Thank U, Next: The Best Breakup Songs Ever—and Who They're About

Ariana Grande's latest single is already a new anthem...look back on the powerful post-breakup songs that came before "Thank U, Next"

By Tierney Bricker Nov 06, 2018 8:33 PMTags
Watch: Ariana Grande Says Exes Heard "Thank U, Next" Before Its Release

To borrow a phrase from Ariana Grande's new single, "we're so f--king grateful" for this new empowering anthem, a new classic for a generation to listen to for inspiration in a post-breakup funk. 

The 25-year-old pop star released "Thank U, Next" on Saturday night following her split with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, with the song quickly becoming a much-needed message of self-love and a damn good meme, too. 

When E! News talked to her brother Frankie Grande, he admitted, "I sobbed and I cried the first time she played it for me. When she said, 'I met someone else / And her name is Ari,' I wept."

Thank U, Next: The Best Breakup Songs Ever

Same, Frankie. Same. 

He continued, "The message is just so powerful. It's helping other people, too. Like, she's helping other people get through difficult times and difficult breakups!"

"Thank U, Next" joins an exclusive list of powerful breakup songs that have become staples over the years for those nursing heartache and/or in need of some inspiration. We've all known that feeling of just needing to blast a song and sing along to the lyrics before feeling like you're about to burst from your emotions. Consider these jams comfort food for your ears and emotions. 

Plus, artists like Ariana, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and more have used their lyrics as a way to spill the tea on their love stories without really getting any stains on their shirts. 

We've compiled a list of some of the best breakup songs ever, and included who they're (allegedly) about...

Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next"

After a fast-paced romance and high-profile split, Ariana decided to throw all subtly and veiled references out the window for the first song she released post-Pete Davidson break-up. Her former fiancé isn't the only ex name-checked in the song, with fellow exes Ricky AlvarezMac Miller and Big Sean also being named in the empowering anthem. 

Before it's release, Ariana tweeted that the song was "the opposite" of a "diss track" and she wasn't kidding. "Thank u, next" is all about Ari's new relationship with herself after learning valuable lessons from all of her past romances.

"One taught me love / One taught me patience / One taught me pain / Now, I'm so amazing / I've loved and I've lost," she sings...and now we bet you can't get that out of your head. Thank u, next single please, Ariana!

Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone"

"But since you been gone...I can breathe for the first time..."

It's hard to imagine anyone else singing what is arguably The Voice coach's best song, but it almost went to Pink, who turned it down, and then Hilary Duff, who also passed, before Clarkson ended up releasing it as the first single off of her 2004 album, Breakaway. (No, Clarkson didn't write the catchy tune, Max Martin and Dr. Luke did.)

"Since U Been Gone" quickly became the post-breakup relief anthem for a generation, even making its way onto MTV's Laguna Beach and was covered in Pitch Perfect, with Clarkson also taking home the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the song. 

Beyoncé's Lemonade

Come on, how does one pick just one song off of Queen Bey's iconic 2016 album? Sure, she stayed with Jay-Z, but she held nothing back...exposing his wrongdoings, revealing intimate details about their marital struggles, using the album as a diary and a warning simultaneously. It is a work of art and a work of love and pain and hope, making it far more than just a break-up album. 

Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River"

Though he's never actually said directly that his 2002 hit is about his ex-girlfriend Britney's totally about Britney Spears, with a look-alike even being cast in the music video.

"I've been scorned. I've been pissed off," he wrote of the inspiration for the anthem in his new book, Hindsight: & All the Things I Can't See in Front of Me. "I wrote 'Cry Me a River' in two hours. I didn't plan on writing it."

The song was a critical and commercial smash hit for Timberlake, who was establishing himself as a solo artist after N Sync. It worked—the sexy and scornful song won the Grammy for Best Pop Male Vocal Performance.

Taylor Swift's "Dear John"

Do you know how hard it is to highlight Swift's best breakup song when she is basically the godmother of breakup songs, knowing exactly how much info to tease to turn her listeners into detectives? Her albums are her journals and her songs are her relationship guides. But her most obvious one was "Dear John" off of her 2010 album.

