Love Is A Battlefield: A Bittersweet Valentine’s Party Playlist
This blend of perfect jams proves that love will tear us apart—whether you’re seeking it, in it, or recovering from it
My friends and I throw an annual Valentine’s Day dance party, which we’ve titled “Love Is A Battlefield” for several reasons (besides the first and most obvious one: Pat Benatar rules).
Valentine’s Day is frequently a battlefield—not just for single people, but for people in general. If you’re unpartnered, Valentine’s Day is like some Noah’s Ark-style party you’re barred from attending; but if you’re dating someone, it’s all too often a compulsory party that fills you with a nameless dread. Having to prove your romantic devotion on an arbitrarily selected day can seriously backfire (ask any of your server friends about the carnage they witness while waiting tables on Valentine’s Day).
Face it: whether you’re single, dating, married, poly, or anywhere else along the romantic spectrum, it’s just challenging to be in relationships with other humans—which is why my crew and I have adopted “Love Is A Battlefield” as our Valentine’s Day rallying cry. Our party is a night of inclusivity, where we reject the bullshit binary of miserable singles versus blissful couples, and acknowledge that whether you’re seeking it, in it, or recovering from it, love will tear us apart.
From years of DJing this event, I’ve observed that the vast majority of songs about love gone wrong fall into three distinct categories, the first of which I call the “After The Love Has Gone” songs.
These are your standard heartache jamz—lots of tears, careless whispers, people not bringing flowers, and the like. Here are eight of my absolute favorites, all of which I spin every year at “Love Is A Battlefield” without fail.
Teddy Pendergrass • “Love TKO”
Written by Linda and Cecil Womack, this slice of smoky Philly soul combines Teddy’s raw, gravelly baritone with mournful horns and a smooth groove that’s been sampled by numerous hip-hop artists (most notably by Ahmad for his haunting and melancholic “Back in the Day”). It’s about the self-flagellating part of a breakup, after your heart’s already been put through the meat grinder, where you twist the knife by bashing yourself for being a “two-time loser,” and even your suffering feels generic: “It’s just another sad song / Think I better let it go / Looks like another love T.K.O.”
Elton John • “Sacrifice”
Sad songs, they say so much—and yet this soft rock gem starts off positively, with a cheerful, head-swaying melody and floating layers of 80s keys. The lyrics, however, show that Elton is not having peaceful easy feelings: “Cold cold heart / Hardened by you / Some things look better / Just passing through / Sensitivity builds a prison / In the final act.” This song is about one of those relationships where the love died years ago, but rather than ending it, the couple has just been living with the husk. (Note: if you’re still not convinced of this song’s genius, check out the Sinead O’Connor rendition and prepare to be viscerally, tearfully converted.)
Phil Collins • “Separate Lives”
No “Love is a Battlefield” playlist could be complete without an entry from Mr. Collins (check out the “Dr. Phil” segment on This American Life, where a woman wallowing in rejection actually gets Phil on the phone to advise her on how to write the perfect break-up song). From a field of many strong contenders, I finally I had to go with “Separate Lives,” partly because it is a tragic male-female duet where he and Marilyn Martin sing passionately to each other (see Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” for this device at its finest) but also because Phil actually manages to nail the description of that awful phone call with your ex where you hang up feeling utterly hollow inside. (Video bonus: Mikhail Barishnykov hotness and stretching!)
Hall & Oates • “She’s Gone”
This track was Hall & Oates’ first hit in 1974, and although Lou Rawls and Tavares had more success covering it than H&O did with their version, theirs is truly the gold standard. It’s actually so incredible that I insist you stop reading and listen to it right now.
