What it took for break-up songs to become cultural items

Gloria Gaynor singing I will survive

Some of the skills you develop as a PhD student were not on the program. Now two years into my PhD, I realize that I have become much better at composing nice playlists, and in particular break-up songs playlists. Admittedly, this is not what I thought I’d get good at, but, well, it still counts as a skill or knowledge of some sort, and I enjoy my newly-won status of information-provider. After years been given advice about music by others, ending up in the position of the adviser feels like an achievement.

Keeping on with the idea that any cultural item can serve as a useful toy model of some sort, I’ll suggest here that break-up songs may help us think about interdependence among cultural items. I will also argue that such interdependence can be used as a criterion for cumulative cultural evolution, in a way that is especially useful for defining “cumulative” for the aspect of culture that, unlike technology, evolve without becoming “better” in any clear sense.

First things first, let’s define the object under investigation: break-up (and post-break-up) songs. Interestingly enough, although there are dozens of pages of playlists of them, this ‘genre’ doesn’t seem to have been defined anywhere as such. Break-up and post-break-up songs may have a sad or more energetic mood; they do not conform to any one given musical genre. What binds them in one category is the tenor of their lyrics, focused on romantic disappointments, people’s lives taking different paths, or someone overcoming the pain caused by a break-up.

Here are a couple of prototypical examples. To begin with, the most famous break-up song: I will survive by Gloria Gaylor. It begins:

At first, I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking, I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights thinking, how you did me wrong
And I grew strong and I learned how to get along.

Or take the lyrics of Mittens by Frank Turner:

Cause I once wrote you love songs
You never fell in love
We used to fit like mittens, but never like gloves
You left me feeling like
We’d never really been in love

The very existence of such break-up songs (as that of pretty much anything in modern life) is contingent on many other cultural items. These other items belong to a large range of domains, technical, artistic, normative… Here is a quick, non-exhaustive list, in two parts.

1. The first set of things required by breakup songs is directly related to music. Breakup songs — I assume on common grounds but with limited hard evidence — are more often listened to on one’s own than in live music settings, which makes them dependent on recorded music being available. Recorded music itself has a rather interesting rich set of dependencies. Even a quick look at the dedicated Wikipedia page  shows how cumulative and complex the history of sound recording has been.

Sound recording richly illustrates the impact of physical constraints on cultural items. One of my favorite examples is provided by gated reverbs, a specific resonating effect (If you don’t know what I am talking about, watch this – the whole Vox series in definitely worth the watch).

For the production and distribution of such songs to be profitable, the market had to be large enough, which implies that means of playing recorded music in private settings had to be widely available. This didn’t happen until fairly recently — the walkman’s success, for instance, occurred in the late 70s. If I’m right in thinking that listening to such songs is mostly enjoyed in private, we may predict that break-up songs’ frequency significantly increased after the introduction of walkmans.

Breakup songs, I suggested, are defined by the theme of their lyrics. In other words,  they belong to vocal music with intelligible lyrics. This too is a quite specific feature, not shared by all types of vocal music (the lyrics of ‘growled’ songs, for example, are hardly intelligible), let alone by all types of music. For the content of break-up song lyrics to be intelligible and hence enjoyable, the quality of music recordings had to be good enough, which was not the case with the low acoustic resolution of early recording techniques.

2. The second main set of items necessary to have break-up songs are social norms and institutions (not easy topics for cultural evolution). To make it short, as trivial as it sounds, you need break-ups in order to get break-up songs. For break-ups to be “a thing” about which you might want to sing or listen to songs, “being together” and breaking-up must be quasi institutional occurrences, and having and expressing romantic feelings must be normatively valued. Break-ups wouldn’t be material for songs if the choice of romantic partner were not somewhat free, meaning both that people are free to choose their partners, and also free to dissolve romantic relationships. Such dissolutions should also happen often enough to become ‘lyrics materials’. (Of course, as argued by Boyer & Petersen 2012, the norms and institutions involved ultimately depend on humans’ evolved dispositions for pair-bonding.)

Are break-up songs an example of cumulative cultural evolution? Yes if you use an interdependence criterion to define “cumulative.”

While cumulative cultural evolution is a major topic in the field of cultural evolution, most of its study revolves around technical traditions, and thus often equates cumulative effect with increase in performance or functionality. Such a criterion, however, is of little help with non-functional cultural items as, for instance, break-up songs.

