Towards the end of the gently affecting new film, Crazy Heart, there’s a scene where Jeff Bridges, playing the role of an ageing country singer, approaches his former girlfriend and attempts to give her a royalty cheque he earned for one of his songs. When she refuses it, he tells her he owes her the money. Without her, Bridges says, the song would never have been written, and the cheque would never have arrived into his hand. It’s a nice moment and a true one.
Many careers have been made on the creation – and collapse – of an important relationship. Depression, heartbreak, rage: they’re all damned good reasons to sit by a notepad and pour out your soul, particularly if you’re the wronged party. Songwriters might not write about former partners to exact romantic revenge, but it can often inadvertently (and brilliantly) sound that way.
Take one of the most famous relationship/break-up songs, Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. Reputed to be about her relationship with full-time womaniser and part-time Hollywood player Warren Beatty, the lines caustically assert: ‘‘You’re so vain/You probably think this song is about you/Don’t you/ Don’t you?” Ouch.
By modern-day standards, that’s relatively subtle. In Evanescence’s Call Me When You’re Sober, Amy Lee lets the world know about her former lover’s ills: ‘‘Must be exhausting to lose your own game/Selfishly hated/ No wonder you’re jaded/You can’t play the victim this time.” In Song for the Dumped, Ben Folds doesn’t mess around either: ‘‘Well, fuck you too/Give me my money back/Give me my money back/you bitch’’.
And you can’t forget banshee-voiced Alanis: ‘‘And I’m here to remind you/Of the mess you left when you went away.” You wouldn’t want to meet her down a dark alley if you were the guilty party.
With that kind of vitriol, you could be forgiven for thinking that the ex-lovers chronicled would rue the day they gushed sweet nothings into a songwriter’s ear. Sadly, this is the only thing about the break-up song that doesn’t really work in favour of the songwriter.
While the subjects of the material won’t readily admit it, because it hardly displays them in a flattering light, there is nothing more appealing to most people than the notion of being chronicled in a song. Sure, they’d prefer to be the ‘Lady in Red’ than the ‘Lady Who Done Me Wrong, the Vicious Cow’, but the thought of being immortalised in a song is palatable to all but a very few, even if that fame casts the subject in a negative light.
The thrill of snatching such glory cancels out the negativity caused by the understanding that the person singing about you hates your guts. After all, in years to come, the pain on both sides will likely be gone – but the song, if it’s a good song, could live forever.
The truth is that the nastiest thing you can do to a former lover, if you happen to be an artist, is not to chronicle them in song format all. Then they simply look insignificant. What could hurt more than that? So, if you’re a songwriter about to exact revenge on a former lover, pause before scribbling down those lyrics.
Unless, of course, you’re convinced the new track will be incredible and make your career. Then write it; but don’t do what Jeff Bridges did. Don’t hand over the cheque.