Someone once said love means never having to say you’re sorry. To hell with that. If you have ever been wronged, the recipient of dirty deeds or just dumped, you know the frustrated fury heartbreak can cause. And even worse, there isn’t much you can do with the heartbreak — there isn’t a Love Court in which to air your grievances, and going full Fatal Attraction is so ’80’s (and also illegal).
So, what’s a sad single sack to do? Answer: Don’t get mad, get even. Write a song about that rotten scoundrel. Sing to the rooftops about that insensitive jerk. If you make a huge top 10 hit and a million dollars in the meantime? Bonus.
Revenge songs have become the perfect way to drag and/or mourn those who misbehaved. Here are 11 of the very best tell-off tunes ever written.
“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon
Back in his heyday, Warren Beatty was known as a ladies’ man. Well, that’s a nice way of putting it, especially if you’re his former girlfriend, Carly Simon. While Beatty may have left a trail of spurned lovers like roadkill, not many of them wrote an iconic song about it. OK, nowhere does it say that it’s definitely about him, but how many men that Simon dated could you see watching themselves gavotte while wearing a scarf that was apricot?
Back in 1972 when the song came out, Simon had people guessing which man (or men) this song was about, which is part of what made it so much fun. Yet, the lyrics seemed so much like Beatty that he actually claimed he thought it was about him and called Simon to thank her for writing it. Irony, much? “You’re So Vain,” a wry swat at self-absorbed men, became an anthem for women everywhere and is still ranked as one of Billboard’s Greatest Songs of All Time.
“You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette
If this song did anything, it made men across the world uncomfortable in public theaters. The pure rage that came marching across the desert sands in this music video was unlike anything we had seen from a female performer. Morissette didn’t mince words, either — she was pissed. She wanted you to feel it when she scratched her nails down the back of her revenge lay, of which you’d imagine there were many. The song is supposedly about Full House star Dave Coulier, although according to Rolling Stone, Morissette has been coy and Coulier hasn’t confirmed it. Whoever it’s about, when she dropped this single, it left the earth scorched like one of Khaleesi’s dragons. You’ve heard of torch songs? This was a pitchfork song, a rallying cry for abandoned women across the ages.
“Rolling in the Deep” by Adele
Queen of the tearjerk breakup songs, Adele blasts her way through bluesy skywriting that reads something like “Oh boy, dude, are you ever gonna be sorry for the day you broke up with me.” And if you look at the meteoric rise of Adele’s career, you just know there are at least a couple lads back across the pond who must be sorry they did her wrong. She really turns the screws, belting out, “We could have had it all,” followed up with a whispery “You’re gonna wish you had never met me.” If Adele did have some crystal ball that predicted her immense fame, then that’s a pretty cheeky lyric to skewer with. It reminds me of the embittered lines from Liz Phair’s brilliant song “Help Me, Mary,” praying for help to “weave my disgust into fame, and watch how fast they run to the flame.” That is the crux of Adele’s hit — regret over what could have been tempered by the salve of fame. Suck on her fumes, boys.
“Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks
What’s better revenge than a murder? As much as offing your no-good husband would feel really good, it’s illegal and would come with a pesky jail sentence. So, writing a fun country anthem about it has got to be the next best thing. Underneath this bouncy song, the Dixie Chicks are actually exploring the darker theme of domestic abuse. The perp, Earl, puts his wife, Wanda, in intensive care. But in the spirit of friendship and girl power, Wanda and her friend Mary Ann go all Thelma and Louise on him with some poisoned black-eyed peas. Lucky for them, wife-beaters are “missing persons that no one misses at all.” Moral of the story: Don’t mess with Texas women.
“Fuck You” by CeeLo Green
It doesn’t get much clearer than this. Green has something to say about men who drive his ex around in expensive cars. He isn’t pulling any punches, remarking, “I really hate your ass right now.” No one really believes that Green still wishes her “the best,” and while he gives a stern warning that the girl is a no-good, shallow gold-digger, you can tell that if he could drive off the lot with a new Bentley for her today, he would. According to Esquire, Green claims he actually wrote this song about his record company, Elektra, when they kept rejecting his songs, but it sounds so much like it is about a specific woman who liked that flashy stuff, doesn’t it? The song hit a nerve with a lot of guys because it became a massive hit and won Green a Grammy. Now he can afford that car.
