If you google the question “What is the most recorded (or covered) song ever?” the search will yield four different answers: George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” “Amazing Grace,” “White Christmas” and “Yesterday.”
“How can that be?” you might ask. Though part of the confusion involves different entities using different datasets, let’s face it—the internet is not a reliable repository of factual information but a rat’s nest of “alternative facts.” Forget about Al Gore—all the available evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that Kellyanne Conway invented the internet.
What’s interesting about the four contenders is that there isn’t a single love song in the bunch—but there is a breakup song.
From a Darwinian perspective, that makes perfect sense. Human mating rituals involve sampling partner after partner in search of the ideal mate. A study commissioned in support of Graeme Simsion’s novel The Rosie Project revealed that men average ten sexual partners before finding “the one” while women only manage a measly seven. As a certified slut, I’ve done a lot more sampling than reflected in either of those pathetic totals, but even if we use an average of the lower numbers, we’re left with a ratio of about eight breakups for every long-term commitment—and those numbers don’t take into account the fifty-fifty odds of a divorce when “the one” turns out to be a dud. Hence the popularity of breakup songs: we need songs like “Yesterday” to help us deal with repeated rejection and disappointment.
As you’ve probably heard thousands of breakup songs over the years, it’s likely that you’ve also noticed that not all breakup songs are alike. I find it helpful to slot breakup songs into three main categories:
Most breakup songs follow the old “my baby left me, boo-hoo, woe-is-me” pattern. As is true of any music that follows a classic formula, the aesthetic appeal of those songs depends largely on the ability of the singer to express sincere feelings of loss without engaging in morbid self-pity. If you’re in the mood for that kind of thing, your best bets include masters of the art like Frank Sinatra, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Etta James, Reba McEntire and a slew of classic blues artists. “Yesterday” falls into this category.
But while “woe-is-me” is likely the most common type, some breakup songs acknowledge the truth that many splits leave behind residues of bitterness and anger. These are the “fuck-you” breakup songs. For all the attention showered on Bob Dylan for his symbolist poetic offerings, the guy also deserves credit for writing two of the best fuck-you breakup songs ever: “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Dylan employed a technique similar to a boxer’s: start with a couple of feints, then land the blow when your opponent lowers their guard:
I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind (feint)
You could’ve done better but I don’t mind (subtle dig + calming feint)
You just kinda wasted my precious time (POW!)
The song is successful because Dylan combined sarcasm with wit that makes the listener indulge in a guilty laugh whenever he lands a punch. By way of contrast, consider the fuck-you breakup song “What Went Wrong” by Blink-182:
I’m sick of always hearing
All the sad songs on the radio
All day it is there to remind an over sensitive guy
That he’s lost and alone, yeah
I hate our favorite restaurant
Our favorite movie, our favorite show
We would stay up all through the night
We would laugh and get high
And never answer the phone
I can’t forgive, can’t forget
Can’t give in, what went wrong?
‘Cause you said this was right You fucked up my life
You might identify with sad song exhaustion or laugh at the surprising burst of vitriol, but really, this is nothing more than an emotional bowel movement.
Another effective variation of the “fuck-you” breakup song is the “fuck-you-and-don’t-let-the-door-hit-your-ass-on-the-way-out” song. These songs employ a stronger element of drama because the wounded party takes action instead of just piling on the insults. “Hit the Road Jack” is a classic example, but Gloria Gaynor raised the stakes in “I Will Survive” by depicting her breakup as a liberating experience:
Go on now, go, walk out the door
Just turn around now
‘Cause you’re not welcome anymore
Weren’t you the one who tried to break me with goodbye?
You think I’d crumble?
You think I’d lay down and die?
Oh no, not I, I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive
I will survive
In my opinion, the most interesting category of breakup songs takes things a step further by expressing a desire for revenge. Revenge songs are super-fuck-you songs designed to leave third-degree burns on the perpetrator. As long as they stay in the realm of fantasy, a good revenge song can be quite therapeutic for the victim, as described in this article from the NIH National Library of Medicine:
Whereas most people in the Western world do not actually engage in vengeance, many tend to fantasize after being treated unjustly. Revenge fantasies are defined as actual descriptive thoughts on how to get even with the perpetrator. Revenge fantasies often serve to calm the negative feelings of frustration, humiliation, and insult by virtually punishing the perpetrator and settling the score between the victim’s suffering and the perpetrator’ actions . These fantasies may provide the victim with a form of sadistic pleasure and enable closure. Victims who suffer from feelings of powerlessness and humiliation sometimes comfort themselves with the pseudo-power of revenge fantasies. Revenge fantasies exist at all ages: children use revenge fantasies to disavow their inability to act (and mourn) and disguise their feelings of shame.
