OK, just admit it. Every time you had your heart broken, you turned to music. And if you were a true Gen Xer, it was ’80s music. Every song was written about your breakup, your broken heart, your exact situation. It’s like they knew you, right?
That’s how it always was for me—from middle school crushes where the boy didn’t even know I existed to high school breakups when I kinda sorta stalked my ex for months on end. Whether I was in the bathroom at a middle school dance or in the corner of my bedroom frantically writing in my journal, ’80s breakup songs spoke directly to me. And because I could identify so strongly with them, they got me through the darkest storms of adolescent heartache.
Here’s my list of quintessential ’80s breakup songs:
1. U2, ‘With or Without You’
It’s no coincidence that this song played over more than one Ross and Rachel breakup on Friends. You know R & R listened to this song during their ’80s high school days, and so it fit right in to their ’90s love lives. The song starts out slow and then builds up to an emotional crescendo—and Bono’s melancholic drone fits the mood perfectly
2. Simple Minds, ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’
This song played during the opening and closing credits of The Breakfast Club and always brings me a huge rush of nostalgia. From the opening boom of “Hey Hey Hey Hey!” to the poetry of the lyrics (“Love’s strange so real in the dark / Think of the tender things that we were working on”), this song just basically destroys me (in the best way). And the song expertly captures the insecurities of high school romance: “Will you recognize me/ Call my name or walk on by.”
3. Bonnie Tyler, ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’
I know this song is about three hours too long, but I never tire of it. Bonnie Tyler’s raspy voice and authentic passion carry it. It’s the ultimate breakup song—the song you listen to when you’re feeling needful, vulnerable, and just want to splash your feelings all over everything and cry your eyes out. Thanks, Bonnie Tyler, for letting us be as over-the-top sappy as we want to be when our hearts are broken.
4. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, ‘If You Leave’
Here’s another song that’s closely associated with a movie. It was played during the last scene of Pretty in Pink—in fact, it was written for that scene specifically. Whether you were rooting for Andie to end up with Blane or Duckie, this song captures the frailty of teenage love affairs—the ridiculous longing and all the begging and pleading that goes along with it.
5. Heart, ‘Alone’
I love all Heart songs. Ann and Nancy Wilson are two of the most badass female rockers out there. “Alone” addresses that deep loneliness you feel when you’ve just had a breakup. You forget how to be by yourself, and it scares you. Of course, now that I’m a busy mom of two, I wouldn’t mind a night alone, but I could have never predicted that when I was a boy-obsessed teen.
6. Peter Gabriel, ‘In Your Eyes’
I don’t think we can listen to this song without picturing Lloyd from Say Anything standing outside Diane’s window, holding up his boombox and playing this song in the hopes of winning her back. And of course it worked, because, duh: great song, hot guy, and BOOM BOX.
7. R.E.M., ‘The One I Love’
R.E.M. was my main favorite band in middle school. I listened to “The One I Love” religiously. I needed a song that could encapsulate the obsessive quality of my crushes. This song also pokes fun at it all (“a simple prop to occupy my time”). A sense of humor was clearly necessary when it came to middle school love.
8. Phil Collins, ‘Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)’
I don’t know why, but this one always gets me right in the gut. I think it’s the part where Phil Collins sings, “You’re the only one who really knew me at all.” I mean, isn’t that one of the most awful things about breakups? You feel like your ex was the one person on earth who had known all your secrets, your fears, who you really were—and now you are totally lost without them.
9. The Police, ‘Every Breath You Take’
You have to admit that sometimes you, um, got a little stalkerish with your exes. I mean, not me. Nope. Never. But somehow I could identify wholly with “Every Breath You Take,” which is the ultimate obsession song. (Although I wouldn’t have minded too much if Sting had an unhealthy preoccupation with me.)
10. Joan Jett, ‘I Hate Myself for Loving You’
Only Joan Jett could write a song about how lame she is for loving some messed up, cheating guy and come out of it sounding totally kickass and powerful. I think we can all identify with having a fixation on someone who is clearly not right for us. We know we shouldn’t want them, but we simply can’t help ourselves.
I poke fun at some of the angst I felt during my years of teenage heartbreak. But I can remember the feelings of vulnerability and brokenness vividly even though it all happened decades ago. These songs take me right back. There is a certain joy in going down memory lane, a never-ending desire to relive even the most intense and horrible moments of our early years—if only to remind ourselves how much more mature and better off we are now.