“Cry Me a River” by Justin Timberlake
Now you did it. You’re in trouble. You done broke Justin Timberlake’s heart. Girl, you didn’t even have the decency to tell him yourself. He found out from him. And now you have the nerve to come crawling back? Poor JT. But he doesn’t need our help. JT took to his synthesizer and beatbox and whipped up a Grammy-winning answer to the infidelities and lies. It’s pretty damning evidence for the offending party, who is supposedly Britney Spears, according to JT’s producer on the Justified album, Timbaland. He told the Huffington Post the song was inspired by a disturbing phone call JT had with Spears right before a recording session.
Whoever it may be, the fact of the matter is that JT’s crooning, which at times sounds like controlled crying, resonated with owners of lonely hearts everywhere and the song was a massive hit. Tough luck to his ex. Sorry, honey. The bridges were burned. Now it’s your turn to cry.
“Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood
If you really want to inflict pain, you gotta hit him where it really hurts: his car. At least, that’s what Carrie Underwood is hoping. This revenge anthem became No. 1 with a bullet as the karaoke song choice of pissed-off women who want to mess up their cheating man and need Underwood to show them the way. Armed with a Louisville Slugger and a swagger, she goes to town on her man’s ride while she guesses what he’s doing inside the bar with some other woman. Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats. Or maybe he’ll park in a secure location and take an Uber.
Lemonade by Beyoncé
It’s not just a drink anymore. According to the Beyhive, there is BL and AL: before Lemonade and after Lemonade. Bey basically dropped an atomic bomb on the unsuspecting public and caused a crater-sized hole in the pop culture stratosphere. Her visual album Lemonade was a collection of songs that were mostly about infidelity.
Confirming what most of the public suspected, following a very public elevator feud in 2014 (as E! News reported), Beyoncé and Jay-Z were having marital problems. What we didn’t expect was for Beyoncé to lay it all out like a diary confessional. This wasn’t a revenge song, it was several songs making it clear that Hova was in the doghouse, and it gets real. The song “Sorry” asks her lover to write her eulogy while giving him the middle finger. Plus, she forever ruined the lives of women named Becky, not to mention those of us who have good hair. She reminds him in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” that he isn’t married to an average bitch, she has her own money, and who does he think he is? If he doesn’t know, the Beyhive will be sure to remind him.
The album is both vulnerable and scathing. But just as you think all is lost for the king and queen, you remember it isn’t every day that the target of a revenge song releases the entire album on his label. That is dedication to a lover’s career… or perhaps just really keen business savvy.
“Better Than Revenge” by Taylor Swift
What Taylor Swift song isn’t a revenge song? It seems that these days, she’s striking out like a wounded bird (“Dear John”), a mean girl (“Bad Blood”), a spurned ex (“We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together”) or a motivational speaker (“Shake It Off”). There are always haters coming at Swift, to whom she has to pen a musical response, and it seems exhausting. However, there is a special sauce in “Better Than Revenge” that puts it at the front of Swift’s catalog. Perhaps it’s her decision to go on the revenge offensive, and she’s saved up all her practice for this one actress who has stolen her man. Although most of Swift’s lines have the sting of a wet mop, like “No amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity” (ooh, diss!), she strikes a little harder with some good old-fashioned slut-shaming: “She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” That’s a clear sign that claws are out and Swift is committed to dragging this girl through the mud.
“These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” by Nancy Sinatra
As soon as you hear that bass line, you know you are descending into a ’60s-styled Hades for crossing this woman. The mystery is, will she kick your ass or walk out the door? With Nancy Sinatra, both options are on the table, and she’s going to keep you guessing. That neato tambourine could keep striking her hip or suddenly hit you across your lying face. You get the feeling that Sinatra has warned you a million times and you just haven’t taken her seriously. She may look like a sex kitten, but make no mistake, those stiletto boots are lethal. “One of these days” just became today, Daddy-O.
“Idiot Wind” by Bob Dylan
There are so many diss tracks that could have snagged the last spot. Pink, Ciara, Eminem… the list goes on. In fact, the majority of angry love songs are about either cheating or some sort of violence. But some are crossovers. This one contains both subjects and manages to cut down the person in question in so many vicious ways that you will need to remind yourself you’re listening to a folk singer and not at a cutthroat rap battle.
It’s a beautiful tapestry of insults. First of all, Dylan is calling her an idiot to her face: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth. You’re an idiot, babe. It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” That’s pretty glorious. You sort of want this guy around in case you ever need to whip up an entertaining poison-pen letter, but you would never want to be on the receiving end of it. He claims to have killed a man, run off with his wife and then inherited all her money. Then he openly threatens her. “One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes, blood on your saddle.” It’s so descriptive, you can tell he has thought it through many times, perhaps even going so far as to pick out the murder weapon and the shovel. Shiver.