I find this absolutely fascinating because I’ve never had a revenge fantasy after a breakup. The worst I’ve felt is mild disappointment. Your loss, my gain. There are plenty of fish in the sea. Can’t win ’em all. Yada, yada, yada.
But revenge songs tend to be the most intense, and I love intensity. The three songs I’ve chosen for this song series are all revenge songs. It should come as no surprise that two of the songs come from Country artists, as Country is almost a one-stop shop for breakup songs. Those songs also feature female artists whose performances confirm the eternal validity of William Congreve’s immortal line, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned.” Though the third song is performed by a man, it originated in the mind of a grandmother and cosmetician who felt sorry for a woman who was dumped by her husband and desperately wanted to slam the guy who gave her friend the old heave-ho.
Carrie Underwood: “Before He Cheats”: Well, there’s a name I never thought I’d see on altrockchick.com! Carrie leaped to fame via American Idol, a despicable piece of programming that inflicted long-lasting damage to popular music. In addition to that major turn-off, I heard through the grapevine that Carrie was one of those Evangelical Christians who consider bisexuals like me the scum of the earth. Imagine my surprise when I asked an American friend familiar with my musical tastes to recommend some good revenge songs, she recommended this song by Carrie Underwood. With more than a little reluctance, I watched the video of “Before He Cheats” on YouTube and had to admit it was one helluva revenge song, so I proceeded to do further research on the artist. I was delighted to learn that Carrie is a passionate animal lover (as am I) and supports many worthy causes like Habitat for Humanity. I also learned that not all Evangelical Christians are right-wing homophobes, as Carrie revealed in an interview with The Independent:
“Our church is gay-friendly,” she responds, seeming suddenly energised. “Above all, God wanted us to love others. It’s not about setting rules, or [saying] ‘everyone has to be like me’. No. We’re all different. That’s what makes us special. We have to love each other and get on with each other.” Then she offers a totally unexpected, unequivocal endorsement of gay marriage. “As a married person myself, I don’t know what it’s like to be told I can’t marry somebody I love, and want to marry. I can’t imagine how that must feel. I definitely think we should all have the right to love, and love publicly, the people that we want to love.”
Relieved that I wouldn’t be using my blog to promote the beliefs of some LGBTQ-hating nut-job, I decided to move forward with “Before He Cheats.”
Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins wrote the song for Carrie, and their lyrics reveal a deep and empathetic understanding of the female psyche. When a gal finds out that her fella’s been cheatin’, it isn’t enough to wreak havoc on his life—she also to dis the bitch he wants to bang:
Right now, he’s probably slow dancin’
With a bleached-blond tramp and she’s probably gettin’ frisky
Right now, he’s probably buyin’ her some fruity little drink
‘Cause she can’t shoot whiskey . . .
Right now, she’s probably up singing some
White-trash version of Shania karaoke
Right now, she’s probably sayin’ “I’m drunk”
And he’s a-thinkin’ that he’s gonna get lucky
Burn, baby, burn! By dissing her, she’s also dissing him—it’s now painfully obvious that the guy suffers from a complete lack of discernment when selecting a partner and will fuck anything that moves. That realization frees her from the dead-end perspective of “She’s not good enough for you” and moves her to the much healthier, “This asshole doesn’t deserve me,” which will eventually allow her to move on with no regrets.
But while the asshole in question is “probably up behind her with a pool-stick/Showin’ her how to shoot a combo” and “dabbin’ on three dollars worth of that bathroom Polo,” little does he know that the woman scorned has other plans:
I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel
Carved my name into his leather seats
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights
I slashed a hole in all four tires
Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats
You go, girl! Hit ’em where it hurts! If you can’t kick a guy in the nuts, the next best thing is to inflict maximum damage on his wheels. For some guys, ramming their foot down on the accelerator is the psychological equivalent of ramming a hard one into a babe’s sweet spot. The therapeutic value of her chosen method of revenge is confirmed in her post-destruction realization:
I might have saved a little trouble for the next girl
A-’cause the next time that he cheats
Oh, you know it won’t be on me
No, not on me
I feel obliged to mention that the real Carrie Underwood never would have engaged in such outlandish behavior. She told Rolling Stone that though she had been cheated on and dumped, “I wouldn’t recommend doing any property damage, though. I’m a ‘let it go, move on’ kind of person.” I hope that women listening to the song realize that “Before He Cheats” is a satisfying revenge fantasy and nothing more.
