What makes a song a “breakup song”? In honor of Valentine’s Day, The Ringer is digging deep into the genre with our ranking of the 50 greatest ones in music history and pieces exploring the current state of the heartache anthem. If you’re alone on this holiday, fire up our playlist and cry as you read along. And if you’re happily attached, just appreciate the songs—and your relationship. After all, you can’t fully appreciate a breakup song until you truly know what it’s like to lose in love.
I lived in an Airbnb for the first six months of my life in New York. My now-ex-boyfriend and I shared a semi-private room, no lock, in a house with a rotating cast of residents. This was a temporary home base while we got our footing juggling internships, various side gigs, and odd jobs. We weren’t really moving in together, but merely cohabiting. The impermanence of an Airbnb solidified that narrative. So did the wildly unromantic act of living with your partner in a stranger’s home you found on an app. We broke up within a few months.
Tinder was good because it taught me all the new ways people can disappoint you. Dan will send you messages every day, but never agree to meet up. Jack looked taller in his pictures and Sam will eventually stalk you. It was hard to see their profiles as anything more than items in a catalog. I’d meet all my dates at the same bar down the street, the one that played Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” at least three times a night. The difference between Robyn circa 2010 and me circa 2016 is that Robyn didn’t drunk text her ex and invite him out after a bad Tinder date. That’s not how the song goes. Robyn cries and spins on the dance floor. She watches her former lover fall for somebody else and welcomes the loneliness.
“Dancing on My Own” fits squarely into the traditional breakup song canon. It’s grand, mournful, and straightforward. Robyn will dance on her own, just as Gloria Gaynor will survive, just as Dolly Parton will beg Jolene not to take her man. Through the early to mid-aughts, pop breakups were painted in bold, universal shades. The post–“Dancing on My Own” 2010s saw the rise of dating apps, social media obsession, and an updated set of relationship standards. Breakup songs became more personal and specific as dating grew more complicated and our interactions readjusted to fit and forge an alternate reality. Drake spent several songs on 2011’s Take Care staring into his phone and contemplating booty calls. In 2012, Katy Perry sang about wanting to “throw [her] phone away” to see whether her ex would even notice on “Part of Me.” That same year, Tinder launched.
The modern breakup song is less concerned with the actual breakup or relationship, and more preoccupied with digitally spawned signs and symbols and the meanings we ascribe to them. What does it mean to “like” your ex’s picture or ignore someone’s text or send a heart emoji to a new Bumble match? The modern breakup song is a meta breakup song.
Lizzo’s massive single “Truth Hurts,” which earned her this year’s Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance, is about getting over her noncommittal ex with Insta-worthy revenge, taking “fresh photos with the bomb lighting” and DMing his best friend. On Dua Lipa’s 2017 hit “New Rules,” the pop star urges her friends away from a type of sleazy suitor who’s long existed, but whose shtick has benefited from the ease of constant, no-strings communication. Both touch on familiar salves for end-times anxiety and the indignities of modern dating.
In 2018 and 2019, Ariana Grande released two albums that bookended a whirlwind romance. The relationship started out hot and heavy on the heels of her breakup with Mac Miller, and the public followed along via tabloids and social media before she even shared a single song. By the time Sweetener came out, it didn’t need context. Her fans and paparazzi had already determined the story, more or less via meme, and made room for Grande to play a little inside baseball. She even named a song after her then-boyfriend, first and last name.
“I’ve always just been like a shiny, singing, 5-6-7-8, sexy-dance … sexy thing,” Grande told Fader in a pre-Sweetener interview. “But now it’s like, ‘OK … issa bop—but issa message. Issa bop but also has chunks of my soul in it.’”
Thank U, Next, the ensuing breakup album, follows Grande from the last glimmers of relationship bliss into single-life savagery. She hits all the relevant tropes, respectively—Netflix and takeout, one-night stands—and delves deeper into the growing network of nuances and norms. “Ghostin” is about the pain of suddenly disconnecting from someone you were involved with. “In My Head” begins with a voicemail from a friend, telling Grande that she’s “in love with a version of a person that [she] created in [her] head.” Grande distills the casual recklessness of detached, tech-addled dating in the final song, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”
With access to people’s lives in the palms of our hands, we’ve developed new kinds of relationships to form and mourn—casual hookups, boys on the back burner, flirty internet friends. Lapses in communication are expected and imbalanced intimacy is common. It’s easy to overestimate the intention behind a series of low-effort texts and the occasional date. (“She told me she’s a bad texter!” “Maybe his mom died!”) These trends often reveal themselves through online discourse, before the media machine assigns them labels and swiftly repackages them as cultural symbols.
According to Bustle, “breadcrumbing” is “when someone responds just enough to make you think they’re still interested, and gives you enough attention that you think not all hope is lost.” The Cut describes “orbiting” as “the passive voyeurism of a past flame. They’ll consistently peep your Instagram Stories and like your tweets, but never actually break the ice.” It’s as if we’re in a confused, prolonged state of breakup, where all meaning is muddled and nothing ever fully comes to an end. By this logic, most songs are breakup songs. On “The Weekend,” SZA occupies the position of side chick, asserting her contentment with a subtle sadness in her voice. The 1975’s “Be My Mistake,” from 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, foresees the end of a one-sided fling. “[It’s] just about guilt,” frontman Matty Healy said of the track. “It’s about when you are a young person and you struggle sometimes to figure out what you really want.”
Love games play out in extremes. “It’s gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames … Boys only want love if it’s torture,” Taylor Swift laments on 2014’s “Blank Space.” The intensity becomes something else entirely. In 2016, Beyoncé turned relationship turmoil into a visual album, Lemonade, dissecting her husband’s wrongdoings, a breach of trust, her reckoning, and eventual forgiveness. There are layers to this artistry, the first being Beyoncé’s initial perception of her marriage. The second layer is what remains of the shattered facade and what gets built in its place. The third layer is Beyoncé condensing the experience into mass-consumed pop lyrics.
Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blond recalls fruitless blind dates and the collapsing of physical and digital life. He opens “Good Guy” with one of his most simple, upsettingly accurate lines: “You text nothing like you look.” Producer SebastiAn speaks on the “Facebook Story” skit, summarizing the end of his relationship. She thought he was cheating because he wouldn’t accept her Facebook friend request. “Over jealousy for nothing,” he says. “You know, virtual thing.”
The 1975 found a logical endpoint, past our immersion into faux reality, a future when love is purely a digital transaction. A Brief Inquiry considers our relationships with others via the internet, our relationship with the internet itself, and the internet’s relationship with the world outside of it. “The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme” is a Siri-narrated track about a man who falls in love with the internet. It has everything he needs, “his friend had so many clever ways to make him feel better. He would get him cooked animals and show him the people having sex again, and he would always, always agree with him.”
Post-breakup, I leaned into my pathetic desperation and listened to The Secret audiobook. The scam of The Secret is based on the “law of attraction.” Your thoughts can change your life, best-selling author and self-help guru Rhonda Byrne insisted. Just imagine the thing you want every day, and eventually it will be yours. I imagined moving on and meeting someone new. I imagined my ex paying the $500 he owed me. It was as real as anything else.
Julia Gray is a Brooklyn-based music and culture writer. Her work has appeared in places like The Washington Post, Playboy, and Stereogum. She makes chaotic tweets at @juliagrayok.