Complexity is another frequently used metric, and to some extent is related to the one I want to suggest here. In contrast to performance or functionality, complexity can be applied to a larger range of cultural traits, and can accommodate both functional and non-functional cases (and has been, through a variety of studies ranging from toolkits inventories, e.g., Collared et al. 2005, to folktales, Acerbi et al. 2017).

One major difficulty with complexity is that it is not that easy to define or operationalize, especially across domains. Another difficulty is that complexity and performance metrics may point in opposite directions: high performance items aren’t necessarily very complex. Complexity may, in some cases, impede performance. In other words, complexity and performance criteria, are not only hard to operationalize as measures of cumulative culture, they are also hard to use together.

“Complexity” as generally understood refers to the ‘internal’ complexity of a type of cultural item — say, the number of part in an aircraft. But, I want to suggest, the dependence of one type of cultural item on other types — what might also be called its ‘external’ complexity —could profitably be considered to define cumulative cultural evolution.

With such an interdependence criterion, a novel cultural item is a case of cumulative cultural evolution as long as its existence depends on the existence of other cultural items. By such a criterion, break-up songs are an example of cumulative cultural evolution: they could only evolve given (among any more traits) the previous evolution of new music recording techniques and of norms encouraging free and defeasible choice of romantic partners.


Acerbi, A., Kendal, J., & Tehrani, J. J. (2017). Cultural complexity and demography: the case of folktales. Evolution and Human Behavior38(4), 474-480.

Boyer, P., & Petersen, M. B. (2012). The naturalness of (many) social institutions: Evolved cognition as their foundation. Journal of Institutional economics8(1), 1-25.

Collared, M., Kemery, M., & Banks, S. (2005). Causes of toolkit variation among hunter-gatherers: a test of four competing hypotheses. Canadian Journal of Archaeology/Journal Canadien D’Archéologie, 1-19.

As a bonus to end this post, several other break-up songs: We’re breaking up by Against me! , Telltale signs, by Frank TurnerSo What by PinkI know it’s over by the Smiths, Lost cause by Beck , or a personal favorite: I would hate you if I could by Turnover


  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 9 October 2017 (14:35)

    What it took for playlists to become cultural items
    Thanks, Helena, for a nice post that stimulates both emotions and ideas. On the idea side, you mentioned a number of cultural developments necessary for break-up songs to become a salient cultural category, but there is one development that, I assume, you take so much for granted in your personal life that you didn’t discuss it at all. It is the emergence of personal or shared playlists. Looking at the Wikipedia entry for “playlist” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playlist), here is what we learn:

    “The term originally came about in the early days of top 40 radio formats when stations would devise (and, eventually, publish) a limited list of songs to be played. The term would go on to refer to the entire catalog of songs that a given radio station (of any format) would draw from. …
    As music storage and playback using personal computers became common, the term playlist was adopted by various media player software programs intended to organize and control music on a PC….
    Some Internet streaming services, such as Spotify, Amazon Music, Project Playlist, MagicPlaylist, 8tracks, Plurn and Webjay, allow users to categorize, edit, and listen to playlists online. Other sites focus on playlist creation aided by personalized song recommendations, ratings, and reviews….”

    On a walkman, you listen to an individually composed “playlist” of songs. But the kind individual playlist you have in mind, if I understand you well, is something that works effectively in an environment where you can stream or download music at will. Playlists, then, are a striking example of “cumulative” culture in your sense, worthy to be discussed as such.

  • comment-avatar
    Helena Miton 10 October 2017 (11:50)

    On the difficulty of thinking that things you grew up with haven’t always been around
    Thank you very much, Dan, for your comment!

    I couldn’t agree more with your point – I didn’t even think about how playlists are themselves a good example of “cumulative culture” in the way I wrote about, and definitely worth discussion.

    You are also very right in assuming that I tend to take playlists for granted in my personal (and everyday) life – most of my close friendships include a substantial amount of music sharing, for instance. And actually, I think this points to another idea worth discussing: music and songs, are probably the type of content most susceptible to owe their success and diffusion (or lack thereof) to some type of emotional selection — a factor of cultural success usually studied in the context of narratives or alarming messages.