The music video for the song is an absolute gas. It also proves that some of the best rock ‘n’ roll today is found in modern Country music. It’s a kick-ass song in more ways than one.
Miranda Lambert: “Mama’s Broken Heart”: This song is the product of a collaboration between three singer-songwriters: Shane McAnally (male), Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves (both female). Kacey Musgraves is the more familiar name on that list, having won several Grammies for her recordings. How the song wound up with fellow Grammy winner Miranda Lambert makes for an interesting read—as does Miranda’s explanation of why she found the song so appealing:
Lambert nearly didn’t get to cut this tune. She knew Kacey Musgraves from her days back in Texas, and they used to write together a lot. The pair went their separate ways, but Musgraves reappeared on Lambert’s radar after her appearances on Nashville Star. The country star explained. “I don’t think I was supposed to be pitched the song, but her sister actually shot some pictures at mine and Blake’s wedding, and she was there, too. At our rehearsal dinner, I went over and asked her, I was like, ‘Are you gonna cut this song, or can I have it?’ And she was like, ‘I’ll think about it for a couple of days.'”
Musgraves granted her wish . . . with some strings attached. “She e-mailed me, and said, ‘You can have it, if I can sing harmony,'” said Lambert. “So that’s her singin’ the harmonies on it—and actually, Kacey Musgraves, she has a new single out called ‘Merry Go ‘Round’ so she’s doin’ great on her own now, but I had to actually beg for this song, and so I’m thankful that she gave it to me ’cause I love ‘Mama’s Broken Heart.'”
“The reason I love this song is because it’s about how sometimes when you get your heart broken, you kinda go a little bit crazy,” she confessed. “You drink too much, you smoke too much, you cut your hair . . . you find a rebound. Sometimes your mama, if she’s like my mama, has to slap you around and say, ‘Straighten up girl!'” (Songfacts)
The last line of that quote is rather misleading. While mama does appear in the song to dispense motherly advice, there is no confirmation that the woman scorned actually followed that advice.
Our first encounter with the heroine finds her in a manic state characterized by self-immolation, emotional outbursts and plenty of booze:
I cut my bangs with some rusty kitchen scissors
I screamed his name ’til the neighbors called the cops
I numbed the pain at the expense of my liver
Don’t know what I did next, all I know, I couldn’t stop
In the American South, where family and friends tend to look out for each other, word gets around and finally gets back to mama:
Word got around to the barflies and the Baptists
My mama’s phone started ringin’ off the hook
I can hear her now sayin’ she ain’t gonna have it
Don’t matter how you feel, it only matters how you look
Go and fix your makeup girl, it’s just a breakup
Run and hide your crazy and start actin’ like a lady
‘Cause I raised you better, gotta keep it together
Even when you fall apart
That advice is followed by the line “But this ain’t my mama’s broken heart.” Our heroine hasn’t given up on the idea of revenge and struggles with the notion that “actin’ like a lady” is an acceptable response to getting dumped. Mama’s generation bought into the traditional view that women needed to learn how to suppress “ugly” emotions like anger; if a woman dared to express anger, she was “being hysterical.” And though women were “allowed” to cry during movies and at weddings, they were expected to hold it together in other situations for the good of the family and its reputation in the community:
I wish I could be just a little less dramatic
Like a Kennedy when Camelot went down in flames
Leave it to me to be holdin’ the matches
When the fire trucks show up and there’s nobody else to blame
Can’t get revenge and keep a spotless reputation
Sometimes revenge is a choice you gotta make
My mama came from a softer generation
Where you get a grip and bite your lip just to save a little face . . .
Powder your nose, paint your toes
Line your lips and keep ’em closed
Cross your legs, dot your I’s
And never let ’em see you cry
All of that sounds rather serious and a bit bleak, but Miranda colors those lines with a delightfully wicked sense of humor—as if she’s giving a sly wink to the listening audience. Her delivery in the chorus (which contains mama’s advice) drips with sarcasm as she mocks the silliness of keeping up appearances; the bitterness in her voice is mirrored by the explosive power chords in the background. The music can be described as “aural impatience” with 2/4 time played at a speed of 212 beats per minute—as if the narrator is nervously tapping her fingers on the table while she considers her options. The chords are appropriately simple—a repeating pattern of Em/B7 that reflects the struggle between “should I” or “shouldn’t I?”
As noted above, the song ends without resolution—we don’t know if she’s going to follow through with her desire for real-life revenge or wiggle her way out of her dilemma by playing out the fantasy. I get the sense that mama’s advice may have prevented her from doing something really stupid, but she’s unlikely to buy into the “little lady” route. The truth is many women still find themselves stuck in limbo between the opposing expectations of yesterday and today, whether it’s between maintaining appearances or ripping the guy a new one, or the persistent tension between career and family. The traditional role definitions for men and women have been with us for a long time and all traditions die hard. Noting the burgeoning worldwide backlash against gender equality, The Secretary-General of the United Nations recently projected that it will take three hundred years for gender equality to become reality.
Well, that sucks, but I’m delighted to end this segment with some good news: the music video for “Mama’s Broken Heart” is an absolute hoot!
Tony Bennett: “I Wanna Be Around”:
In one of the most unlikely collaborations in music history, this song is credited to renowned songsmith Johnny Mercer and a beautician from Youngstown, Ohio by the name of Sadie Vimmerstedt. The backstory falls into the category of “incredibly unbelievable”:
The story of “I Wanna Be Around,” recorded by Tony Bennett for Columbia Records in 1963, begins in Youngstown, Ohio. A cosmetician named Sadie Vimmerstedt lamented about the lack of good songs on the radio. She sent a letter to the Tin Pan Alley songwriter Johnny Mercer in February 1957 and included a phrase that she thought might make a good song. “I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody’s breaking your heart,” Sadie wrote. She liked to think that this was how Nancy Sinatra felt about her husband, “Frankie boy,” who left her for Ava Gardner. Not sure of the famous songwriter’s address, she sent it to “Johnny Mercer, Songwriter, New York, N.Y.” and hoped the letter made it to where it was supposed to go. It did.
Mercer received the letter, which was scratched out on two pieces of an old desk calendar, after someone at the post office looked up the address to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Mercer thought it was a terrific idea for a song, but it was two years before he answered her letter, apologizing for the delay. When months went by before she heard another word, Sadie assumed that Mercer had either changed his mind or forgotten about her. On the contrary, he had been working on lining up one of the best crooners of the day to record the song.
I’ll never quite understand why average folks become so attached to their favorite celebrities that they treat them as old friends or part of the family, but I have to admit that I admire Sadie’s loyalty to Nancy Sinatra, which went far beyond the call of duty. At the time she mailed the song fragment to Mercer, the Sinatras had been divorced for six years. I would love to have a friend like Sadie and if I were still a U. S. citizen, I would demand that Joe Biden honor Sadie with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And I’d like to find out who “someone at the post office” is or was and pin a medal on them, too.
Johnny Mercer won more than enough awards to last a lifetime—four Oscars, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, his face on a postage stamp—and is such a revered songwriter that the highest honor given by the Songwriters Hall of Fame is the Johnny Mercer Award. Nevertheless, I want to honor him with a What a Great Guy Medal for not only giving Sadie equal co-writing credit but also a 50-50 split of the royalties for what became a pretty big hit.
Having grown up in San Francisco, I’m intimately familiar with Tony Bennett . . . and I don’t mean “I banged him at the Fairmont.” I’m pretty sure I heard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” at least once a week from birth to the age of twenty-five. I was at Candlestick on Opening Day in 1993 when he performed the song for Giants fans who had packed the stadium to see new-acquisition-and-future-asshole Barry Bonds in action (Bonds went 2 for 3 with a solo homer).
I don’t remember when I first heard Tony sing “I Wanna Be Around,” but I do remember my reaction. I had it in my head that Tony Bennett was Mr. Nice Guy and to hear him express sadistic delight in someone else’s pain was quite a shock. Eventually I grew up and got over it and came to recognize the song as a master class in both singing and songwriting, a uniquely rich and compelling story that plays itself out in a poetically economic two minutes and eleven seconds.
Tony recorded the song in 1962 in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Having built a successful career as a pop singer in the early 50s, he made a smooth transition to jazz in the middle of the decade and eventually earned accolades as a top-tier jazz vocalist. Mercer’s composition is tailor-made for Tony Bennett: a blues-rich jazz number set to an easy swing with a heavy emphasis on major and minor seventh chords to give the singer plenty of opportunity to add color with blue notes.
The chording is relatively simple for a pianist but an absolute bitch for a guitarist: the opening line “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces” contains seven chords: F, Bbmaj7, Bb6, Cm7, C#m7, Dm7 and Dbdim7. The structure of the song is unusual in that it lacks a proper chorus and the verse pattern is best described as ABAB+ with the A verses in Bb major, the B verse in Eb major/C minor and the B+ verse opening with a natural applied to the G7 chord to create a G7b13 chord. It feels like a key change but it’s actually the opening salvo of the final build and the eventual return to the Bb major root.
While those little chordal twists fill a pianist with delight, it’s unlikely that you’ll pay much attention to the chords because Tony captures your full and undivided attention the moment he enters the scene after Ralph Sharon completes his appropriately bluesy intro on the 88s. Tony begins his vocal in a slightly assertive manner, adopting the tone of the jilted lover who believes his feelings of resentment are entirely justified. Tony’s phrasing is sheer perfection, holding long notes no longer than necessary, and clipping some notes for emphasis. The dynamics remain at a fairly steady level throughout the first verse and most of the second, until Tony reaches the closing line of the second verse (in italics):
I want to be around to pick up the pieces
When somebody breaks your heart
Some somebody twice as smart as I
A somebody who will swear to be true
As you used to do with me
Who’ll leave you to learn
That misery loves company, wait and see
His voice rises in this first crescendo beautifully and gradually, reaching a peak that ends in a flawless transition to the blue-note-rich opening to the third verse (in italics)
I mean, I want to be around to see how he does it
When he breaks your heart to bits
Let’s see if the puzzle fits so fine
Tony gradually takes things down a notch or two as the verse proceeds, pausing to clip the word “bits” and inserting a split-second pause before “so fine” as he anticipates the satisfaction ahead:
And that’s when I’ll discover that revenge is sweet
As I sit there applauding from a front-row seat
When somebody breaks your heart
Like you, like you broke mine
The build in the last verse is absolutely thrilling, as Tony’s voice rises to maximum volume to deliver the finishing blow. There’s a tone of sweet victory in his voice as he savors the long-awaited arrival of blessed karma—a tone that gives me chills of satisfaction and something approaching the creeps. I’m not one to wallow in another person’s misery, but I have to confess to a teeny weeny bit of “she had it coming” as well.
To appreciate the strength and subtleties of Tony Bennett’s performance, I’ve included an audio-only video of the original recording and a SoundCloud clip of Johnny Mercer’s demo, courtesy of the Johnny Mercer Foundation. The contrast provides an example of how a great singer can make a great song even better.
Oh, and guess who else covered this song? Frank Sinatra! I wonder if anyone told him that he was the asshole in question.
Okay, that’s a wrap! Please feel free to share your favorite breakup songs by leaving a comment. Thanks for stopping by and have a . . .
Huh? What’s that? Hold on. You’ve crammed that sentence with so many f-bombs that even Ms. Filthy Mouth can’t make it out. Nice and slow . . . easy does it . . . ah! Okay, this is what I heard, so correct me if I’m wrong. You said, “How in the fuck did you fucking forget to include the fucking King of Bitter Breakups in this fucking review?” Is that right? Okay, I think I get your drift. Mind if I defend myself? Thanks.
I deliberately did not include Richard Thompson in this essay because I don’t want to break up a Richard Thompson album that I plan to review . . . which pretty much includes every Richard Thompson album that I haven’t already covered. In case you’re interested, I’ll be reviewing Sweet Warrior next week.
Is that okay with you? Great. Have a nice day.
Aren’t Stardust and The Girl From Ipanema songs that are also called “the most covered songs ever”?
By the way, nice analysis of what break-up songs are in general, and I liked the three categories you divided them into, makes sense!
Probably. It depends on the source. Check out this article: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/03/bad-misleading-statistics-false-information-estimates/673359/
you missed the ultimate breakup song: Last Kiss! now THAT was a breakup in the pre-seatbelt era!
Adding your Sweet Warrior review to new Tul! 4-21 (21-4, if you been in Europe long enough to convert) as reasons to ride my bike careful and survive. Great breakup song? Prince, ‘Had You’ in less than two minutes he does woe, fuck you, revenge and beauty.
I like Bob Dylan’s sly approach on the songs you mention, and others. Tonio K did my favourite fuck-you break up song: H-A-T-R-E-D
Break up song: “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Kenny Wayne Shepherd version. Works well at extremely high volume. No, louder than that. Different song from Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.”