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How Sad Love Songs Tap Into the Chaos of Dating

The slew of emotions that comes with a breakup can be difficult to put into words, but it seemed to come easier to many of this year’s Grammy-nominated artists.

Olivia Rodrigo, in “Vampire,” taps into the disgust that results from betrayal: “You made me look so naïve / The way you sold me for parts / As you sunk your teeth into me.”

SZA, in “Kill Bill,” explores the revenge fantasy of killing an ex: “I might kill my ex, I still love him though / Rather be in jail than alone.”

Miley Cyrus, in “Flowers,” sings about the revelation that happiness does not come from an external source: “Started to cry, but then remembered I / I can buy myself flowers.”

In these gut-wrenchingly personal post-breakup songs, all of which are nominated for record of the year and for song of the year at the 66th Grammy Awards, three women grapple with the concept of giving up so much of yourself — martyring yourself, even — for a relationship, and then experiencing rebirth.

Indeed, 2023 was the year of young women spilling their guts. (SZA’s album “SOS,” a sad girl anthology, led the Billboard chart for 10 weeks after its release in December 2022 and earned her more nominations at the Grammys, which will take place on Sunday, than any other artist this year.) With the diary-entry-like, narrative nature of their music, these women projected graphic images of romantic discontent. They looked inward, communicating and processing their emotions with art.

The lyrical messaging in many of their songs reflects the dating landscape today, which Damona Hoffman, a dating coach in Los Angeles, said is fast-paced — thanks largely to the myriad ways for people to meet online — and full of heightened emotions as a result.

“You feel the highs and lows more acutely,” said Ms. Hoffman, who recently published a book, “F the Fairy Tale,” drawing on her 17 years as a dating coach. These emotional extremes, she added, may drive many to seek comfort. Listening to music (or even writing it) is one way of coping.

Sylka Feliciano, 23, was experiencing relationship issues when “SOS” came out. Ms. Feliciano, a student at the California Institute of the Arts, was writing a paper when the album dropped, and she listened to the album on Apple Music. She then played it on repeat for days.

“I was crying multiple times a day, every single day, for months,” Ms. Feliciano said. Ultimately she determined that her relationship wasn’t meeting her needs, she said, and she broke up with her partner a few weeks later.

Sad love songs can also articulate feelings that help people connect better with their emotions. Jerusalem Truth, a 24-year-old writer in Brooklyn, said SZA’s song “I Hate You” was “affirming in a really necessary way,” because she had always felt she had to handle breakups gracefully. Hearing the song was cathartic and helped her realize it is OK to be angry.

“It’s like, No, I hate you,” she said. “I am upset and I’m pissed.’”

Austin Spero, a 26-year-old social media manager in Manhattan, said sad music helps him feel less alone. His most streamed song of 2023 was “Flowers”; “Vampire” was in his top 10.

He recalled the first time he listened to “Vampire”: He was arguing over text with a man he had broken up with. “In that moment, I felt so vindicated,” Mr. Spero said. “I felt so angry, and I felt empowered to feel confident in my decisions.”

But sometimes, listening to sad love songs can feel too … sad.

A number of studies, including one published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, have found that love songs have become sadder both lyrically (in terms of the emotions being conveyed) and musically (by incorporating slower tempos, minor keys and other acoustic elements that are indicative of sadness).

When Ms. Truth was recently stood up on a date, she said she resisted the urge to tap into disappointment through music. “Am I going to put on my SZA and heighten those feelings in myself?” she said. “Or am I going to seek out positive reinforcement?”

“I think most people are jaded, and rightly so,” Ms. Truth said of dating. But the fact that artists and fans alike are turning to music to understand how and why their encounters with love have affected them has given her hope.

After being stood up, Ms. Truth ultimately decided to curate a playlist that exemplified the dating experiences she hopes to have. On it are older songs from the “Rent” soundtrack and by artists Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill.

“I don’t hear people singing too currently on the type of dating experience I want to have,” Ms. Truth said. “So I’ve been going back and finding it.”

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