No matter who writes a song - a singer/songwriter starting out, or a skilled professional working to commercial imperatives - 'breakup songs' can tell a slightly different story to the one that’s being sung.
You Are My Sunshine 1939
In all my dreams dear, you seem to leave me
When I awake my poor heart pains
So wont you come back and make me happy
I’ll forgive dear and take all the blame
If you play ukulele, chances are you will have given You Are My Sunshine a red hot go. It was a huge country music hit, has been covered by a plethora of famous artists and in 1977 prompted the introduction of legislation to make it a state song of Louisiana.
Considering the lyrics of even the last verse, above, this is of some concern. As it's the 21st century and everything from Psychology Today to Buddhism for Dummies is at the call of my keyboard, I'm reliably informed that the emotions expressed above not only abrogate responsibility for the singer’s own happiness to the object of affection, but confirm it with a hearty dose of victimhood and martyrdom.
Sure it’s a happy sounding song and I’m guessing most people wouldn’t think twice or even care about what’s actually being expressed as they sing along or listen. Some might even think it’s fine. I didn’t consider it myself until about the tenth time around when alarm bells were ringing and I started to pay much closer attention to what I was singing and asking others to learn.
Of course relationship problems don't usually inspire songwriters to see the positive side of things, except in songs like The Eagles’ Already Gone, or an empowerment anthem such as Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. A small proportion of the rest, however, reveal emotional states that need time, effort and professional help to overcome. The question is, are these lyrics simply an expression of human emotional reaction, or because they are encased in hit songs that we all sing along to, are they informing the way we think about these situations, like a kind of mantra?
Whatever the case, songs are a product of their time, cultural surroundings and the writer(s)' mental state or level of recreational drug-use. On that note, following are some of my favourite ‘please make an appointment with a psychologist’ breakup song lyrics.
Walk on By 1964 Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Sung by Dionne Warwick.
I just can't get over losing you
And so if I seem broken and blue
Walk on by, walk on by
That's all that I have left
So let me hide
The tears and the sadness you gave me
When you said goodbye
Hal David was a professional lyricist and worked with many songwriters, composers and artists, as well as Burt Bacharach, from the 1940s until his death in 2012. This is a class piece displaying emotional martyrdom and taking partial responsibility, but only for being a martyr.
Evil Ways - Clarence ‘Sonny Henry 1967, a hit for Santana in 1969
You've got to change your evil ways baby
Before I stop lovin’ you
You've got to change baby
And every word that I say is true
You got me running and hiding all over town
You got me sneaking and peeping
And running you down this can't go on
Lord knows you got to change baby
When I come home baby
My house is dark and my pots are cold
You hang a round baby
With Jean and Joan and a who knows who
I'm getting tired of waiting and fooling around
I'll find somebody who won’t make me
Feel like a clown this can't go on
Lord knows you got to change
One the one hand, this could be about a bloke who’s discovered that the woman he’s involved with is leading a dissolute lifestyle; or it could be about how, because he feels a lack of respect from his ‘baby’, he is stalking her, ‘running her down’ and threatening withdrawal of affection unless she stops seeing her friends and spends more time in his kitchen.
You Were Always on My Mind 1972 Carson, Christopher & James
Maybe I didn't treat you
Quite as good as I should have
Maybe I didn't love you
Quite as often as I could have
Maybe I didn't hold you
All those lonely, lonely times
And I guess I never told you
I'm so happy that you're mine
A huge hit for Elvis, Willie Nelson and the Pet Shop Boys amongst others, this beautiful not-quite-breakup-song apologises for a litany of thoughtless behaviour and asks for ‘one more chance’. Call me a cynic, but the apology has the potential to be wheeled out every time the perpetrator thinks the relationship is on the skids and has forgotten - whoops a daisy - to be a decent human being, despite the claim that their long-suffering partner was ‘always on my mind’.
Every Breath You Take 1983 Gordon Sumner (The Police)
Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I'll be watching you
Every single day
Every word you say
Every game you play
Every night you stay
I'll be watching you
O can't you see
You belong to me
How my poor heart aches
with every step you take
Words like these weren’t yet a publicly acknowledged issue, and hopefully Sting just meant he was watching the subject in his imagination, but if he wrote it now, he’d probably be arrested.
Finally, a statement of raw honesty in Clementine, the many-versed song about a miner’s daughter, originally penned in 1885 by Barker Bradford.
How I missed her! How I missed her!
How I missed my Clementine,
Till I kissed her little sister,
And forgot my Clementine.