NORMALIZING WRITING ABOUT YOUR EXES
I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yoursWEN HSIAO
Feature photo adapted from photography by Kaylyn Mok
I’ve listened to a lot of banging break-up songs.
Ever since I was first exposed to Taylor Swift in grade school, there has always been a narrative towards women who write their way out of a heartbreak. More often (seriously disproportionately) than not, female artists are criticized for writing about their past relationships; they are labeled as “crazy,” “exploitive,” “obsessive”; they are called the “slut,” “snake,” “victim”; just to name a few. The narrative female artists choose to put forth is put through a public trial, everyone becoming a critic — just to pick them apart. Halsey for “Without Me”, Ariana Grande for “thank u, next”, and Britney Spears for “Everytime”. While these songs achieved commercial success reaching new heights, alongside that were criticisms at an all-time high.
Innocently enough, Swift’s “The Way I Loved You” was used for a fill-in-the-blank listening exercise in my English class, where a room of nine-year-olds listened to this song on repeat for forty minutes trying to figure out the lyrics. Not that 9-year-old me understood the complexity of an adult relationship, needless to say, not to mention that of a toxic relationship (though I’m happy to say 20-something me knows much, much better.) I felt like Swift’s nine albums prepared me for that moment; without her, I would not be able to resist getting back together with my ex-boyfriend.
Throughout the years, I watched Taylor Swift go through media scrutiny for the speculated highs and lows of her private relationships. No matter how fragile or wild these conjectures were, though, she was almost always cast as the villain. People have often targeted Swift with cheap shots: from YouTube parodies depicting Swift to be on the receiving end of a violent stalker fantasy, to Netflix Originals framing her dating history as a sign of promiscuity, she cannot respond without being mocked as someone who can’t take a joke. It didn’t matter what he said or she said, the public had already determined who was right and who was wrong. They favored John Mayer — the man 12 years her senior who said he was “humiliated” when she verbalized the power imbalance in their relationship; they favored Calvin Harris — the man 6 years her senior who alleged she was “trying to tear [him] down” when she confirmed the fact she’d been the one to write his hit song, “This is What You Came For.”
15 years into Taylor Swift’s career, the media cannot stop telling the story of how she does not deserve her success. You and I may credit Swift’s success to her hard work and talent. But no, they believe that she is only successful because of the men she dates. They are in too deep, constructing the narrative that a woman can only be successful if she had stolen their success from a man, or exchanged sexual favors to get a leg up.
This narrative stems from systemic sexism. In a white man’s world, it is mind-boggling to some that a woman — especially a woman of color, can be as successful if not more successful than a man. By perpetuating a woman can only be successful through a man, it is oppressing where a woman stands in society. The media, or more specifically, the music industry partake in the sexual economy by treating female sexuality as a commodity, using it to justify a woman’s success.
Fast forward to the present day, where we have Olivia Rodrigo, who is sometimes considered Swift’s contemporary but is truly a star in her own right. The 18-year-old actress-slash-singer-slash-songwriter saw overnight success with the release of her song, “drivers license”. The song is an ode to her past relationship, one that spurred into a media frenzy. Despite Rodrigo never confirming the public’s speculation over who the song is about, it was widely believed to be about her High School Musical: The Musical: The Series co-star, Joshua Bassett.
Rodrigo has no intentions of being a one-hit-wonder; her subsequent singles (“déja vu,” “good 4 u”) and later debut album (“SOUR”) have found both commercial and critical success. Each song reminded me of a more complicated time, to being 18 and dealing with my first heartbreak. The standout quality of Rodrigo’s lyricism is her painful specificity, each lyric is reminiscent of a feeling and moment in time that once belonged to her. Rodrigo was able to verbalize the sensitivity of her first relationship and first heartbreak in all its glory, even the embarrassing emotions we’re afraid to admit.
Like Swift, Olivia Rodrigo faced heavy criticism for writing about her past relationship. Critics and netizens alike criticize her for profiting off her personal life and building her career around boys. Truth be told, these criticisms are not warranted. When I started writing, people always told me to “write what you know”; as Rodrigo said, do people expect her to be writing about “income taxes”? Why does the clichéd writing advice go out of the window the second a young woman leverages it into undeniable success?
Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo transformed their grief into strength. I don’t think anyone can say break-ups are ever easy or even get easier through time. I’m almost 22, but a break-up sends me right back to my teenage bedroom, in the dark, listening to Lorde’s Melodrama. It takes real strength and talent to be doing what Swift and Rodrigo are doing, they are putting the most vulnerable versions of themselves out for the world to see and unfortunately scrutinize.
I have to give credit where credit is due, I too turned my own grief into strength. Four months after experiencing my first break-up in high school, I self-published my first book detailing my first relationship and first heartbreak. Not without backlash, but it was just within the confines of my high school, with many inserting themselves into the narrative, thinking they knew more about my relationship than I did. I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry reading mean comments online on articles I wrote or videos my ex-boyfriend made about the break-up, but I don’t regret writing the book or any of the articles. It was necessary in order to move on and close that chapter of my life.
Young women, in particular, get the short end of the stick. Everything they do is faced with heavy criticism, they can’t listen to the right music, they can’t look the right way, and if they breathe the wrong way, they will end up being a punchline to a joke no one is laughing at.
Young women are not allowed to air out their grievances, but making them grieve privately makes it less acceptable to grieve at all. Allowing them to grieve publicly, whether it’s through music or writing, is respect to what the relationship once was. It brings people together in their healing process, and the support they receive helps them to move on.
As someone who has trouble verbalizing my feelings (please don’t tell me “but Wen, you’re a writer!”, it takes time to talk in alliterations), writing allows me to tap into my emotions’ full potential. Nowadays I feel like I can only tap into that tenderness when I’m listening to Meryl Streep’s rendition of “Slipping Through My Fingers.” But oversharing online is my version of a banging break-up song; if you didn’t write about it, did it really happen?
Maybe it’s just me tapping into my inner Carrie Bradshaw, but why should I contain myself from writing about my heartbreak? If Carrie Bradshaw can write about her politician boyfriend with a piss kink, I’m pretty sure I can write about my ex-boyfriend who couldn’t stop cheating.
For those of us who can commodify and monetize our heartbreak, is it so wrong for us to create relics of a bygone age?
Whether you’ve harbored those emotions to write a book or a song about it, you’re not in the wrong. It can be therapeutic to sit down and reflect on past relationships and see who you have become (for better or for worse) because of them. It is even thought that writing about your exes helps you get over them faster. While I don’t plan to write any letters directed to them, I do plan to write about them in the foreseeable future.
And, if you end up writing a banging break-up song along the way, good 4 u.
Take a listen to some of my favorite break-up songs by female artists and female-fronted bands: