Taylor Swift's The Tortured Poets Department: Why do listeners love breakup albums?

Los Angeles, California - Perhaps never before have so many been so eager for something so steeped in heartbreak.

Taylor Swift's The Tortured Poets Department has become an instant hit, but why exactly are breakup albums so popular among listeners?
Taylor Swift's The Tortured Poets Department has become an instant hit, but why exactly are breakup albums so popular among listeners?  © Screenshot/Instagram/taylorswift

Taylor Swift's legions of devotees have eagerly anticipated her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, in hopes of gaining insight into her notoriously private six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn – particularly her perspective on its demise.

Swift delivers. In a track titled Fresh Out the Slammer, the 14-time Grammy Award winner sings of spending "Years of labor, locks, and ceilings / In the shade of how he was feeling."

Another song called So Long London has her recounting that "I stopped CPR, after all, it's no use / Thе spirit was gone, we would never come to."

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"Songwriting is something that, like, actually gets me through my life, and I've never had an album where I needed songwriting more than I needed it on Tortured Poets," Swift confessed to an audience in Melbourne, Australia, when The Eras Tour played there in February.

Embracing a breakup album may seem like a macabre thing to do. But psychologists and cognitive scientists say songs about relationships gone bad actually can do listeners a lot of good.

How do breakup songs affect listeners?

Olivia Rodrigo's breakup anthem drivers license immediately struck a chord with listeners for evoking the universal emotions of heartbreak.
Olivia Rodrigo's breakup anthem drivers license immediately struck a chord with listeners for evoking the universal emotions of heartbreak.  © EMMA MCINTYRE / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

"When people have a romantic breakup, they feel very alone in their experience," said David Sbarra, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona who studies how marital separation and divorce affect health.

"They feel very isolated and think that the unique individual circumstances that characterized their breakup are particularly terrible."

A breakup song can change that, said Sbarra, who conducted a deep dive into the emotional authenticity of Olivia Rodrigo's lyrics about a doomed relationship on her debut album SOUR.

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"Songs play a powerful role in normalizing our experience, in making us feel that we are not this weird, unusual, distorted kind of person," he said.

Indeed, almost everyone who has reached their late teens has lived through the demise of a romantic relationship and endured the gamut of emotions that accompany it.

"The songs function to affirm their emotions, validate them, remind the listener they are not alone," said Bill Thompson, a psychologist at Bond University in Queensland, Australia, who studies why music is important to people.

"The emotions associated with breaking up are universal. They are a natural part of being human - even if they are also painful."

Breakup songs can help listeners process complex emotions

Taylor Swift's All Too Well (10 Minute Version) is perhaps her most-loved breakup song, due in part to its poignant portrayal of the complex emotions heartbreak brings.
Taylor Swift's All Too Well (10 Minute Version) is perhaps her most-loved breakup song, due in part to its poignant portrayal of the complex emotions heartbreak brings.  © KEVIN WINTER / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

Sadness is often the primary emotion in a breakup song. But it's certainly not the only one.

The 10-minute version of Swift's All Too Well evokes a range of strong feelings, including "sadness at the end of the relationship, nostalgia about the past romance, regret that the relationship failed, anger at being dumped, resentment that the boyfriend moved on to other young women, scorn at his unfaithfulness, and fear of being hurt again," Paul Thagard, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Waterloo, writes in his forthcoming book Dreams, Jokes, and Songs.

"I think it is a fabulous song," Thagard said in an interview. "The reason it's such a fabulous song is that it manages to convey a lot of different emotions."

There's no rule that says the emotions in a breakup song have to be negative. If a relationship was a poor fit – or even toxic – it's appropriate to celebrate when it comes to an end, Galligher said.

Likewise, a breakup song suffused with sadness can resonate with a listener in a rock-solid relationship who is coping with another kind of loss.

"Sadness is not exclusive to breakups," Galligher said. "Sometimes it can be helpful to listen to a song that is ostensibly about a breakup, but it helps you tap into something inside of you that knows sadness."

When a breakup is fresh, and the pain is raw, a song can serve as "a virtual empathetic friend" by affirming and validating a listener's emotions, helping them process their feelings, and reminding them they're not alone, Thompson said.

"The advantage is that you won't get unwanted advice," he said. "Music is just there for you and supportive."

Thagard agreed: "There's no judgment coming from a song." (Unless you're one of the unlucky men who has broken Swift's heart.)

Cover photo: Screenshot/Instagram/taylorswift

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