A typical pop artist’s album cycle starts with him or her being handed a catalog of pre-written songs. The artist makes picks, records the tracks, and tosses them on an album in what is hopefully a cohesive record from start to finish. Then the PR machine retroactively attempts to match the songs to whatever romantic or personal drama is currently going on in the artist’s life. But this is not how Ariana Grande works. The singer wrote and released her new album Thank U, Next seemingly on a whim, after tiring of the heavy-handed public analysis of her high-profile relationships. Her response to all this intimate coverage? A 12-track album of R&B-inspired bubblegum pop.
The release of Thank U, Next ushers in a new era for Grande—one that the pop superstar has insisted, via Twitter, will be full of breakup bangers and anti-romance bops. The album is an achievement for the singer, who manages to gracefully and semi-sarcastically thank her famous exes—including Pete Davidson and Mac Miller—on the album’s title track and first single, while remaining honest on the rest of the record about her own shortcomings and neuroses when it comes to being someone’s girlfriend. There are two sides to every breakup, of course, but the perception of Grande’s very public relationships might shift, if ever so slightly, after Thank U, Next.
Grande followed in the tradition of singer-songwriters who write reactionary pieces to their own breakups and makeups. From Joni Mitchell to Justin Timberlake, pop musicians have used these post-breakup albums to process the ups and downs of their publicized romances and let their fans in on their private lives. Sometimes they even succeed in changing the perception of their relationship to their famous ex after a breakup (the rebirth narrative is a favorite). Here, five of the other most revealing breakup albums in pop history.
Taylor Swift’s 1989
Is anyone more skilled at writing an earworm of a highly personal love (or breakup) song than Taylor Swift? In contrast to Grande, who explicitly name-dropped exactly whom she was talking about on Thank U, next, Swift goes the Carly Simon route and drops hints instead. Songs on Red and Speak Now that referenced her slew of super-famous ex-boyfriends—Jake Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, and Taylor Lautner, to name a few—seemed to pale in comparison when Swift released 1989, which was ostensibly mostly about Harry Styles, whom she dated from November 2012 to January 2013. It was a short-lived romance, but by the time October 2014 rolled around, Swift appeared to reference Styles on Out of the Woods when she made note of the “20 stitches in a hospital room” that the former Directioner needed after crashing his snowmobile.
The Weeknd’s My Dear Melancholy
After the Weeknd and Bella Hadid broke up, he began dating Selena Gomez, much to the surprise of many. The relationship only lasted about 10 months, and the two split in October 2017. By March 2018, the crooner had released a short, six-track album all about his heartbreak, specifically calling out Gomez as “wasted” time and basically begging Hadid to come back to him. If you listen to “Wasted Times,” it’s the “equestrian” callout that is the dead giveaway that the song is about Hadid; and on “Call Out My Name,” he brings up the sensitive topic of Gomez’s kidney transplant (“I almost cut a piece of myself for your life”).
Joni Mitchell’s Blue
Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame) met in 1967 and dated until 1970. Mitchell broke up with him and started a relationship with James Taylor. Blue, her fourth studio album, released in 1971, became the epitome of breakup albums, demonstrating Mitchell’s penchant for honesty and raw revelations about herself and her relationships. “River” might technically fall under the category of a Christmas song, but really it’s mostly about Nash and their ill-fated romance.
Justin Timberlake’s Justified
You probably forgot that Justified was technically a breakup album, or at least responsible for one of the most recognizable breakup anthems of the early aughts. This album is remembered as Justin Timberlake’s debut as a solo artist, but it’s just as much about the scorn he felt after breaking up with Britney Spears, to whom he was romantically linked as the It couple of the new millennium from 1999 to 2002. “Cry Me a River” and its accompanying video with its Britney Spears look-alike is nothing short of iconic.
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours
Rumours is what happens when nearly everyone in the band is romantically entangled with one another but break up and then still have to work together and make an album. You have Mick Fleetwood’s divorce, John McVie and Christine McVie separating from each other but still working together, and, of course, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks on the outs after dating for nearly a decade. So many tracks from Rumours stand out as evocative of how ugly things get when they end, with “Dreams” being one of the most recognizable pop songs of the last four decades.