Three stages of a relationship breakup expressed in the lyrics of popular music: Part 1 Anger and revenge

Hi, Phil Greaney here. Martin is away on holiday, so I'm taking the reins here at Ed-Techie again. Today's guestblog is in three parts and it's on songs of love, songs of hate. You can find my blog here.

Living Well is the Best Revenge – REM
Imagine the scene: a former couple meet, only weeks after their break up. Unable to avoid one another, they embark upon a barely amicable ‘update’. One says to the other through gritted teeth: ‘Me? What am I doing now? Oh – I’ve become a children’s doctor. I got the job after chatting to Ben Goldacre during a holiday in the Carribean. Of course, that is, when I get time. Marathon running/paragliding/deep sea diving [delete as appropriate] keeps the diary busy. Anyway, ciao!’

They may well have been listening to REM’s single ‘Living Well is the Best Revenge’. As a fan of REM I’d wish they thought of this phrase themselves. But they didn’t. It was George Herbert, a Welsh poet who died in 1633 who first coined the phrase. Here it is in the REM song:

Well I'm not one to sit and spin

'Cause living well's the best revenge

Baby, I am calling you on that

I think it reflects that sense of anger and frustration that accompanies being spurned, the time when we say to our (now long gone) partner: what do I care if you left me at the altar? Look at me now and the life I am living!

But the rub is that if we still seek revenge, then we’re probably still in love. We still care enough to want the intimate details of our daily life to mean something to someone else, even in their absence, where they will never know. There’s no shame in that, but it’s not the ideal condition when our love has bolted. Instead, the idea is to aspire to a kind of gently happy Zen-like harmony, where mere mention of our ex doesn’t make our stomachs churn and blood run to our faces, but instead is just like the postman pushing a postcard through the door.

To be fair to REM (and Herbert), the lyric has probably nothing to do with romantic love. For both, it seems, it is more aligned to a political stance of defiance and individual happiness in the face of disastrous government or the pernicious effects of the media. 

So, I guess this says quite a lot about me in that case. (I should add I'm happily married.)

I'm including a handful of songs relevant to each post – feel free to add your own.

Angry love songs
Survivor – Destiny’s Child
You Oughtta Know – Alanis Morissette
You’re so Vain – Carly Simon
Smile – Lily Allen
Grounds for Divorce – Elbow


  • nMatthias

    I would add Ian Brown’s “What Happend to Ya?” or “Deep Pile Dreams”. I think “Unfinished Monkey Business” is the ultimate ‘break up’ album – even if it’s not in the romantic sense.

  • PhilGreaney

    Thanks – yes, I know that album but I’ve not listened to it for a while, so I’ll give it another go. I thought that the title ‘No Distance Left to Run’ is sad in itself, and the song (and now documentary) good stuff too.

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