auf wiedersehen

goodbye

On March 7, 2008, Jesse McCartney released the music video for his single “Leavin’,” setting fire to the loins of teens, tweens, and twinks across the nation. The video opens with a frenetic series of out-of-focus jump cuts that flicker between a half-undressed McCartney and the object of his affection, an unnamed girl clad in naught but a loose-fitting sweater and floral panties. The two sit opposite each other in mod-style arm chairs as they stare thirstily at one another. Bathed in the bluish-white light of an otherwise empty room, we get brief flashes of feet and navel, unsure of what’s what and who’s who. 

If you were alive and culturally competent in 2008, you’ll no doubt remember the iconic chorus:

Why don’t you tell him that I’m leavin’ never looking back again
You found somebody who does it better than he can
No more making you cry, no more them gray skies
Girl we flying on the G5

Apparently G5 is short for Gulfstream V—a long-range business jet—but I always assumed it was referencing the musical high note (see Jessie J on American Idol Season 12)

Needless to say, “Leavin’” is scandalous. We have an unbuttoned Jesse McCartney convincing some girl to leave her man in what honestly could be an IKEA, and by the end both of their shirts are off as they writhe about on a bare mattress and later in the backseat of a midsized car.

Were we to form a prediction about the song based solely on its title, we might suspect, as I first did, that it is McCartney himself who might be leavin’ his beloved. Rather, it is the beloved who is dismissing her beau in exchange for another, and if you saw Jesse McCartney with his spiked-up hair, pendant necklace, and casual V-neck sweater in 2008, could you really say you wouldn’t do the same?

This only goes to prove what Pat Monahan, front man of roots rock band Train, preaches in his single “Two Ways to Say Goodbye,” a little known hit off his 2007 solo album Last of Seven. Leavin’ isn’t always so easy, we learn, as the music video for the song features a ghostly superposition of a tousle-haired Monahan—guitar in hand—haunting his former self in the throes of a breakup. The two Monahans sift through the same box of photographs together, picking out what appears to be a shot from the couple’s wedding.

In his characteristic mellow yet gritty voice (think half-Bon Jovi, half-Jason Mraz), Monahan belts out the final chorus:

One way is holding on
Oh but I got to be strong
Either way it’s goodbye
Its just a matter of time
Your tears are made of pride
My tears have all been cried
There’s two ways to say goodbye

Like McCartney, Monahan sings of goodbyes, but unlike the 2008 heartthrob (well, maybe they were both heartthrobs then), Monahan truly is bidding adieu to his love. Refusing to prolong a love he no longer feels, Monahan musters up a goodbye that speaks the unspeakable: “I don’t love you anymore.” His tears dried and his head clear, Monahan is clearly on one side of the goodbye divide while McCartney, swaggering and shirtless, is on the other. “Two Ways to Say Goodbye” is a somber abandonment that seems to say “I’m doing this for us,” whereas “Leavin'” is a devil-may-care “Boy, bye” in the style of “Sorry” by Beyoncé off her most recent album Lemonade.

But, there are yet other ways to say goodbye that resemble neither of these songs.

A vase of pussywillows, a violin bow, a set of champagne flutes, a pair of gold heels left abandoned on a marble staircase. Such are the extravagant images that open the music video for Kelly Clarkson’s 2009 hit “Already Gone,” another song of the late aughts that documents how to let go, but this one oddly glamorous and self-indulgent.

Reclining on a chaise-lounge in a peach-colored silk gown, Clarkson finds herself alone in a mansion accompanied by a floating orchestra of self-playing violins and cellos, lamenting how she and her love were never meant to be. Slouched lazily against a piano, her face pretending to be pained, she finishes out the final chorus:

And I want you to know
You couldn’t have loved me better
But I want you to move on
So I’m already gone

The lyrics sound like Clarkson’s goals are altruistic, that she doesn’t want to cause any more harm. So she leaves without a trace—a goodbye without the “goodbye”—and perhaps it’s better that way, she seems to say. But, why then don Givenchy and pop Rémy? Why perform with a possessed philharmonic? Why make a scene if you’re truly already gone? In the end, with Clarkson dressed to kill and clutching her pearls, “Already Gone” is more likely an ironic goodbye that tries to say “They’re better off without me,” even though you know you’re doing this all for you.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” we hear from Juliet. “Bye! Bye! Bye!” chants NYSNC. “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye,” the Von Trapp children recite. Clearly, there aren’t just two ways to say goodbye as Train would have us believe; there as many ways to say goodbye as there are people to say goodbye to. Sometimes “Catch you on the flipside” and “See you later alligator” is all you need, but there’s also “I think we should see other people,” “It’s not you, it’s me,” and, if you’re feeling extra-millennial, “Delete my number” for that special someone in your life.

In any case, trivial or tragic, goodbyes give us the chance to do right (or wrong) by the people that matter, and for better or for worse, we can only hope that we give the words we mean and get the words we deserve.