Right? Okay, what about that amazing build? How they start so quietly and then crescendo to such a huge passionate finish? That four-step chord change at 4:18 before the finale??? AUGH. It’s so freaking fervent and soulful (no wonder nobody knew they were white) plus it’s one of the rare moments where Oates sings lead along with Hall. Anyone who’s ever dealt with the Job’s comforters that surround you in the wake of a breakup can relate to “Everybody’s high on consolation,” not to mention the awesome self-destructiveness of “Think I’ll spend eternity in the city / Let the carbon monoxide choke my thoughts away.” One of the greatest love-gone-wrong songs EVER. (Note: I may be a tiny bit biased towards Hall and Oates.)
Flight of the Conchords • “I’m Not Crying”
Face it: when we check into the Heartbreak Hotel, we all end up acting like pathetic, melodramatic clichés of ourselves. Occasionally you‘ve got to emerge from wallowing in your own personal Pit of Despair to laugh at your own bathos, and that’s what this song is for. Put it on and blast it loud. You’re not crying—it’s just been raining… on your face. While you’ve been making a lasagna: FOR ONE.
Janet Jackson • “Got Til It’s Gone”
(feat. Joni Mitchell + Q-Tip)
This bizarrely fantastic combination of artists managed to put together one of the 90s best-ever lost love tracks. Folk icon Mitchell is notoriously dead set against letting her work be sampled, but after Jackson sent her a recording of the track and personally telephoned to ask for permission, Mitchell consented. Sublime production, minimalist beats, old-school scratching, Joni’s vocal hook (a loop from “Big Yellow Taxi,” yet another brilliant breakup track), and Q-Tip’s smooth rhyming (“Joni Mitchell never lies”) make this song a magical fusion of genius that I will never tire of listening to or dancing to.
R. Kelly • “Not Feelin’ The Love”
Better known for his bombastic stepper jams and bedroom ballads, R&B’s reigning king creates a more subtle portrayal of love in its death throes here. Vintage keys, cascading strings, and the perfect beat accompany melancholy but familiar expressions: “You used to laugh at everythin’ I said, baby / Now you play me like my jokes are old / When I ask you, you say everythin’s okay.” (Sidenote: Really, Robert? “Makin’ love ‘til we’re old and gray”? Sure thing, dude. We bet you fantasize about sex with senior ladies all day long.)
Michael McDonald • “I Keep Forgettin’”
Where do I even start with this song? Can we all agree that every note and inflection is perfect? This sad, yet somehow sultry, sexy jam resides at the exact intersection of 70s AM Gold, blue-eyed soul, and soft rock. McDonald’s passionate baritone, Toto as the backing band, plus an unforgettable baseline that’s since been sampled by Warren G, Jadakiss, Madvillain, and Poolside combine to make this song McDonald’s greatest solo accomplishment. More than 30 years after its release, this timeless track still fills dance floors everywhere, and no list of heartache songs could be complete without it. (And here’s a brilliant remix from Late Nite Tuff Guy that no self-respecting DJ should be without.)
“Tainted Love” Songs
Now we turn to the second category of love-gone-wrong songs: the “Tainted Love” song. Tainted Love tracks are angry breakup songs about the people who give love a bad name. Love isn’t over for the songwriters—it’s just been turned into bitterness, anger, and betrayal. Tainted Love songs are for people who are more mad than sad; they’re reminding everyone about the mess their lovers left when they went away.
Justin Timberlake •
“What Goes Around…Comes Around”
“Cry Me A River” is probably Timberlake’s best-known angry breakup song, but I’ve always preferred “What Goes Around.” It’s darker, more adult, sarcastic, and vengeful, with weird and interesting instrumentation (producer Nate “Danja” Hills compared the process of arranging the track to scoring a horror flick). You can practically hear JT’s lip curl as he sings “Hey, girl / Is he everything you wanted in a man?” The tour de force is the break at the end where Timberlake predicts his ex-lover’s harsh future abandonment, complete with Timbaland and an ominous medieval choir rumbling in the background. (Bonus: at one point, Justin actually rhymes the word “cheated” with the word “bleeded.” I’ve heard it at least 100 times and every single time it cracks my shit up.)
Stevie Wonder • “Rocket Love”
A deep cut from Hotter Than July, “Rocket Love,” this stunning song starts off like a classic Stevie Wonder romantic ode, with warm keys and crooning: “I longed for you since I was born / A woman sensitive and warm / And that you were.” But then in the chorus, we discover the tragic outcome: “You took me riding in your rocket, gave me a star / But at a half a mile from heaven / You dropped me back down into this cold, cold world.” Over and over in the verses he sings his ex-lover’s praises, then returns to the jilting in the chorus, more passionate and angry each time until he finally snarls “I would not do that to a dog.” Anyone who’s ever had the rug yanked out from them by someone they adored will feel this song deep in their soul.
Private • “We Got Some Breaking Up To Do”
If Erasure, Depeche Mode, and Prince had a three-way that somehow resulted in a baby, it would be these Danish synthpop geniuses. When you really need to dance the pain away, this is the song to put on. When singer Thomas Troelson belts out in the chorus “Am I just another lover?” you can’t help but holler along with him.
Bell Biv DeVoe • “Poison”
That a New Edition spinoff band put out this bitter, angry, floor-filling jam makes it even more delicious. The boys are a long way from the candy pop heartbreak of “Mr. Telephone Man” here, warning the dudes to “take precautions” around a scheming “low pro ho” over a hammering new jack swing beat. A whole generation of young men grew up with BBD’s stern warning in their heads: “Never trust a big butt and a smile.”
En Vogue • “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”
From one of the greatest girl groups of the 90s, this kissoff jam samples James Brown’s “The Payback,” and is rife with satisfyingly scornful jabs at the guy who “had his chance to make a change” but just “changed love to hate.” “Maybe next time you’ll treat your woman with a little respect,” the ladies jeer. Sock it to us, En Vogue!
Bobby Womack • “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”
If you think the above songs are harsh, wait until you hear this gorgeous, scathing slice of soul. It starts all mellow and romantic, with Bobby dedicating the song to the lovers of the world; but then he asks “You know, if y’all don’t mind, I’d like to talk about this woman of mine” (and of course, we all say yes, it’s Bobby F’ing Womack) and wow, does he go off. Fantasizing about how much your ex is going to suffer at the hands of future lovers is par for the course in angry breakup songs, but Bobby goes so far as to say “You’ll never find another man that’ll treat you right” (never)! The choir singing behind Bobby as he testifies just adds to the gospel-of-pain vibe.
2Pac • “Do For Love”
This posthumous release (the video features both a cartoon and a clay figure of Shakur) samples a 70s heartbreak classic, Bobby Caldwell’s mournful “What You Won’t Do For Love.” The relationship 2Pac describes is clearly the type where the couple breaks up once a week and all of their friends are beyond sick of hearing about it. Still, it’s not every hiphop track that drops a Sir Walter Scott reference: “My heart is sayin’ leave, oh what a tangled web we weave / When we conspire to conceive.”
“I Will Survive” Songs
The third category of breakup song is what I call the “I Will Survive” song. These are triumph-over-romantic-tragedy tracks, filled with people who are letting go, moving on, washing that man or woman right out of their hair. They’ve been wounded on love’s battlefield, but because they still know how to love, they know they’re still alive. Below are my favorite dance jams that shoot at the walls of heartache:
Lou Rawls • “You’ll Never Find”
Arguably the most upbeat breakup song ever, Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff wrote Rawls’s breakthrough hit “You’ll Never Find” specifically for him. Listen to it and realize why Frank Sinatra declared Rawls possessed “the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game.” What makes it so triumphant is Rawls’s completely carefree nonchalance: when he sings “I don’t wish you no bad luck, baby / But there’s no ifs and buts or maybes / You’re gonna miss my lovin’,” you can practically hear the smile on his face. (Fun fact: Rawls insisted on recording “You’ll Never Find” live with MFSB because Lou was a baller and that was how he rolled.)
