’90s No. 1s Revisited: “Un-Break My Heart”
The one hundred third No. 1 song of the 1990s was “Un-Break My Heart” by Toni Braxton. The ballad, written by Diane Warren, was Braxton’s second and final chart-topping single, following the Double A-sided “You’re Makin’ Me High” / “Let It Flow” a few months prior. “Un-Break My Heart” went on to top the charts for 11 weeks, straddling 1996 and 1997, and was the third biggest hit of the decade, following LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” (also written by Warren, incidentally) and Los Del Rio’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix).” which had just relinquished its lock on No. 1 a month before “Un-Break My Heart” assumed the throne.
With “Un-Break My Heart,” Braxton got the chance to demonstrate a more over-the-top, cinematic vocal delivery than on her prior releases, which were virtually all written by Babyface. We love Babyface and mean no disrespect, but in the ’90s he was almost too prolific for his own good, and his music by and large sounded the same — neat, tidy R&B. Warren has a wider range as a songwriter. She can create upbeat or downbeat songs for Rock, Pop and R&B singers, male and female, and has lent her talents to some exceptional ’90s soundtrack music, including Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” from Armageddon and Faith Hill’s “There You’ll Be” from Pearl Harbor. Although “Un-Break My Heart” is not from a film soundtrack, it has an epic, climactic quality that would be fitting for a movie. A big-budget music video starring supermodel Tyson Beckford would have to do.
“Un-Break My Heart” is a haunting ballad that deals with the aching desperation of wanting an ex to change their mind, return and fix everything they ruined. Lucky is the person who can’t relate. Its long reign at No. 1 kept two other tracks from reaching No. 1: R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Don’t Let Go (Love)” by En Vogue, which sealed En Vogue’s fate as an act that would have to settle for three No. 2-peaking singles, but no No. 1 hits. Heartbreaking!
Let’s take a few minutes to listen again to “Un-Break My Heart”:
I hope that somewhere out there, some 18-year-old is reading this, listened to this song for the first time, and was duly floored by what a masterpiece it is. This is the rare smash that deserved its success and accolades. It hit No. 1 on the chart dated Dec. 7, 1996, which was my (John’s) 18th birthday. At the time, I was all-consumed with (then) unrequited love, and this track really hit a nerve. Back in the ’90s, I was always making mixed tapes from CDs and singles I’d bought, and there was one I listened to every day as I was getting ready for school around this time. The first song on Side A was “Twisted” by Keith Sweat, one of the best R&B songs of all time in my opinion, and the first song on Side B was “Un-Break My Heart.” So I started every day listening to one or the other, alternating. And by started every day, I mean showered. So both these songs always make me think of showering, and conjure feelings of being in love at age 18, and the scent of blue bar soap. Lever 2000, I think.
Was it dope? “Un-Break My Heart” won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and is considered by most to be Braxton’s signature song. At the time of its release, it was well-regarded but perhaps not “dope” among kids, since it leaned Adult Contemporary.
Does it hold up? Even though, generally speaking, music like this isn’t particularly popular right now, there’s still an appetite for dramatically delivered balladry, a la Adele and Sam Smith. In that company, “Un-Break My Heart” fits in decently well. We still love this song and don’t find much about the production or delivery that dates it too much.
Dopeness: 5 out of 5 Birkenstocks
’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?