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Why 2021 Was the Year of Nostalgia for Heartbreak

Heartbreak is terrible. Why do Taylor Swift, Adele, Olivia Rodrigo and others make us yearn to relive it?

Female pop icons like Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift and Adele have delivered hit after hit of breakup anthems this year. According to Spotify charts, 18-year-old Rodrigo’s debut album, “Sour,” was the most played globally in 2021, and Swift was the No. 2 most listened to artist on Spotify. Adele’s “30,” released last month, has sold more physical copies than any other album this year, per Variety.

When Rodrigo’s single “drivers license” — 2021’s most played song on Spotify — came out in January, 20- and 30-somethings found it surprisingly easy to obsess anew over high school crushes. Several weeks ago, Swift’s “Enchanted,” from her 2010 album, “Speak Now,” spurred a TikTok meme where users cry in the shower as the singer belts, “Please don’t be in love with someone else.” And in October, the release of the single “Easy on Me” had half the internet wishing they were also going through a divorce so they could fully relate to Adele.

Suffice to say, nostalgia for heartbreak cemented itself in the 2021 zeitgeist. (Don’t believe us? Just ask your friends about their Spotify Wrapped.) But why now? Experts say there were several forces driving bittersweet, angsty tunes to the top of our playlists this year.

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The science of heartbreak 

“When you’re falling in love, there’s a major dopamine surge that occurs,” psychotherapist and relationship expert Rachel Sussman, told NBCLX. “As the relationship progresses, that transitions to oxytocin, which is more of a bonding, familial stage. When you go through a breakup, it’s like suddenly being taken off of drugs. It’s a really dark place to be and can lead to waves of anxiety and fear.”

Listening to a song describing a familiar romantic tribulation can make you feel less alone.

“Women like Taylor Swift and Adele are strong, amazing role models. We think that if they can get through it, we can get through it, too,” Sussman added.

Given how painful breakups can be, it seems almost deviant to want to revisit them by crying along to “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” in the car. But the urge is natural, according to psychologist Orna Guralnik, star of Showtime's “Couples Therapy.”

“Heartbreak brings up many complicated questions, whether you can depend on another person, whether you are lovable, whether you can have trust. ... It’s very scary to face those thoughts,” she said. “Music serves a really important function in organizing our emotional experience. People turn to music to make sense of something that feels chaotic inside.” 

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From breakup ballads to chart-toppers

For the past several decades, pop music has been “supposed to emphasize fun things over dark things,” unlike country music, for example, where breakup ballads are the bread and butter, Gabriel Rossman, a sociology professor at University of California, Los Angeles, told NBCLX. But because this year’s heartbreak albums still fall within pop-genre conventions, they’re getting plenty of airtime on radio stations and elsewhere, he added.

Social media has also been critical in expanding the reach of the heartbreak nostalgia trend. Singer and TikTok star Andi Mitchell, who has almost a million followers, said the video-sharing app in particular determines what’s “in” at any given moment.

“People can share something, and [it’ll] suddenly blow up, whether it’s a song or a small business,” she told NBCLX. “My first viral TikTok was a rewrite of an Olivia Rodrigo song, and suddenly I had all these eyes on me. I started releasing my original music and people loved it. It was the first time I was getting recognition and fans.”

“People love to feel involved in an artist’s life, so when we know what relationship or heartbreak they are singing about, it feels like we are right there with them, along for the ride,” she added.

In the “All Too Well” short film, released in November, Swift let fans into an old relationship reportedly with Jake Gyllenhaal, starting a conversation about the subtler ways men abuse power dynamics. It’s hard to imagine the original song getting the same response in 2012 when it came out. In 2021, post-#MeToo, we’re more primed to delve into topics like “grooming,” as one Twitter user put it.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have also played a role in the rise of emotional, nostalgic songs, according to Guralnik. 

“The idea that infection can spread because of our dependencies on one another is frightening, yet in forced isolation, that dependency that we need is taken away,” she explained. “[The pandemic] created a boiling point of feelings about need, dependency and loss, so it makes sense to me that heartbreak is the No. 1 theme this year.” 

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Why you hit "repeat"

While the relatability of the heartbreaks described in these songs is certainly a piece of the puzzle, our bodies are actually wired to enjoy pop music, thanks to its “strong rhythmic base,” which “connects to our body’s natural rhythm like our pulse,” music psychologist Graham Welch, professor at University College London, told NBCLX.

“We start moving and breathing along to that beat. The pitch, melody and tone are all networked in our brain. It’s the way we’re designed.”

Sadness in general can also make you put on a breakup song, even if a relationship isn't what's getting you down.

“We listen to music that’s depressing because we may be depressed, but the process of listening to it helps release those emotions,” Welch explained. “In the end, we end up feeling better by listening to something depressing, paradoxically.”

That catharsis then prompts your brain to categorize the song as a positive experience, which leads you to play it even more.

“We enter the world primed for sound and emotion. It’s part of who we are as humans,” he said. “We turn to music because it [can stop] us from feeling bad and [help] us communicate. ... It can help you overcome difficult situations.”