New Ryan Adams & Dirty Projectors Albums Prove What Psychology Already Knew: Heartbreak Fuels Creativity

Ryan Adams
Rachael Wright

Ryan Adams

Breakups have long been one of music’s most fertile muses, spawning some of the greatest works of artists like Adele, Bon Iver and Amy Winehouse. The genre has a long tradition: Taylor Swift might be the current face, but her namesake James Taylor was mining his own heartbreak long before she was born.

This month’s album releases from Ryan Adams and Dirty Projectors each recount brutal splits. What is it about the subject that makes artists both prolific and candid?

From a neurological point of view, heartbreak is incredibly conducive to creative output, according to Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist focused on human sexuality.

“When you’ve been rejected, you’re in heightened alertness and creativity. You’re in incredible pain and likely to be up all night because you can’t sleep because dopamine is a natural stimulant so you’ve got the time, you’ve got the energy, you’ve got the despair and you’ve got the creativity,” she says. “That state is pushing them on to be creative and to talk about their despair. It’s one of mankind’s most painful experiences, being dumped. Even if they’re writing songs when they’re not in that state, they’re probably remembering it.”

Prisoner, Adams’ recently released LP, recounts the messy feelings from his divorce from Mandy Moore after six years of marriage, in wrenching detail. It’s not a departure for the singer, whose breakup with longtime girlfriend Amy Lombardi was said to be the genesis of his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker and who alluded to the dissolution of his relationship with Moore on his remake of Swift’s 1989. Similarly, Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth’s breakup with bandmate Amber Coffman looms large over his long-awaited album Dirty Projectors, out this week.

The breakup album comes from artists having a unique ability to express publicly what most people are only able to gripe about with friends and family. “On the psychological level, there is always the need and drive for someone dealing with a breakup to work through those feelings. Artists are in a unique position where they have a platform,” says psychologist Dr. Seth Meyers.

Experts agree that working through the emotional fallout of a split through song can help move the artist into the next stage of healing. And, perhaps equally importantly, can give solace to similarly wounded listeners.

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