Justin Timberlake's Cry Me A River, the ultimate break-up record

Why the heartbreak classic has been given a new lease of life by Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez

In March 2002, a pre-buzzcut Justin Timberlake broke up with a pre-breakdown Britney Spears after a three-year relationship which saw them blossom from perma-smiling Mouseketeers to pin-ups for young love (they used to call each other Stinky and Pinky!). Rumours circulated that Britney had cheated on Justin (this was before he brought sexy back, so don't judge too harshly), allegations that seemed to be supported by Justin's subsequent passive-aggressive pop masterpiece, Cry Me A River.

"You don't have to say what you did/ I already know, I found out from him", squeaks Timberlake over layers of imposing Gregorian chants, before delivering the line, "It wasn't like you only talked to him and you know it". That's followed by a huge pause, the musical equivalent of two raised eyebrows. Britney chose to wait until 2004 to respond with the delicate piano ballad Everytime, a tear-stained love letter that hinges on the line "My weakness caused you pain and this song's my sorry".

Finally, pop seemed to have found its own PJ Harvey and Nick Cave to turn to for blood-soaked true-life romantic confessionals, and yet the pair promptly carried on with their respective lives: Justin designing scatter cushions and starring in middling films, and Britney becoming a dead-eyed pop robot and employee of part-time aural terrorist Will.i.am. However, their relationship, or at least its bitter end, lives on in the shape of Justney (as no one called them) Part 2, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, whose recent love-life travails have been played out through earnest acoustic renditions of Cry Me A River.

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The pair split in November following rumours that Bieber had been spending time with model Barbara Palvin. During a show in Boston, Bieber decided to turn the rumours on their head, treating the crowd to a flamenco-inspired Cry Me A River while wearing a gold lamé glove. Without saying a word about the end of love's young dream, Bieber had inartfully plonked the idea of Gomez's infidelity out into the ether. As is the way with teenage love, the pair reunited and all seemed fine until this month when they split again. This time it was Selena who played the Cry Me A River card, performing a "stripped back" version, pre-empted with a "this song definitely speaks to me" and book-ended with a knowing "OK enough of that". Suddenly, people were really confused. Who'd cheated? When had it all happened? Why did Justin wear the gold glove? And who let Selena become a Unicef ambassador?

Despite the confusion, one fact remains: Cry Me A River, in all its over-sharing glory, has become a classic of its genre; a song that's able to say much more via one acoustic version than any number of media-trained interviews. It should act as the benchmark for any future pop star break-up songs. Zayn and Perrie, take note.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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