Robyn • “Dancing On My Own”
The Swedish songstress’s best-known hit, “Dancing On My Own” is just another reason among hundreds to adore this fabulously freaky feminist fatale. Few singers can match Robyn for passion and authenticity, and she rips her heart out for us on this track. She’s the girl who goes to the club knowing her ex will be there with his new flame, and that seeing them together is going to suck (who can’t relate to the lines “Yeah, I know it’s stupid / I just gotta see it for myself”?). What makes this song so victorious is the fact that she isn’t over it; in fact, she’s still suffering (“I’m giving it my all / But I’m not the girl you’re taking home”) YET SHE KEEPS DANCING ON HER OWN. Chills, all over my body, every time I hear it.
Mark Morrison • “Return Of The Mack”
Perhaps my favorite dance jam of the entire 90s, “Return of the Mack” is one of the best tragedy-turned-touchdown songs ever, reveling in the sweet revenge that is a life lived well. Over a drum break sampled from the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” Morrison calls out his undermining, faithless ex (“’Cause what you did you know was wrong / And all the nasty things you’ve done / So, baby, listen carefully / While I sing my comeback song)” and the bridge features a female voice sneering “Mark….stop lying about your big break.” BURN. (Killing lyrical moment: when Morrison sings “Oh little girl / Once my pearl!”)
CeCe Peniston • “Keep On Walking”
90s dance club staple CeCe Peniston may be best known for her worldwide smash “Finally,” but this house-meets-hip-hop walking papers track is a lesser-known gem. Just try not to fist pump on the dance floor when she sings “I’m sorry baby, you can’t play me / I just can’t be used.” She’s not bitter, she’s just done: “Although what we had was good / I’ve got to make this understood / Keep on walkin, I ain’t talkin to you anymore.” PREACH IT, CeCe.
Keyshia Cole • “Let It Go” (ft. Missy Elliott + Lil’ Kim)
Any track produced by Missy Elliott that samples Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” and Yarborough & Peoples’ “Don’t Stop The Music” while offering homage to Biggie Smalls has already won me over, but the combination of Cole’s raw, passionate vocals, Missy’s smart, swaggering flow, and Lil’ Kim’s bombastic rhyme in the bridge knocks this song out of the park. Particularly in an era where women are told pole dancing equals girl power, the refrain “If he ain’t gonna treat you / The way he should/Then let it go” makes this song a refreshing blast of genuine female affirmation. Hands in the air, y’all.
Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer •
“Enough Is Enough (No More Tears)”
One can only imagine the freakout in 1979 when Barbra Streisand put out a duet with Queen of Disco (hell, I’m still freaking out about it). This track is always tough to fit into a DJ set; I have no business playing the slow, Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque first two minutes, but the fabulous cheesiness of the easy-listening intro always makes the moment where the super uptempo dance beat kicks in that much better. During the recording, there was apparently a tussle between the two divas over who would sing the last note before the disco section started—a note that had to be held for 16 seconds. At one point Summer actually blacked out and fell off her stool trying to hold it, so the note went to Streisand (it comes in at 1:47, check it out, it’s still phenomenal).
Kelly Clarkson • “Since U Been Gone”
Clocking in at just 3:08, this track is like a master class in power pop at its finest. Even the supersnoots over at Pitchfork Media named it one of the 2000's best tracks, conceding that “‘Since U Been Gone’ gave us one of the most blunt rallying cries of the last ten years.” The Onion’s AV Club lauded the single as “a call to self-actualization and an instant hands-in-the-air dance party.” Pounding, overdriven guitars and a punch-you-in-the-face chorus made this a surprisingly edgy offering from an American Idol star. Blasting it loud provides instant relief to the pain of a broken heart, and reminds the jilted that they “are so moving on.”
So whether you’re in it, seeking it, or ending it, love is, indeed, a battlefield. But the pain of love isn’t a bug — it’s a feature. If romance didn’t wrench our souls apart, these songs wouldn’t exist, and a world without heartbreak jams is not one I’d want to live in. Hearts were made to be broken, but music is always here to put them back together.
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