In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Inertia is good! That’s the message of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” a song that sounds way more like a celebration than a heartbroken plea. Sedaka’s narrator wants his significant other to stay around, simply because “I’ll be blue” and because “breaking up is hard to do.” The lyrics are emotionally stark and direct. The music sounds like balloons falling from the ceiling.
Maybe that’s a functional definition of doo-wop: songs about teenage love and sadness, rendered in giddily inventive vocal gymnastics. The genre has deep roots in American music, of course — in the harmonies of slave spirituals, in the syncopations and innovations of vocal jazz, in the economic and social forces that pushed black and Italian and Jewish kids to sing on the same city streetcorners in the ’50s. But that central combination — simplistic emotion in the lyrics, cartoonish exhilaration in the music — pretty much defined the early-’60s version of doo-wop that became such a crossover-pop juggernaut. And as far as that aspect of the genre goes, you might not find a more ur-typical example than “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.”
Sedaka, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, was only in his early 20s when he co-wrote and recorded “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” but he’d already done plenty — studying piano at Juilliard, working as a Brill Building songwriter, releasing a string of solo hits. With “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” he left his most indelible mark. It’s as short as a Ramones song, and almost as simple, and that comma-comma down doobie-doo down down vocal riff is pure goofy exhilaration. Sedaka doesn’t sound the least bit sad when he’s singing it, and this is one of those rare cases where this is exactly the right choice for what, on paper, is a sad song. He sounds like he already knows that this pathetic plea is going to work because he sold it with all the verve it needed.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Partridge Family covering “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”: