I Still F*cking Love You: Popular Heartbreak Anthems and the Tragedy Paradox

Zara Agha

We all have that one breakup that we never got over. Mine, a fleeting two month fling, pales in comparison to my previous year long relationship. It’s tragic, I know. Just when I think I’m over it, a new heartbreak anthem drops, and my ‘boys suck’ playlist gets even longer. 

Basic psychology asserts that wallowing in misery is undesirable, but I could have told you that for free. Still, the general population and I voluntarily spend hours crying to sad breakup songs. Olivia Rodrigo’s 2021 single “driver’s license” broke records, snatching the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for 8 weeks straight. Similarly, Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” spent 7 weeks atop the UK Singles Chart in 2019. Taylor Swift, queen of breakup ballads, was one of the top most streamed artists globally in 2020. So why do we devote so much time to wallowing in sadness?

Turns out, by listening to breakup songs, we’re actually exhibiting the good old tragedy paradox. 

Scholars as old Aristotle and Hume attempted to explain the tragedy paradox – why we derive pleasure from unpleasurable experiences. It’s a conscious choice to read Shakespeare’s tragedies, binge horror films, and curate breakup playlists. We enjoy being spectators of tragedy. A two-pronged approach answers the millionaire question of why.

There’s no denying that basking in sadness can be cathartic. The first perspective sees our willing subscription to unpleasurable experiences as a quest to find relief amongst tragedy. New York Times bestseller Dr Mike Dow, likens this to the exposure therapy he uses to heal patients suffering from PTSD. Abandonment is in fact one of the five primal fears present in all of us, so confronting the loss of a lover head on with breakup ballads allows us to surpass our trauma. As such, the popularity of heartbreak anthems is no surprise. Their normalising of collective experiences provides a safe space to heal.

There’s also something empowering in aggressively pumping your fists to “Since You Been Gone” in a sweaty club. This second approach suggests that pain and pleasure might be two sides of the same coin, rather than poles apart. For example, neuroscientists have found that music actually has pain-relieving effects. Listening to music releases dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that promotes positive feelings. Despite their lyrical content, sad songs leave us with feelings akin to a high. All highs are temporary though, so if you catch me crying in the club, you’ll know why. No wonder screaming Dua Lipa’s “IDGAF” makes me feel so empowered and heartbroken at the same time. Pain and pleasure are inextricably linked. Thankfully though, the highs do last longer the further along we are in the mourning process of our breakup.

So, maybe our wallowing isn’t so fruitless after all. Heartbreak anthems help us to process and surpass traumatic feelings of abandonment. The complex and conflicting emotions they incite are just part of the healing process.

Alexa, cue ‘boys suck’. I feel a therapeutic power ballad coming on.