Orpheus in the Land of Song: the Afterlife of Relationship Songs


You’re sitting with friends, listening to a playlist on Spotify; it feels like a big commitment at that moment, to choose an artist or album to listen to, so you let others make the decision for you, surrendering your emotions to their tastes. And for a while, it all goes perfectly — a mixture of familiarity and newness, the mind willing to jump from one to the other.

The attack comes out of nowhere, the final seconds of silence at the end of a song replaced by a tune that’s painfully familiar. It takes several seconds for the effect to sink in, for you initially just want to enjoy this song as you did all the previous. But you can’t. You find yourself suddenly bottled up and transported back in your own body, to a time when you were a version of yourself that feels like another being, one you can barely think of as yourself from just some months or years ago. And your mind tries to reconstruct the same emotions you felt then when you heard that song, the joy and sense of weightlessness, all because you had them beside you. It doesn’t matter whether you loved them to the point of madness and considered them to be your one true second half, or if it was something pleasantly fleeting that you enjoyed in the moment without thinking ahead. Either way they meant something to you, enough to warrant a song to be emotionally dedicated to them.

You can’t say any of these things to your friends — they’ll either laugh it off and tell you to move on, or become equally quiet and melancholy, willing to talk about it in a way that’ll only cut up the stitches and claw out the semi-healed insides. In the end you’re left sitting there, marinating in all the thoughts and feelings you didn’t ask for, unwilling to ask to skip the track or, even worse, to leave the room and make a scene that you’ll then have no explanation for.

Forming an emotional attachment to a song isn’t something new — just as songs have been written with an initial dedication in mind for centuries and counting, so do people choose the ones that remind of their significant others. This happens so naturally that the mind doesn’t consider the darker side of this process; no person wants to think of a time when their partner won’t be their partner. Associations stay, even if significant others don’t, and once the latter leave they replace themselves with a void that aches every time you hear a song you dedicated to them. The question is not how to stop making these associations, however — it’s how to work around them, or with them, once they’re the only things you have left that tie you to the past.

The scale of emotional attachment has a few gradations. There are those songs that you remember listening to when you were with your partner, not really attached to anything and thus easier to forget, a sign of a changing taste. Then there are those that you listened to when you were happy or sad because of something your partner did, a kind of “mood filler” that helped to escalate the highs or fuel the lows. It’s the reason why you might find yourself loving angry break-up songs after the end of a relationship because you find them emotionally fulfilling to sing along to, whereas in the relationship they sent cold sweat down your back in fear that something so painful could happen to you. Finally, there are the worst kinds of songs, the ones that you will most likely never fully recover from: the ones dedicated to you by your partner or vice versa, which there might even be several of. These are the ones that will stop you in your tracks when they come up on the radio. They’re the ones you’ll want to instantly delete from everywhere after a break-up. The mere mention of the song will be painful enough.

Despite thinking of the past several years as a very dark time in my life, and something that, now, feels like an ancient nightmare from another era, I haven’t learned to love some songs again. True, my love for trashy and biting break-up songs still hasn’t gone away — I adore the sarcasm of Justin Bieber’s "Love Yourself" and hearing how many girls still think it’s a song about learning self-love, and Simple Plan’s "Your Love Is a Lie" will be an eternal personal favourite for its savageness, with "How You Love Me Now" by Hey Monday coming in close second. But I haven’t been able to listen to songs like Ed Sheeran's "Give Me Love" since without remembering my own sadness and fear as if I was feeling it all anew. Some songs I’ve tried to repurpose, songs like "All About Us" by He Is We, which has a touching music video and lyrics that are equally moving, a reminder of the values I believe are important in a relationship.

But the song that I think I never will be able to listen to normally again, the one injected with layers of memories and associations, is “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls. Hearing it on the radio a month or so ago at work was less terrifying than one might imagine, certainly far less than it felt just a year or so ago. But it’s a song I’ll never be able to enjoy because it didn’t have a life before the association. It went directly to something of massive significance, and I was denied the opportunity of knowing it that one might have with a new song. There was no humming of a couple catchy lines or frantic search for the title and artist. The Googling of lyrics was only to satisfy the ego, to find out why I’d had that song dedicated to me in the first place, the kind of self-centered thinking one has during one's first love, or at least what one thinks is one's first love. The latter proved to be more applicable in my case, now merely a period of time that my mind is less and less afraid of revisiting, thinking of it as a learning experience, a handful of bad choices and a whole lot of naiveté.

There is no how-to guide for erasing the memories and emotions that remain attached to songs after they’ve lived out their purpose in a relationship. This is, simply put, impossible to do. And it would be a lie to say that it’s possible to fully forget these things.

But there is a certain sense of endearment in walking down the street on the way to your current partner’s place and humming one of these songs, like telling the wind that you’re not afraid of acknowledging everything the past has thrown at you. There’s a quiet strength in singing the song in a crowded room, even if the people around you might not see anything more to it. The songs of past lovers don’t deserve to be sent to the graveyard in the back of the mind. Instead, they should be grabbed by the neck and hollered, whether alone or with company, to be slowly suffocated by the novelty of pain and the flirtiness of confidence. These are the songs to add to your personal arsenal of battle cries that, should they come up on the radio, are the reason why you turn the volume up higher.