Soundtrack To A '90s High School Breakup

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 

It was sometime in the winter of 1993 when I woke up to a phone call from the boy of my dreams. OK, it was January 2, 1993, to be exact, at 8 in the morning. Why was he calling so early? Did he think of me as soon as he woke up? Could he simply not wait to tell me again how much he loved me?

“I think we need to cool it for a while,” he said. And yes, those were his exact words. After the dead silence that followed while my brain tried to process the fact that he was breaking up with me, and after an awkward, fumbling conversation, I got off the phone, took out my diary, and wrote down those damning words.

And then I cried. And cried. I was so upset I couldn’t eat all day, and I vomited up my dinner. I was 14 years old, he was my first boyfriend, my first kiss, and I had fallen for him. Hard. I was a mess.

I spent that winter huddled up in my room, venting to my friends on the phone, writing like mad in my diary, and listening to music. Looking back, music saved me more than I knew. There were other women (yes, I thought of myself entirely as a woman, even then) who were as devastated by love as I was. And the lyrics of the songs would feed into my journaling—and eventually, the poetry I began to write (which was crap at the time, but in hindsight marked the beginning of my career as a writer).

There were many phenomenal female singer-songwriters popular in the early ’90s, but four in particular stole my heart: Tori, Sarah, Sophie and Sinéad (yes, I was on a first-name basis with each of them). To this day, I can’t listen to these ladies without being transported right back to that time. I can even smell the Nag Champa incense I burned, and the purple scrunchie that lived on my wrist as my hand bled words into the pages of my diary.

First, there was Tori.

I know many of us were listening to Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes as we navigated the world of love and heartache. Oh, but she did it with zap-like intensity, each song a knife to the heart. “Tear In Your Hand” was the iconic breakup song, with just the right blend of anger, sarcasm, vulnerability and desire. I am still shocked in just the right way when I hear her moan, “I don’t believe you’re leaving / ‘Cause me and Charles Manson like the same ice cream / I think it’s that girl / And I think there are pieces of me / you’ve never seen.” Kill me now why don’t you, Tori?

Then there was Sarah.

In the early ’90s, Sarah McLachlan wasn’t a household name yet, but I stumbled upon her CD, Solace, at the record store (when they still called it that). With her rich, ethereal voice and stark, stunning lyrics, her music resonated with me right away. I listened to the album on repeat after the breakup, hugging my knees, rocking back and forth and—yes—sobbing. I’ll admit it.

I’m almost ashamed of how taken I was with Sophie B. Hawkins.

Her single, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover,” was a Top 40 hit, but I thought it was written for me. It had just the right blend of sexual innuendo and longing. Plus, I could dance unabashedly to it (in the privacy of my own room, of course). And that crescendo at the end where she breaks out with, “and I returned as chained and bound to you” still gets me right in the gut.

And finally, Sinéad. Oh, Sinéad.

Such a strange, enigmatic soul Ms. O’Connor was (and is). “Nothing Compares 2 U” is the ultimate mourning song. From her washed-out skin, shaved head and funeral attire, you knew Sinéad got how close to death breakups feel. Sinéad gave voice to a feeling I had but didn’t have the courage to express. After listening to that song, I took pen to paper and wrote my own version of it (which I hope never to unearth).

To say these songs rescued me isn’t even an exaggeration. Let’s face it: Those teenage lovesick feelings can be pretty extreme. They can feel ugly and lonely—terrifyingly lonely. I couldn’t really tell my friends or family just how broken I felt, how obsessed I still was, even after many months. It was all too embarrassing and vulnerable for someone as young and inexperienced as I was. But for someone else to spill out these feelings for me was truly a gift. I was given permission to grieve, to feel—and most important, to express.

At the time, as much as I hoped against hope, I didn’t expect a happy ending to my story. I mean, in none of the songs did they get the boy back. But my boy meant it when he said we just needed to “cool it for a while.” By the next fall, he was back in my arms. Apparently, he kinda knew that what we had was really special—and really intense. It was a bit much for him to handle at the tender age of 14. By the fall, he was 15, and so was I. Much older, you know?

I forgave him the heartache and look back on those months with a certain gratefulness. I was exposed to feelings that I needed to feel and work through. I found kick-ass women singer-songwriters to commune with and began to discover my own writer’s voice.

Oh, and I needed to have at least one breakup under my belt to be considered part of the human race. That kid and I never broke up again. This fall will be 22 years since we got back together. And next month, we will celebrate our 14-year wedding anniversary.

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