I think my other half will gladly agree with me that, while I like to think I’m pretty good at writing fiction, I am absolutely crap-on-a-cracker when it comes to writing songs. I admire just about anyone who can write the kind of song that grabs you by the scruff of your neck and gets you to do something. Be it dance and sing along, be it lean back on the sofa and relax, be it getting all hot and bothered and in the mood for a long session of sweaty fucking.
But the kind of songwriting I admire the most is the kind that helps you say something that’s perhaps too painful to speak plainly. The kind of songwriting that can pebble your skin and rip you apart with just how on point it describes an instance of pure heartbreak. Don’t get me wrong, I am equally all about songs that tell stories about vivid, glorious and passionate love in the same way (Just Like Astaire by James comes to mind). But yesterday, as I was walking through the sunny and calm streets of my neighbourhood, in an attempt to clear my mind of the kinda morbid haze that’s been hanging over it in the past week (for those of you who didn’t catch it – one of my work colleagues passed away recently and I went along to the funeral on Monday) I mentally started flicking back and forward through a little catalogue of the heartbreak songs that have stuck with me throughout my lifetime.
And because I am nothing if not curious as to why these ones in particular have stuck with me, I am pouring my thoughts into a new blog series I’m calling Heartbreak Song Sundays. So, every Sunday for the next couple of weeks, I’m dissecting one of those heartbreak songs in an attempt to find out what makes it so powerful. And I’m starting with the one song that may have actually been the seminal heartbreaker from back when I was a little nipper.
Heartbreak Song number 1: Don’t Speak by No Doubt
The third single from No Doubt’s classic album, Tragic Kingdom, was written by lead-singer Gwen Stefani along with her brother Eric. It dealt with Gwen’s feelings about her break up with fellow band member Tony Kanal, after a seven year relationship. According to Wikipedia:
During a party where No Doubt performed in mid-1987, Stefani tried to kiss Kanal when the two went for a walk.Kanal initially rejected her, later commenting, “It was pretty much an unspoken rule that nobody dates Gwen…almost like a bunch of brothers and our sister.” He gave in, and the two began dating secretly. The band was suspicious of them, warning Kanal against dating her, but he denied the relationship.
While the band was working on its third album Tragic Kingdom, Kanal broke up with Stefani. She later explained that he was feeling “claustrophobic” in the relationship since he did not have any previous experience being in one. She stated that the break-up “took ages” because the two were close friends and Kanal did not want to hurt her. After the break-up, he offered to leave the band, but Stefani replied that she wanted him to stay. Many of the songs on that album were written by Stefani about the breakup, most notably the hit “Don’t Speak”.
Music, like story writing, can be an incredible form of catharsis. The day before No Doubt were due in the studio to film the video for Don’t Speak (which starts with Kanal plucking a symbolic rotten peach out of a tree – a bit that wasn’t always shown when the video aired on TV because it was a bit too grim to watch) they were on the verge of breaking up, and, despite all the tensions in the band, decided to film the video anyway, citing just that – catharsis – as the reason.
The lyrics are quite straightforward, which only emphasizes just how powerful this song is. You can say a lot with just a few simple words, and Gwen certainly manages to do just that.
You and me, we used to be together
Everyday together always
I really feel that I’m losing my best friend
I can’t believe this could be the end
It looks as though you’re letting go
And if it’s real, well I don’t want to know
This song came out when I was about six or seven years old, so while I adored listening to it (even though the video definitely creeped me out) it took a while for me to understand what the song was about.
We all know the feeling of dread when there’s a talk needing to happen. A Talk, capital A, capital T. Deep down, you know what it’s about and you kinda already know the answer to it, but you can’t help wanting to shut out the reality. You can’t believe that this is something that may be happening, that something that once made you delirious with happiness might come crashing down with just a few tiny words. You know it, you know that you’re going to have to accept it, but yet you don’t want to hear it because you’ve probably heard it in your head about a thousand times already. Hearing it for real, echoing from your ears into your soul, might actually break you properly.
It can be a break up. It can be a rejection. It can be hearing some seriously bad news from a loved one. It can be anything. And in the end, although it’s needs to be said, needs to be out in the open sooner than later, you’d rather not hear it.
Don’t speak, I know just what you’re saying
So please stop explaining, don’t tell me cause it hurts (no, no, no)
Don’t speak, I know what you’re thinking
I don’t need your reasons, don’t tell me cause it hurts.
God knows I’ve been rejected. I was a head-in-the-clouds, hopelessly romantic teenager for whom rejection was crosstitched on her heart. Falling in love (firmly doing air quotes here, because teenage crushes and that) was just one of the ways I tried to desperately escape reality, whether it was with someone who I couldn’t get (like a celebrity) or someone who was so close, yet so far away. If it was someone who, technically, wasn’t completely unreachable, like a classmate, it only hurt more – at least a celebrity crush didn’t know you personally, thus no personal rejections, no reasons why you and they couldn’t be. You already knew why.
Probably my favourite verse in Don’t Speak is the verse which follows the first chorus:
Our memories, well, they can be inviting
But some are altogether mighty frightening
As we die, both you and I
With my head in my hands, I sit and cry
It’s my favourite verse but also the one that, as I’m writing this, conjures up exactly that: a mighty frightening memory – with my head and my hands, I sat and cried, on the floor of our bathroom after one of the most painful rejections I’d ever received. Actually, the rejection itself came a couple of months before hand. I’d had time for the wound to, if not heal, at least settle.
And then, on a class trip abroad, over the space of one long week, the stitches were ripped. Him, and a new girl, a class mate, and I was in a strange country, in my late teens but absolutely desperate to be held by my mother because my heart had broken all over again. Back home, I let it out. Head in my hands, I sat and cried, trying to make sense of good memories of when this chap and I were friends, warped by the bad taste in my mouth.
Christ, I was a dramatic teenager.
Don’t Speak was written after a seven year long relationship came crashing down. With that song, No Doubt managed to make their mark on the charts, and it was a pretty collossal hit back in 1996. Almost 20 years later (oh my God, really?) it still stands as one of the most powerful heartbreak songs of my formative years. And try as I might – and have done, in this post – I’ve never have, and hopefully never will, come close to feeling the simple, but powerful agony personified by this song.
Next time: Never Ever by All Saints