From Beyonce to Alanis to No Doubt: The top 10 songs fuelled by revenge
As the internet melts down over Beyonce's apparent all-out musical assault on her husband Jay Z, Ed Power looks at the fine art of getting your own back - in song
Published 28/04/2016 | 02:30
Beyonce apparently lets husband Jay Z have it with two smoking barrels on Lemonade, the bruising new album she surprise released at the weekend.
"Who the f*** do you think I am / You ain't married to no average bitch, boy" Bey snarls on the furious Don't Hurt Yourself. "Keep your money, I got my own / Got a better smile on my face, being alone".
Rumours of trouble in this superstar marriage have swirled for some years and Lemonade pours several drums of gasoline on the speculation. Thus far, most of the attention has focused on the song 6 Inch and its intriguing reference to an alleged other woman in Jay Z's life, "Becky with the good hair".
Within hours of the new LP's debut on the Tidal streaming platform (ironically co-owned by Jay Z), celebrity fashion designer Rachel Roy posted an Instagram selfie with the caption "good hair don't care".
This drove the internet into a frenzy of second guessing and prompted no less an organ than the Washington Post to run a thinkpiece headlined 'How Rachel Roy embodies the new trend in celebrity cheating scandals'.
In truth, however, the identity of "Becky" doesn't matter (and that's assuming she is even a real person, rather than a metaphor for the lack of trust in the marriage). Lemonade is all about Beyonce and Jay Z and the rift between them, a gulf which seemed to have opened in earnest in 2014 when footage emerged of Bey's sister Solange attacking Jay Z in an elevator, allegedly due to his flirting with Rachel Roy, at that year's Met Gala.
Romantic treachery often brings out the best in artists and it is surely no coincidence that Lemonade has already been heralded as Beyonce's finest album yet.
The desire to take public revenge against a personal betrayal has, throughout pop history, pushed musicians to outdo themselves.
That is as true when Taylor Swift recorded We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together in 2012 as when Nancy Sinatra released These Boots Are Made For Walking in 1966. The mixture of sadness, incoherent rage and the thirst for vengeance makes the payback song among the most compelling genres. So, here are 10 of our favourites.
You Oughta Know, Alanis Morissette
Morissette was a perky Canadian pop singer until her first serious relationship collapsed in a smoking heap of infidelity and recrimination. She poured her righteous rage into 1995's 35 million-selling Jagged Little Pill. The pulsating black heart of the record is the single You Oughta Know, less a kiss off to a former lover than a pugilistic knee to the groin. "Every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back, I hope you feel it," shrieks Morissette, sounding very angry indeed.
But at whom, exactly, is this warhead directed? Those in the firing line are reputed to have included a prominent Canadian comedian, a famous ice hockey player and a musician with whom Morissette briefly collaborated.
However, the general consensus is that the target is an actor 15 years Morissette's senior, said to have broken up with her because he wanted a family and she didn't.
Smile, Lily Allen
A knife in the ribs is twice as painful when accompanied by a hearty chuckle. Smile is, in that respect, the perfect revenge anthem. Most of Allen's debut album, Alright Still, is about an Irish boyfriend who broke her heart and it is on Smile that she twists the blade in earnest.
"At first when I see you cry, yeah, it makes me smile," croons Allen, in that familiar butter-wouldn't-melt lilt. In the accompanying video, she arranges for the actor playing her former beau to be mugged, sends some oiks over to thrash his apartment and spikes his tea with laxatives.
Part Of Me, Katy Perry
Perry's fairytale marriage to Russell Brand had a horror-show ending and she channelled her sadness and anger into the Roar album. However, at that point she was already an accomplished composer of revenge tunes. Perhaps her most cutting song in that regard was 2012's Part Of Me - a finger jabbed in the eye of a pre-Brand boyfriend (his identity remains a mystery).
"You chewed me up and spit me out / Like I was poison in your mouth," Perry wails. "You took my light, you drained me down / But that was then and this is now, now look at me". Here Perry delivers the perfect break-up song, painting her ex as controlling and confidence-sapping before declaring that singledom has been the making of her.
