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Breakups and Music

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Written by: lauracassels art by: londonfoginacup

Everyone loves a love song, but there are many different types for many different occasions. One particularly significant branch of love song is the break-up song. Everyone, at some point in their life, will have had some kind of interaction with a breakup, even if they’re lucky enough to never have had this experience, most people would no doubt still have witnessed it with their loved ones, watching them as they went through the pain. In short, break-ups are something we can all relate to in some way. 

But why do people listen to break-up songs when they’re already in pain? Well, rather than be seen as wallowing, it can actually be therapeutic to listen to songs of other people having felt the same as the listener is feeling in that moment. In fact, they can even invoke empathy, but in reverse, where the listener feels what someone else is feeling, even as they’re experiencing those feelings for themselves. They can also help the listener feel less alone and provide hope for a less painful future and the possibility of a more successful relationship with someone else one day.

Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson have between them several songs that deal with this theme of breakups. Both artists have their own way of approaching this type of song, with Harry learning towards clinging to the emotional side of things, like we can see in ‘Meet Me In The Hallway,’ and Louis leaning towards trying to navigate the situation to move on, even if those attempts to do so aren’t exactly healthy, like in ‘Miss You’. 

Whether or not people think Harry and Louis broke up, several of their songs do seem to feature a break or break up in a significant relationship. Without picking sides in the ‘Larry Breakup’ debate, this article will look at the different ways Harry and Louis approach a breakup musically. Most people will have experienced a break-up by the time they’re in their 20s, and this is no different for Harry and Louis. So, with that in mind, let’s look at their approaches to this branch of song, specifically with looking at the songs ‘Him’ ( in the green text) and ‘Don’t Let It Break Your Heart’ (in the blue text). 

Of course, no one knows what a song is really about except for the writer(s), but the lyrics and melody usually leave clues for listeners to interpret. Even for those who find it difficult to read into hidden meanings of lyrics, so much can be gleaned from the emotions attached to a song. Also, since human experience is so varied, so are  interpretations of lyrics and music. 

However, when analysing a song’s lyrics, it’s easy to see that there’s a story being told, even if the lyrics are on the abstract side. Martin Wrights, a lecturer in songwriting at BIMM Institute in Birmingham, says a breakup song will have three key pieces of information within it that will determine the type of song it will turn out to be. Firstly, the song needs someone to action the breakup, as that information will set the tone for the rest of the song. Martin Wrights explains this, stating ‘If it’s me breaking up with you, it’s about empowerment, liberation, and freedom. But if it’s you breaking up with me, it might be about sadness, bitterness, and even sometimes revenge.’

With this in mind, if we look at the opening of both of the songs, we get clear hints about who initiated the break up and, therefore what we can expect the rest of the song to sound like. Please remember, we’re looking at these songs as separate breakup songs and not as potential responses to each other in this article.

In the first verse of Him, the fact that it’s a breakup song is clearly established. 

So you were right

There’s always two

The one who stays, and the one who’s leaving you

Hear me out, my apologies

‘Cause I’m not here for sympathy

However, it’s not until the final two lines of this section that we realise that Harry is the one who initiated this breakup. If he was the one broken up with, then why would he need the songs recipient to ‘Hear him out?’ Why would he need to apologise, or feel like the listener might feel sorry for him? These lines only work if Harry is the instigator. Also, this section allows us to understand the beginning of the story the song is trying to tell. Harry has broken up with someone and now regrets it. He wants to talk to them and explain without the person feeling sorry for him. This sets the tone for a rather sad song, as it screams that Harry hasn’t moved on at all from this relationship and feels stuck with regret at how he handled the situation. It also hints that the person he’s talking to has moved on, as why else would they offer him ‘sympathy?’ If that’s the case, then this song seems set to be a rather mournful song indeed. 

If we then look at the opening to ‘Don’t Let It Break Your Heart,’ we can see that Louis is the one who has been broken up with. 

