) and the chorus by Tom Evans (about his future wife, Marianne). After that, things went kind of south for Badfinger. Pete Ham committed suicide in 1975 by hanging himself and Evans followed suit in 1983 after the band was cheated out of royalties. So, in a way, it’s a much sadder song than you think.
As for the famous covers…
Nilsson covered the song after hearing it at a party–where he mistook it for a Beatles song–and Mariah Carey recorded it after hearing Nilsson’s version play in a restaurant because she figured it was a universal and eternal hit.
“Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye featuring Kimbra
The Story Of The Song: “Somebody That I Used To Know” struck a major international chord last year with its infectious hook. In the song, Gotye admonishes a former lover for cutting him out of her life. Kimbra chimes in a response that makes it clear that the romance was doomed because the male was still hung up on yet another ex-girlfriend.
The Story Behind the Song: Gotye started writing the song once he got his hands on a sample of Brazilian jazz guitarist Luiz Bonfá’s “Seville.” He added the percussion next, and the lyrics and melody followed.
However, the song was still missing something. After putting the song aside for a few months, Gotye listened back and decided that it needed a female voice. After an extensive search, and after one unnamed famous singer backed out, Gotye arrived at Kimbra.
As for the lyrics, the song isn’t about a specific relationship. Gotye was actually in a healthy relationship at the time. He told Rolling Stone that’s it’s about “multiple past relationships.” The song won the 2013 Grammy for Record of the Year.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift
The Story Of The Song: A girl tries to get through to her ex-boyfriend that they are going to stay broken up, insisting that “we are never, ever getting back together.”
The Story Behind the Song: Taylor Swift has become known for using her high-profile romances as fodder for her pop songs. This hit is supposed to be about actor Jake Gyllenhaal. The two were seen on a date after their initial break up, but didn’t stay together for long. There are references in the music video to a scarf Gyllenhaal was seen wearing with Swift and a bracelet he reportedly gave her.
That’s all speculation, though…
When Swift did VH1’s Storytellers, she said this song was inspired by a song-writing session that Swift did with Max Martin (remember him from “Since U Been Gone?”) and Shellback. One of Swift’s ex-boyfriend’s friends came into the room and told her that the ex said they were getting back together. Swift’s reply was this hit song.