I have a theory. Let’s call it a scientific theory. In fact, consider me the Dimitri Mendeleev of casual yet surprisingly athletic sex because, my friends, I am here to, not just talk about break up songs, but to introduce to you the theory of the nuclear half-life of breakup songs. The song-specific calculation that estimates, to the day, how long it will be before you can listen to a much-loved tune without it ripping a crater through your chest and pouring out of your eyes like the ocean.
Just as every element in the periodic table has a nuclear half-life over which they decay to a safe or stable level, so every break up song has a nuclear half-life during which they are simply too radioactive to listen to. For instance, “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem? A nuclear half life of two and a half years. “Crying” by Roy Orbison? A nuclear half life of at least two decades. “Frontin’” by Pharrell? Three weeks mate, tops. “Some of Them Are Old” by Brian Eno? Good luck decommissioning that fucker in anything less than a century.
What better time to look across the atoms of our existence and the notes of our undoing than January. I hate January. If the calendar months were men in a bar then, without doubt, January would be the one who stands at the urinal playing candy crush saga with his free hand. January is the man in a club who appears to have either misplaced his own dick and is searching nervously around his trousers for where he left it, or is doing morse code on his own bollocks. January is the man who suggests dinner at an Aberdeen Angus Steak House and “eight solid minutes of cunnilingus” for your second date. January is the man who genuinely wants to use margarine as a lubricant.
This January not only took away David Bowie – the man who wrote some of the most devastating love songs in human history – but it is also the month that atomic physics finally finished hanging out the back of the periodic table. That’s right: this January saw the official introduction of four new elements described by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, as “highly unstable superheavy metals that exist for only a fraction of a second.” Managing to last just a fraction of a second? We all know that guy.
So, allow me to walk you through just some of the kinds of break up songs to form this periodic table of musical heartbreak...
THE SONG YOU USED TO BANG TO
My first ever boyfriend, himself a physicist in fact, lit up my chubby, teenage life like Tungsten. As a true gentleman (albeit one with purple bed sheets) he had the good grace to play loudly either JR Tolkein audiobooks or Trojan reggae when we were having sex, so his mother couldn’t ask me over the dinner table how I’d enjoyed my first amateur attempt at the standing shag. This did mean, however, that after we broke up I could be brought to tears by such unlikely songs as Clancy Eccles’ “I Really Love You Fatty Fatty”, Nora Dean’s “Barbed Wire In His Underpants” or anyone discussing the Chronicles of Narnia.
Nuclear half-life: 2 years
THE SONG YOU INTRODUCED THEM TO
Let’s take the case study of Jeffrey Lewis’ album Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and Other Favourites, shall we? I listened to that record during every post-love, Febreze-scented university fumble for the following two years. I may have tried to get over a lost love by getting under several, let’s called them ‘eccentric’ choices, but somehow “Heavy Heart”, “Springtime” and “Another Girl” never really brought me to tears. Perhaps because they were my songs, it was my musical choice; they were just there to, ahem, lend a hand. These days “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song” may bring a twinge to my heart, if not a lump in my throat, but only for a lost youth, not for anybody in particular. These ones are safe.
Nuclear half-life: 1 week
THE SONG THEY INTRODUCED YOU TO
Here’s a piece of advice I don’t get to administer very often: if you’re going to have a lovely but ultimately flawed relationship with a man you meet on a dating website who takes you away for a weekend in a static caravan in Essex, then make sure he really loves jazz. Fucking loves jazz. Not just the kind of jazz you grew up blowing down a saxophone with your puffy child cheeks. I mean, like, experimental jazz. The jazzier the better. Make sure his love of jazz is as liminal and dischordant as a lay-by on the M6. That way, when you break up, you’ll never ever encounter any of his music again, unless it’s a bit of Sun Ra blasting out of a shisha cafe at Glastonbury.
Nuclear half-life: 3 weeks, tops
THE SONG YOU'D JOKE ABOUT BEING YOUR FIRST DANCE AT 'THE WEDDING', BUT DEEP DOWN YOU WERE DEADLY SERIOUS
For reasons that are, I hope, obvious, an ex and I used to joke about having Razorlight’s “America” as ‘our song’. How we’d howl at the idea of a wedding playlist, a precious CD single, tracklistings scrawled across a pair of size 10 white jeans. How I’d stare bewildered at couples who could actually play that Mr and Mrs game where you guess each other’s answers. How I would laugh to the point of tears at the idea of the two of us dancing to the sound of Razorlight, played by an amateur covers band from Hounslow called Razorlike, under some rented disco lights.
And yet, if I was lucky enough to walk into my local Frankie and Benny’s and hear that song now, I would probably, still, be brought up short. Because that’s the thing about a joke; it’s only funny until it isn’t funny at all.
Nuclear half-life: 14 months
THE SONG YOU NEVER SAW COMING
I once found myself, unaccountably and unfathomably, crying to Will Young’s “Think I’d Better Leave Right Now”, in New Look, surrounded by racks of denim bras and glittery cowboy hats. I have absolutely no idea where it came from. I may have been labouring under a bruised and battered break up heart at the time, I may have been sent half-wild by the acrylic fumes and neon lights, but I know for a fact I’d never even watched Pop Idol, let alone made out to the strains of Will Young. Science, eh – it’s full of mysteries.
Nuclear half-life: 2 months
THE SONGS THEY MADE YOU FALL IN LOVE WITH
And so we come to the end. My last boyfriend—a giant of a man who owned, in the words of James Murphy, a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody; every great song by the Beach Boys; all the underground hits. The sort of man who had a compilation of all the Modern Lover tracks but would still play “Like A Virgin” to a room full of snogging gay men and braless women, every Friday night, while downing pints of Jack Daniels and throwing me into the air like a helium balloon. He burned brighter than magnesium. He was the silver to my tin. The platinum to my mercury.
But, you see, the problem with loving a man who owns nearly 25 feet of records – enough records that, were you to swim it, would give you at least one verruca and a chlorine headache – is that once you break up, all music is effectively ruined for the next decade. The Strokes? A nuclear half life of three years – I still can’t listen to “I’ll Try Anything Once” without pouring down my own spine like iodine. “Heroes” by David Bowie? A nuclear half life of, I’m guessing, thirty years. But the worst, the nitroglycerin of our break up songs is, “I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos. It has a nuclear half life of at least a century. If I hear more than two chords of that song I am suddenly transported back, into our old bed, him looking at me and singing, out of nowhere, a propos of nothing, “I Only Have Eyes For You”. And, my friends, I’m gone. Burnt out. Destroyed entirely. Like the iodisation of potassium nitrate, I’m fucking dust.
So, what I suppose I’m saying is that some songs have a nuclear half-life so enormous, so heart-crushingly heavy, so unfathomably titanic that we can never outlive them. We will not be around long enough to dance on the decommissioned waste container in which they were dumped. They will remain forever, too powerful for our mortal hearts.
Nuclear half-life: 100+ years
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