On our way to Twenty Seven

Got a place on the other side of London

Doing better, doing better

And I know you left a part of you

In New York under your bed in a box

But you’re doing better, doing better

It’s not quite as clear as the opening to Him and the lyrics require a bit more effort to read between the lines. If we take this verse a little backwards and look firstly at lines 4-6, we can see Louis is talking to himself here in the 3rd person, giving himself a bit of a pep talk. He’s saying that although he’s left part of himself behind, he’s coping and managing a little better every day. If you then look back at lines 1-3, we get a clearer meaning of what’s happening there. Louis mentions that he’s got a new place to live, obviously having moved out of the shared home with the person who broke up with him, going as far to say it’s ‘on the other side of London,’ in order to put a decent distance between him and the song’s recipient. 

The verse as whole is a strong opening for the song, setting the tone of someone who’s suffering from heartache but who’s determined to make the best of a bad situation and keep moving on with their life. The repetition of ‘doing better’ is notable, as Louis uses it almost like a mantra, reminding himself that each day is a little easier than the last and time eventually heals. Interestingly, Louis mentions ‘Twenty Seven,’ which, although was Louis’ age at the time, actually refers to the 27 club, a collection of celebrities who have died at the age of 27. This is a nod to the idea that life is short, too short to spend time wallowing over someone who doesn’t want you anymore, and therefore he’s going to make the most of the time he has left. 

The second thing on Wrights’ list for a breakup song is that the song should show why the breakup is happening in the first place. Wright explains: ‘Is it lovers scorned, or could it be something along the lines of life moving on and falling out of love?’ Without this information, the song would be difficult to relate to and come across as impersonal. A breakup is sad, but if we don’t know the basic ins and outs, then it’s very difficult to see where the singer’s coming from and connect emotionally with the song.

If we look at the next section of ‘Him,’ we get a bit more information.

Do you know what it’s like to fall in love from the outside

And I don’t know but I’ve been trying for you, for me

Now I know what it’s like to fall in love from the outside


Harry is saying that he wasn’t sure that what he was feeling was love. Now, I’m not suggesting that he was never in love with this person, but that perhaps real life got in the way and things became difficult. If we look at the line ‘And I don’t know but I’ve been trying for you, for me,’ it’s clear that the feelings were there, but Harry was feeling confused about it all. When a relationship is strained by constant external pressures, it can make the usual relationship bumps and personality clashes seem much larger than they actually are. Harry, as a major celebrity, would have an insane amount of pressure on his shoulders. Also, if we take into consideration that he was 24 when he wrote this song and had been in the public eye as part of a world famous boyband since he was 16, it’s no surprise his personal relationships would bow under this external pressure. It can be difficult when you’re growing up and trying to figure out who you are in general, but doing this in the public eye under such scrutiny would have been almost impossible. I feel that he lost sight of himself, and it’s difficult to be in a long term relationship if you’re having an identity crisis. The line, ‘Do you know what it’s like to fall in love from the outside’ is very telling, and it suggests that as soon as Harry had some distance, he was able to look at what he had let go of and realise he loved that person properly all along. When Harry has had a chance to take stock of himself, he clearly realised he had been too hasty and wanted the person back in their life.

If we then look at ‘Don’t Let It Break Your Heart,’ it’s clear that Louis wasn’t the one to initiate the breakup, but was in fact the one who was left by the person in the song. 

