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The Magnetic Fields Are Not Surprised By Your Break-Up

[Normally, Sady and Amanda Hess have a little chat on Friday. During our very special Guest-Post Party / Most Appalling Fake Holiday Ever That Is Constantly Marketed At You / Break-Up Music Week, however, Sady is a bad conversationalist. Therefore, we will be reading a sexy and exciting guest post instead! You guys, guess who it is from?]

I have secretly wished for the fantastical break-up. I’ve dreamed of it like some girls dream of their wedding days: The naked woman in our bed, second family in Ohio, twisted web of lies, actually dating me to steal my credit card type of break-up. The surprise ending that gathers up all those little lies and slights and comments and suspicions that have accumulated in secret obsession under the relationship’s lovely surface and explodes them out into one big, glorious tribute, something that really validates all of that private suffering. You can spend an entire relationship just waiting for that moment.

Hardly anybody gets the Scooby Doo finale. The reality is always much more mundane, predictable, and frustratingly soft. There is no surprise villain on whom to pin all of your moral indignation. There is no moment of epiphany. Shit does not blow up. But we still check our watches as we wait for it to all go down. “The book of love is long and boring,” in the words of the Magnetic Fields, and the break-up is hinted at from the first page.

The Magnetic Fields have made a career out of writing songs about the relationship-long process of breaking up. Take the first track off 69 Love Songs:

Give me a week or two to go absolutely cuckoo then, when you see your error, then, you can flee in terror like everybody else does, I only tell you this cause I’m easy to get rid of, but not if you fall in love. Know now that I’m on the make, and if you make a mistake, my heart will certainly break, I’ll have to jump in a lake, and all my friends will blame you. There’s no telling what they’ll do. It’s only fair to tell you I’m absolutely cuckoo.

Love is a book, and unfortunately for us, it pretty much always turns out to be Greek tragedy. There’s no excuse for not knowing how it ends. We know the moment we meet that person, take stock of all of their faults, and kiss them anyway — liar, cheater, Libertarian. We know the moment before we meet them, because we know who we are — depressive, dependent, cheater. They kiss us anyway. Even Oedipus went ahead and married his mother. The only thing left to do is steel our selves against the impact.

I like your twisted point of view, Mike. I like your questioning eyebrows. You’ve made it pretty clear what you like. It’s only fair to tell you now that I leave early in the morning and I won’t be back till next year. I see that kiss-me pucker forming, but maybe you should plug it with a beer, cause: Papa was a rodeo, Mama was a rock ‘n roll band. I could play guitar and rope a steer before I learned to stand. Home was anywhere with diesel gas, love was a trucker’s hand. Never stuck around long enough for a one-night stand. Before you kiss me you should know: Papa was a rodeo.

As for those who refuse to admit defeat before the battle begins? God help those suckers. The arrangement of eternal love, to hear the Magnetic Fields tell it, is highly orchestrated theatre that requires a staff of stagehands, a cast of clowns, and a velvet curtain to maintain the artifice. Its players remount the narrative of eternal love over and over again in a desperate attempt to delay the audience from marching steadily toward the exit. This song manages to present this façade as a grand romantic effort between its parties, but the implication is that all the struggle goes on behind the curtain. Those who wish for the fantastical break-up wait in vain for their private suspicions to be realized; those who chase eternal love try in vain to keep their secret doubts from ever reaching the spotlight.

What if the show couldn’t go on? What if we all got jobs and got to bed before dawn? What if Old Joe had to retire? What if all the stagehands were let go or fired? That’s just like what the world would be if you fell out of love with me. . . Wasn’t it you and I who made promises of eternity? What if the lights didn’t go on? What if the velvet curtain had to be taken down? What if the clowns couldn’t be clowns and all those painted smiles gave in to plaintive frowns. What if no show ever happened again?

But of course there will be another show, and another, and another, and another. “The book of love is long and boring. No one can lift the damn thing,” is how that line ends. And who would want to? We’ve heard the story a thousand times before, and no matter the outcome, it’s never really much of an ending: Either you love each other forever, or you try again. Perhaps the best thing we can do is turn it into comedy:

True, I’d give my right arm to keep you safe from harm. And, true, for you I’d move to Ecuador. And I’d keep a little farm, chop wood to keep you warm. But I don’t really love you anymore. I don’t have to love you now if I don’t wish to. I won’t see you anyhow if that’s an issue. Because I am a gentleman, think of me as just your fan who remembers every dress you ever wore. Just the bad comedian, your new boyfriend’s better than. ‘Cause I don’t really love you anymore. There’ll be some day when your eyes do not enthrall me. I’ll be numb, I realize you’ll never call me. ‘Cause I’ve read your horoscope and now I’ve given up all hope. So I don’t really love you anymore. ‘Cause I’ve read your horoscope, and now I’ve given up all hope. So I don’t really love you anymore.

[Amanda Hess is The Sexist, duh. She is also very generous with her time.]


  1. jfruh wrote:

    I have nothing to add to this post’s awesomeness, but I do have a minor lyric correction on the last song: I think it’s “Because I am a gentleman, think of me as just your fan.”

    I’m also partial to “I always say ‘I love you’ when I mean ‘Turn out the light’, and I say ‘Let’s run away’ when I just mean ‘Stay the night.'”

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  2. Helen wrote:

    Papa was a rodeo, wherever he waved his hat was his home, and when he died, he… Oh, wrong song.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 11:47 pm | Permalink
  3. Lynn wrote:

    I think optimistic cynicism is my favorite category of love song.

    One of the related results after the last link was a live concert in Cambridge. God bless youtube.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  4. Eneya wrote:

    Why I didn’t read this text 3 years ago…
    Thank you.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  5. Jennifer S. wrote:

    The Magnetic Fields are also my break-up music of choice! No other artist gets my mope on quite so effectively.

    Love is like a bottle of gin… but a bottle of gin is not like love.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Maura wrote:

    As for those who refuse to admit defeat before the battle begins? God help those suckers

    That’s true. And I’m one of those suckers. Despite the defeat, I’m glad I did it that way.

    After my last break-up (which was 20 years ago and, holy crap, sometimes it still hurts), I wallowed in The Cowboy Junkies for weeks. OK, it was actually a couple months.

    Sunday, February 14, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink
  7. Manda wrote:

    I appreciate a focus on the Fields, one of the best love-in-all-its-horrifying-forms bands of all time. But what you’ve missed is that they do write some songs where it’s clear that Merritt does, in fact, believe in love. It’s hard to find, nigh-unattainable, and often a double-edged sword when you do grasp it. But he does write love songs, real, actual, “love is the grand experiment and it’s worth pursuing” love songs. “The Book of Love” is one of those: It’s a lot more about one’s expectations of love, and how they’re obviated by the actual love of an actual person — if you let them be.

    Or in short, you’re off your nut if you think it’s a break-up song.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink
  8. Sady wrote:

    @Manda: OR, someone has a different opinion or experience listening to a song than you do! Wacky, right? I know, I have trouble believing it myself.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink

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  1. uberVU - social comments on Sunday, February 14, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by TheSexist: i wrote a guest post on Tiger Beatdown, so I can die happy. (it’s about break-up songs).