Cold Case Love, Rihanna
The appalling physical abuse Rihanna suffered at the hands of then boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009 inspired her bruising Rated-R album from 2010. On the follow-up tour, she acted her anger out viscerally. During one number, Rihanna grabbed a baseball bat and "vandalised" a papier-mâché car; she later straddled a tank turret looming over the audience. A centre-piece of the tour and of the accompanying album was Cold Case Love, wherein she revisited Brown's horrific assault, likening their time together to a prison sentence.
"Your love ain't the kind you can keep / release me now cause I did my time," she sings. "It's a song that everybody wanted to hear," Rihanna later explained.
"It is everything that I didn't say for the past eight months, exactly how I felt about that relationship and how I feel about it now - that song says it all."
Don't Speak, No Doubt
The California band's 1996 breakthrough was written by singer Gwen Stefani about boyfriend Tony Kanal after he called time on their seven-year relationship. Awkwardly he was also No Doubt's bass player and so, every night on tour, was required to grin and bear it as Stefani dissected their time together in front of tens of thousands of strangers.
"It used to be more upbeat, more of a 70s rock-type thing," Stefani would recall. "[When] Tony and I broke up... it turned into a sad song."
The singer again drew on personal upsets with her latest album, This Is What The Truth Feels Like, a unflinching chronicling of the end of her marriage to rock singer Gavin Rossdale (alleged prompted by his affair with a nanny).
Rumours, Fleetwood Mac
As has been exhaustively documented, Rumours was recorded while the two couples who made up four-fifths of Fleetwood Mac were going through mutual break-ups, with several affairs on the side thrown in to keep things interesting. Especially toxic was Go Your Own Way, wherein recent lovers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks engaged in the musical equivalent of flinging crockery at each other.
They've since become good friends, but to this day a palpable whiff of brimstone accompanies their performance of the song.
You're So Vain, Carly Simon
Speculation has raged for decades over who Simon was calling out in this deliciously cruel character assassination. Her ex-husband James Taylor is one candidate, Warren Beatty, with whom Simon had a brief fling, another. But it is possible that You're So Vain is a broadside against every man who has ever regarded themselves as God's gift to the opposite gender.
Simon has made various oblique statements about the track - in 2015 hinting that it was about Warren Beatty and "two other men". So we are none the wiser - though clearly you didn't want to get on the bad side of early 70s Carly Simon.
Cry Me A River, Justin Timberlake
For reasons we will leave to sociologists to answer, "revenge" songs are assumed to be a speciality of female artists. But a past master at the genre is Justin Timberlake, whose fractious split from Britney Spears inspired two R&B masterpieces, 2005's What Goes Around… Comes Around and his breakout number, Cry Me A River, from the 2002 Justified album.
The song tells of a broken-hearted young man whose last girlfriend cheated on him. In the video he has fun getting his own back, breaking into her house so that he can film himself canoodling with another woman. Yes, that is a whole lot of payback in a three-minute pop promo.
Before He Cheats, Carrie Underwood
Here's a useful lesson - never, ever mess with Carrie Underwood. Otherwise she is liable to visit unspeakable horrors on your most treasured possession. "I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped up four-wheel drive," she sings on Before He Cheats, "Carved my name into his leather seats... I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights, slashed a hole in all four tires…"
What's great about this song is that it truly is a revenge anthem. The specifics of the relationship are not lingered over. All we know is that Underwood is mad and determined to get her own back.
We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together, Taylor Swift
You could write endless books about Taylor Swift's revenge anthems (one is probably being churned out as you read this). Her most biting surely is this nugget from 2012's Red LP. She was inspired to write the song after hearing rumours that she and an ex with whom she had a very painful parting were on the brink of reconciliation. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as Swift made clear. The tune is generally assumed to be about Jake Gyllenhaal, with the actor who played Swift's ex in the video a dead ringer for the movie star.