Life gets hard and it gets messed up

When you give so much, but it’s not enough

When the high’s too high and the low’s too low

When you love someone and they let you go

In this segment of the song, we have Louis, also a highly famous celebrity, describing a similar situation to what’s described in Talk. Louis says rather explicitly that ‘life gets hard and it gets messed up,’ referring to external pressures on the relationship exacerbating any existing issues within the relationship until things reached breaking point. In fact, if you look at lines 2 and 3, we can see the beginnings of an unhealthy relationship being described. ‘When you give so much, but it’s not enough,’ sounds like he knew the relationship was ending and tried to cling to what was left as much as he could, doing whatever he could to repair it. While it’s good to try and work to maintain a relationship, if you give too much of yourself, it leaves you emotionally exhausted and can affect other areas of your life. Similarly, ‘when the high’s too high and the low’s too low,’ is also unhealthy, giving the relationship almost a manic quality. Again, this hint of mania was likely due to the level of external pressures surrounding the situation. However, the most important line in this section is the final one, ‘When you love someone and they let you go.’ Here, we can see Louis acknowledge that the person who left him wasn’t sure they loved him like he knew he loved them. The line isn’t bitter or angry, but accepting. As Louis has tattooed on his chest, ‘it is what it is.’ 

Finally, we come to the last key point Wrights feels a song should have: 

‘Then we look at what’s happening now in a break-up song. So how does a person feel about their breakup?’ This aspect of Wrights’ checklist will carry the tone of the song, determining whether it will be a ballad of longing or regret, or whether it’s an inspirational ‘you can do it’ song that carries hope for the future. If we have a look at ‘Talk’, we can see that this song is hanging very heavily on regret and longing. 

‘Cause I don’t want to hear about him

How he’s holding you better at night

And I don’t want to hear about him

In these songs you continue to write

I was with you when you wrote that line

It was me that you had on your mind

So I don’t want to hear about him

In this excerpt, we can see that the person Harry is singing to has begun to move on, likely going on dates with other people and trying to find a new path to happiness. Harry can clearly see this and wishes he had made a different choice, singing ‘And I don’t want to hear about him.’ The realisation that he does love the person enough to make it last after all has come too late and he’s, not jealous per se, but regretful. It’s also worth nothing that the person Harry is singing to is clearly in the music industry, considering he states, ‘In these songs you continue to write I was with you when you wrote that line.’ If that’s the case, then the external pressures of both parties being in the entertainment industry would have certainly contributed to the overall disintegration of the relationship. Either way, Harry clearly misses the person he’s singing to and wishes he chose differently. 

However, if we look at ‘Don’t Let It Break Your Heart,’ we can see that the song has taken a more positive tone. 

Don’t you let it kill you

Even when it hurts like hell

Oh, whatever tears you apart

Don’t let it break your heart

Time takes time to heal it

You can’t do it by yourself

Oh, whatever tears you apart

Don’t let it break your heart

This is rather surprising, because the ones being left behind in a breakup generally tend to be more mournful, but Louis seems to have taken a very healthy approach to the situation. This whole section is filled with good advice for himself, such as ‘Don’t you let it kill you even when it hurts like hell’ and ‘Time takes time to heal it, You can’t do it by yourself.’  Here, he’s acknowledging the love they feel for this other person and recognising that this isn’t the right time for their relationship and strives to move on and make the most of the life they have in that moment. 

However you interpret these songs, it’s important to note that they both aim to achieve very different things in terms of breakup songs. One is more about recognising a bad decision and coming to terms with the repercussions of that, and one is about something happening outwith your control regardless of your feelings and making the best of it so you can continue to live and love in the future. 

Whatever breakup a person is suffering from, it’s important to get the timing right when listening to breakup songs. Both of these songs can be very helpful when getting over a breakup, depending on the individual situation and feelings involved at the time of listening. However, no one wants to end up slipping into despair, nor would it be helpful to set back any emotional healing. It’s important to keep in mind that if the music is begins to have an adverse reaction on the listener’s mood, it’s best to switch it off and take a breather. There are different stages of grieving for a lost relationship and rushing a recovery will only do more harm than good. Instead of blasting Adele right away, it’s best to wait until the all-consuming pain of the breakup is no longer fresh, and  the area of pre-healing and heartache has begun. Breakup songs, at the end of the day, are meant to be emotionally purging and not used for self flagellation. 

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