I am a profligate weeper. If you are a teenage alcoholic on Jeremy Kyle, a baby seal on the internet or my old Maths teacher Mr Toyne, you have triggered one of my salty emissions. And nothing unleashes an emotional outpouring like a good pop song. I hoped that my top five musical mascara wreckers would have some grand historical significance - but it turns out that they’re just about love, longing, and people who won’t have sex with you. Here they are.
Amy Winehouse - (There Is) No Greater Love
For a long time after Amy’s death, I couldn’t listen to anything at all because of all the weeping. To sound fully National Enquirer about it, I believe that she died of a broken heart. And she reminds me that there are two kinds of people. The ones who survive their own emotion - who understand that sometimes it’s safest not to let anything touch the sides. They know that we are all too vulnerable to fully and willingly give ourselves away, and as soon as you start to take your own life seriously, you lose it.
Then there are the people who long for some mastery over their own emotions, but frequently find themselves winded by sad, scary feelings. They’re the ones who are always 20 minutes late for things because they have to stop for a weep in the disabled loos at Pret. And when love goes wrong, or isn’t reciprocated, they - we - aren’t squeezed into our good frocks, winking at bouncers and pretending that we’re glad to be still alive, we’re hiding in cupboards under the stairs, filling our untouched gin and tonics with warm tears and wondering how much carbon monoxide is in a Dyson.
Amy sings (There Is) No Greater Love like a woman in love. She sounds soft, warm and sure. There’s wonder in her voice - like someone anticipating a chill on their bare skin and being met with warm air. Billie Holiday’s version is beautiful, but weary - in comparison Amy sounds unhurt and full of hope. The hook laden, histrionic Back To Black is also tear triggering, but it’s a record that knows its own bleak power. No Greater Love breaks me because it’s unbearably poignant. It shows how happiness makes us fragile and leaves me to question my right to wish and dream.
LCD Soundsystem - Dance Yrself Clean
This song starts out all Edith Wharton and four button cuffs, and just over three minutes in it’s a Bronte explosion of big hair and bad weather and pulpy, tear slick faces. It’s another brutal relationship song, evoking just how the one you’re closest to can hurt you the hardest - and you can do a damn good impression of a person who doesn’t care, and then suddenly the pain of something lost seizes you and leaves you speaking in tongues and crying acid.
In places, the lyrical smartness comes from the stupidity. “Talking like a jerk, except you are an actual jerk and living proof that sometimes friends are mean” is frighteningly bare, and desperate. It’s a dumb statement of intent to destroy your destroyer, even though you can’t because they’ve already broken you. The song is so sad because it builds and breaks - hearing James Murphy lose it as he repeatedly screams “IT’S YOUR SHOW” and then pulls the melody back to the slight, singular verse is devastating. We’ve all lost face in the ugliest way possible, and then acted as if nothing happened. It never works. And then “wait until the weekend, and we can miss the best things to do” - well, everyone has been in that relationship.
Blondie - Poet’s Problem
It’s easy to project this song and its sadness straight onto Debbie Harry. Blondie made such oven ready perfect pop that you want to see another side of it - Debbie getting fed up with haircuts and magazine covers and locking herself away, not like Rihanna on a plane, but being awfully quiet and sure and saying “I’m not doing it. No,” as the banging on the other side of the door became increasingly panicked.
As a teenager, this song appealed to be because it seemed to be about taking lots of drugs and not being bothered to do things. It’s a very slender track, wispy and wistful, and I think it’s so tear inducing because it’s about having power, but it sounds entirely defeated. Other Plastic Letters era tracks have a Marvel Comics swagger to them, but this is unnervingly restrained - it’s an uncomfortably dreamy reminder that not knowing what you want can be just as sad as not getting what you want. The refrain “I will not be there when you call” should sound triumphant, but the vocal thickens and falters and makes it unbearably sad.
Pulp - Pink Glove
This makes me sad because it’s about the worst, most tortured kind of longing, when you’re not quite able to give up what can never be. Yet it’s so bitter, vitriolic and manipulative that I weep for whoever it is Jarvis is serenading. She’s trapped in a horribly controlling relationship, but I don’t think he’s offering her anything better. The crooned “what should you do, should you stop being you, just to be how he wants you?” is a magnificently sinister bit of assonance that’s enough to make anyone burst into tears of terror - it’s like being sung to by a rapey ghost.
It’s not as nuanced as Do You Remember The First Time, which is also a very weepy track, but in places the vocal is so wracked with pain that it makes the idea of being a human upsetting. If we’re capable of feeling like this, who would want to ever feel anything at all?
Nanci Griffith, Blue Bonnet Spring
This is an unbearably understated song about love and death that ruins me every time I hear it. I am snotting up the keys of my Mac as I listen and type. Pop is meant to be teenage and ephemeral - full of love songs lasting as long as Carmex kisses that mean everything until the next one comes along. But this is about two people who lived together and loved each other, sustained by happy and sad memories and hoping for nothing but an end that reunites them. It’s a solid reminder of how love doesn’t just happens to you - you have to build it.
The images would be sentimental, but they’re too stark - the house, the blackbird and the blue bonnets suffocate you with their simplicity. It’s a quiet song, but the message is deafening. You might be all alone, but it’s only the one you love who can really make you feel lonely.