Why is ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’ by The Magnetic Fields my most-played track of all time?
I’m not a musician, so I can’t really analyse the nuts and bolts of the music itself to help explain. I can’t, for instance, explore why the low-fi garage rock sound is so appealing despite its fuzzy tone and ironically low production values. Nor can I explain why the stunning two-step ascending bassline in the bridge is so devastatingly seductive every time I hear it. And I definitely can’t explain why the melody is just so perfect to croon along to whilst drunk and/or in the throes of heartbreak.
Maybe it’s the lyrics, then. “I don’t want to get over you”, Stephin Merritt sings in his impossibly bassy voice, double-tracked and subtly modulated with a tinny, aluminium-like filter. He lists possible remedies to help deflect the pain: sleeping pills, Prozac, casual rebound sex, denial, Camus, etc – all in an effort to help him forget his former lover. But none are quite as enjoyable as simply indulging in a bit of post-breakup self-pity and wallowing.
Like so many other love songs, it works because it’s familiar. It doesn’t take much for a breakup tune to sound relatable anyway, but Merritt somehow manages to pin down a very specific emotion without shutting the listener out. There’s a petulant, almost childish refusal to let go of this relationship, but the listener can’t bring themselves to judge him for it. Why not? Because trying to get over someone you love is a real bitch – and the song doesn’t even need to say it outright. He knows, and we know – and crucially, he knows that we know.
I was around 17 when I first heard this song. I was in the middle of my A-levels and also dealing with an intense crush on a man who was devastatingly gorgeous, kind, erudite, witty, and everything else. He was also completely and utterly unobtainable. But despite my best efforts to resist, I couldn’t shake him off my mind. Like a weird, unexplainable rash, my feelings towards this guy just wouldn’t go away. I therefore resigned myself to another year of crushing heartache until I could finally leave school and go off to do my own thing, as far away from him as possible.
Perhaps that’s why the song had (and still has) such an effect on me. On paper, listening to a bitter song like ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’ seems counterintuitive. But actually, the one core truth the song seems to preach is that that wallowing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, you should absolutely let yourself feel bad. Because why wouldn’t you? Of course you’re going to feel this way – it’s a completely unavoidable consequence of dicing with love. And expending extra energy trying to deny it isn’t going to get you anywhere. The song champions this idea with glee. It sucks, sure, but you feel all the more alive for it, right? Just keep in mind that it won’t last forever. Embrace it while you still can.
‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’ has never faded out of prominence for me, being one of those rare tracks that keep their shine even after being played to death again and again. It is of course best enjoyed when you have someone in your life you can direct the song at, but it’s definitely not an essential prerequisite. Even at times of my life when the lyrics haven’t been immediately relevant, it’s never not been worth a listen.
Nick Hornby wrote about the associations we create with songs, and how the original meanings get rubbed away over time and with repeated listens. Songs like ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’ see you through all kinds of shit in life. When I was 17 it might have been emblematic of just one specific person and one specific time of my life, but that was nearly five years ago. Too much has happened since for that original meaning to have endured – too many memories overlap for one to really stick out as the memory that I associate with the song.
Now, though? ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’ just sounds familiar, like an old jumper that still fits after years of wear. It sounds understanding. It sounds comfortable. And most importantly – and this is probably the main reason why it’s my most-played song of all time – it sounds like me, and what my heart would sound like if it could write songs. And I really fucking love that about it.