Sample lyric? "Dear John, I see it all, now it was wrong / Don't you think 19 is too young to be played by your dark twisted games, when I loved you so?"

 It was, of course, about John Mayer, though Swift never confirmed it...but Mayer decided to a few years later, saying that the song "humiliated" him in an interview.

"It made me feel terrible," Mayer told  Rolling Stone. "Because I didn't deserve it. I'm pretty good at taking accountability now, and I never did anything to deserve that. It was a really lousy thing for her to do." He also called it "cheap songwriting." 

Swift's response? "How presumptuous!"  

Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats"

Lesson learned from this revenge ballad? Do. Not. Cross. Carrie. Underwood.

While she charmed American Idol viewers with her sunny disposition and country crooning, fans were introduced to a new whole side of the singer when she released "Before He Cheats" and took a Louisville Slugger to both headlights. 

The song was once the the best-selling country song of all-time and won Underwood two Grammys in 2008 (Country Song of the Year and Best Female Country Vocal Performance). And, more importantly, it (hopefully) inspired some cheaters to think next time before they...well, you already know...

Justin Bieber's "Love Yourself"

Many songs have been born from the rollercoaster relationship that was Jelena, but arguably the most bitter one from Bieber is "Love Yourself," which suggest Justin's mom Patti Mallette wasn't Gomez's biggest fan. ("My mama don't like you—and she likes everyone," he sings in the chorus).

 Many believed the song title was a direct reference to Gomez and one of her tattoos, which is the Arabic translation of the phrase "Love Yourself First" on her back.

However, it turns out Bieber didn't even write this song...Ed Sheeran did!

Selena Gomez's "Love Will Remember"

The first of many songs about her relationship with Bieber, Gomez decided to start this 2013 single with an actual voicemail from her ex. 

"Hey babe, it's me," Bieber says in the voicemail. "I just want to call and tell you that I love you so, so, so, so much. I just wanted to let you know that you are my princess. You are worthy of all the love in the world. You are the love of my life."

At the time, a source close to Bieber told us he was "blown away" by the track. Five more years of on-and-off dating confirms that!

The Weeknd' "Call Out My Name"

The Weeknd's (whose real name is Abel Tesfaye) hit song in 2017 was all about his failed relationship with Selena Gomez, with apparent references about her kidney transplant, as well as her reconciliation with her ex Justin Bieber shortly after their split.  

"Guess I was just another pit stop ‘Til you made up your mind," The Weeknd sings during the song. Damn...

Charlie Puth and Selena Gomez's "We Don't Talk Anymore"

Surprise, another song alluding to Selena Gomez's on-and-off romance with Justin Bieber! In 2018, Puth fully admitted that their 2016 duet was about their short-lived romance coming to an end because of her ex.

"It's about a particular moment in my life, when someone very close to me wanted the attention of somebody else," he explained to Billboard. "When I found that out and we ended it, I might have done some shady things too, and she might have asked me, 'How long has this been going on?'"

He then added, "I don't kiss and tell, but the only way a song like that can come across as real is if there's something else going on behind the scenes. And that's what was happening [with Gomez]. Very short-lived, very small, but very impactful. And it really messed me up. I'm trying to put this the best way possible: It wasn't like I was the only person on her mind. And I think I knew that going in—what I was getting myself into."

Drake's "Marvin's Room"

The rapper's 2011 track is Drake at his emo best...and perfectly capturing the phenomenon of "drunk dialing," with Drake drunkenly calling an ex from a nightclub. (Said ex allegedly sued him after the track was released. Take care, Drake!) Definitely one of his best songs ever.

Nick Jonas and Miley Cyrus' "Before the Storm"

It's rare that a couple gets together to record a song after their split, but that's what these two did in 2009 after dating on and off since meeting at a Disney Channel event in 2006. 

