In the song “Denial Twist” by the White Stripes, singer Jack White advises listeners, “Make sure to never do it with a singer, ’cause he’ll tell everyone in the world what he was thinking about the girl.” (The “it” refers to hand holding, by the way.) That isn’t much of a shock if you consider the overwhelming number of breakup songs that exist at this point. Creativity is fueled by emotion and experience, so it makes sense that an artist’s work sometimes becomes an outlet as well.
Most of the time, we can only guess what or whom songs reference because we don’t know enough about the singers’ personal lives—unless they’re dating other celebrities and their personal lives are splashed across tabloids, that is. And when their love affairs end—especially when they end badly—the world’s sure to know exactly what they were thinking about the girl or guy who did them wrong.
“You Oughta Know,” Alanis Morissette
Morissette starts off by saying, “I want you to know that I’m happy for you,” but by the end of the song, listeners know that’s definitely not the case. What was less obvious was that the “Mr. Duplicity” she sang about was none other than ex-boyfriend Dave Coulier, who played Joey on Full House. At first it was only a rumor, but he admitted in 2008 that the song was about him.
“It Ain’t Me, Babe,” Bob Dylan
Countless singers have covered this song since its inception, but when Bob Dylan penned it back in 1964, he was thinking of only one: Joan Baez. Supposedly, he wrote the tune after the two broke up during a concert tour in 1965. Baez actually recorded this song, too, though, so she must not have been offended when he sang, “Go ’way from my window.”
“Cry Me a River,” Justin Timberlake
When Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears broke up in 2002, millions of tween hearts broke. Whispers about what drove them apart circulated for months, with most pointing to Britney cheating. And then Timberlake came out with this song, complete with a video in which he sang, “I already know; I found out from him” to a Britney doppelgänger. She then fell from public grace, while he became an even bigger star. The lyric “The damage is done, so I guess I’ll be leaving” says it all.
“You’re So Vain,” Carly Simon
The subject of this song is one of the biggest mysteries in the music industry. Simon remains mum but recently came forward to say that it’s not (contrary to popular belief) music mogul David Geffen. Top contenders include Simon’s former beaus Kris Kristofferson, Mick Jagger, Cat Stevens, and Warren Beatty. Beatty actually said, “Let’s be honest. That song was about me,” and since one of the lyrics is “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you,” he seems to be the most likely candidate.
“Forever and Always,” Taylor Swift
“[It’s] a song about watching somebody completely fade away in a relationship …” Swift told People in 2008. That somebody just happens to be Joe Jonas, of the mega-popular band the Jonas Brothers. However, Swift said in an interview recently that heartbreak inspires her to write. I wonder what her breakup with Taylor Lautner will inspire.
“What’s Left of Me,” Nick Lachey
Following his very public divorce from Jessica Simpson, Lachey didn’t feel like he had much left to offer anybody. “Now I’m broken, and I’m faded; I’m half the man I thought I would be, but you can have what’s left of me,” he sang. What a treat for his next paramour! This ended up being Lachey’s most successful single to date, so clearly, he had a lot more left than he realized.
“Ms. Jackson,” Outkast
Dedicating this song to “all the babies’ mamas’ mamas,” Andre 3000 wrote it for the mother of Erykah Badu because he thought that Badu—who gave birth to his son—was making him look like a neglectful dad. The song chronicles their nasty breakup and stresses his good intentions with lines like “Never meant to make your daughter cry; I apologize a million times” and “You could plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.”
“Ring of Fire,” June Carter
This was one of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits, but it was actually penned by June Carter and Merle Kilgore and is about the way Carter felt in the midst of falling in love with Cash. The lyrics suggest she was cautious and scared about the intensity of their relationship—as in “I fell for you like a child, oh, but the fire went wild,” which might allude to Carter’s fear that Cash’s problems (namely, severe drug and alcohol addictions) would destroy them both.
“Don’t Speak,” No Doubt
Gwen Stefani has a history of singing about exes, which makes the fact that she’s in a band with one of them even weirder. She and bassist Tony Kanal were together for seven years before breaking up. I can’t imagine what goes through his head as she sings lines like “As we die, both you and I, with my head in my hands, I sit and cry.” Awkward!
“Blue Orchid,” the White Stripes
You think the guy who sings about singers’ “telling everyone in the world” wouldn’t be guilty of it, too? It’s rumored that “Blue Orchid,” as well as the whole album it appears on (Get Behind Me Satan), is about White’s failed relationship with actress Renée Zellweger. And with zingers like “How old are you now, anyway?” it’s obvious how he feels about things.
You could argue it’s in poor taste to air dirty laundry so publically, but if musicians never did, we wouldn’t have angst-ridden, embittered songs to soothe us through our own heartbreak. Knowing who inspired the verses just makes them more relatable—and makes us grateful, for once, not to be dating famous musicians. At least when our exes kiss and tell, the whole world doesn’t find out!
Updated on March 18, 2011