At the time, Jonas told MTV News that the bittersweet ballad was "probably one of his favorite songs because it has a great story to it." Though it didn't initially include Cyrus, Jonas thought it would a good song to record with his ex and share with their young fans. #Niley4ever. Curiously enough, they performed the song on stage together amidst reconciliation rumors...right before Cyrus met now-fiance Liam Hemsworth on the set of The Last Song.

But both Jonas and Cyrus have released other songs about their break-up(s): Cyrus' 2008 hit "7 Things" is all about Jonas, while he revealed in 2017 that one of the Jonas Brothers' 2013 songs "Wedding Bells" was about Cyrus after she got engaged to Hemsworth. 

Christina Aguilera's "Fighter"

If this jam hasn't been on your workout playlist since it came out in 2003, you've been living your life wrong for over 16 years. Sorry not sorry!

While the singer never revealed who the empowering track was about, she did say on RuPaul's Drag Race's after-show Untucked that "he deserved it."


Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know"

The. Gold. Standard. Of. Breakup. Songs. Morissette's 1995 hit taught us hell hath no fury like a talented songwriter scorned. "You Oughta Know" also delivered one of the most epic celeb urban legends: It's about Full House's Dave Coulier. Uncle Joey, what did you do?!

"There was a lot of familiar stuff because she was writing a lot of material when we were dating, so there were some familiarities all throughout [her album] Jagged Little Pill," Coulier told HuffPost Live in 2014. "The one that got me was, 'I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner.," he said. "That was because we had already broken up and she had called—she was living in Canada at the time—she called, and I said, 'Hey, I'm right in the middle of dinner, can I just call you right back?' I remember that line when I heard 'You Oughta Know,' and I just was like, 'Uh-oh.'"

Ed Sheeran's "Don't"

Like his friend Taylor Swift, Sheeran is very good at delivering some gossipy goods in his songs, and "Don't" definitely did. The 2013 song was about his ex Ellie Goulding allegedly cheating on him with One Direction's Niall Horan while on tour, with Sheeran telling Entertainment Weekly,  "I had to be as honest as possible in that song because otherwise what's the f–king point? There'd be no anger or pain in that song if it was just very sweet and nice."

Pink's "So What"

Written during a separation from her husband Carey Hart in 2008, Pink's "So What" is a little petty and a lot of fun, with lines like "You're a tool" and "I'm not gonna pay his rent." 

Pink even got her then-ex to appear in the music video, though she didn't tell him what the song was about before filming. "He hadn't heard the song before he showed up for the video," she told Radio 1. "He's a good sport, he knows how psychotic I am, he spent six and a half years with me. A year with me is like dog years."

After they reconciled in 2009, Pink talked about still performing the song when she appeared on Ellen in 2009. "It's funny now!"

Nick Lachey's "What's Left of Me"

The 98 Degrees lead singer released this solo track in 2006 following his very public divorce from Jessica Simpson, and it ultimately became his most successful song.

Ironically enough, then MTV VJ Vanessa Minnillo would take on the role of Simpson in the music video, with Lachey later going on to marry her in 2011. 

Katy Perry's "Roar"

Sure, there are more obvious breakup songs from the American Idol judge, but "Roar" is her most uplifting and came at a pivotal point in the singer's life during one of the off-periods of her on-and-off romance with John Mayer

"Roar is a song I wrote as I was a little bit upset," she once told Radio 1. "I found myself having a break with my boyfriend, who I loved very much and it really hurt my heart. I said to myself, 'I need to see what is going on with me and make sure I'm all good.' When you break up with someone it's easy to say they are crazy and think it's all them, but, honestly, maybe there is 50% responsibility on your behalf. It was just time for me to be honest with myself."

No Doubt's "Don't Speak"

Imagine being in a band with your ex? That was a reality for Gwen Stefani, who wrote a song (along with her brother and then No Doubt co-founder Eric Stefani) in 1996 about her and bassist Tony Kanal's breakup. Awkward? Yep! Worth it? Duh. 

"It's still weird. Even last night when I sang the song it's still weird," she said on The Howard Stern Show in 2016. "I just rolled my eyes and walked away [like] really? You're still feeling that?"

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