Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, "It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing"

2004 | #18

Of all Shania Twain’s gifts as a singer-songwriter, her ability to tackle heartbreak may have been the most under-heralded.  That side of Twain was well showcased on several standout tracks from The Woman In Me,

but of all the nineteen tracks on the Up! album, there was only one sad song in the bunch.  But oh, what a beauty it was.

“It only hurts when I’m breathing
My heart only breaks when it’s beating
My dreams only die when I’m dreaming
So I hold my breath to forget”

That chorus is a straightforward, yet achingly effective portrayal of the emotional place in which one endeavors to move on after heartbreak, but the pain remains constant, never really going away – You don’t stop hurting until you stop breathing.  The melancholy melody and Twain’s evocative almost-quiver of a performance only add to the record’s emotional heft.  Such an ideal balance of emotional resonance with elegant simplicity is an example of Twain-Lange song structure at its top-notch best.

It’s a shame this single wasn’t a bigger hit.  “It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing” aptly demonstrates the fact that Twain’s talents went far beyond delivering catchy pop hooks.  Shania Twain truly was a great songwriter, and “It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing” is one of her best.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  A

Listen:  It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing

Next:  Party for Two

Previous:  When You Kiss Me


  1. I really like the lyrics, but the production keeps me from liking the song very much as a whole.

    On a side note, I wondering if you guys had considered who was going to replace Shania in the retro reviews, since her singles are winding down. Personally, I would like to see Reba’s singles done next.

  2. This was always my favourite song from up! I always felt tried to hard to be like come on over. I don’t know why, but this song didn’t seem to try to be anything but a good song.

    And I concur with the Reba retro reviews. She’s had such an extensive career that I’m sure there are lots of songs people have forgotten about (and not in a bad way like u wanted to forget them lol)

  3. I tend to agree that the production was overdone, but it was a well-written effort. While I would have given it a “B”, I think the lack of success of the song had to do with when it was released in relationship to the album.

    I think radio was getting a little tired of playing seven Shania singles per record, and so when this came out (fourth/fifth??) single off the album (I honestly don’t remember), it didn’t get as much airplay as it probably warranted. Certainly should’ve been a bigger hit than #18.

  4. This is one of the better singles from Up in my view. But honestly, Im not upset that it bombed on the charts. I remember by 2004 I had grown tired of Shania. The earlier singles — “Getcha Good” and “Up!” were ok and awful, respectively (‘I wish I could grow a beard?!). I had had enough by then. I did like the return to form she mad with “Party For Two,” but generally I felt the singles from “Up” were weak.

    Maybe not. Maybe they were just as good as “Come On Over.” But perhaps Shania’s schtick had worn thin by then, just as Taylor Swift’s schtick is showing a little evidence of wearing out its welcome right now. Or maybe it was just that Shania’s themes were much more culturally relevant in the era of the Spice Girls than at the time Toby was at the height of his popularity.

    Anyway, I agree this was a good single. And I bought “The Woman In Me” and “Come on Over” albums. But the early singles from Up turned me off that project. Maybe if this was the second single I’d have bought Up.

  5. I agree Jess. The lyrics here are rote, and I think nearly all of her lyrics are pretty rote. However, I do think Shania (or Mutt, whoever wrote the lyrics) did have a gift for creating a persona that resonated in the mid to late 1990s (empowered woman who used her feminism not to burn bras or seek quality employment at equal wages but to wear short skirts, man’s shirts, and demand that her man show her a “squeezing, teasing…kinda time.” It worked well in the age of the Spice Girls.

    I think her other talent was merging 1980s rock with country. She (or Mutt, doesnt matter) realized that many country fans at that point grew up on 1980s rock and would be interested in hearing country tunes indebted to that kinda music as much as to Randy Travis.

    I think Shania was incredibly talented at reading the culture’s pulse and offering what it wanted. But times have moved on, her music was essentially bubble gum, and its hard for me to imagine that those songs would do well on the charts today.

  6. How ever is this rote? The lyrics address relatable emotions, and convey them in a way that is both creative and resonant. I struggle to wrap my head around the idea of such a deeply moving lyric and performance being considered rote.

  7. Ben I agree it is relatable and moveable. But its as cliched as Clay Walker’s tune “Only On Days that End in Y”, or Dwight Yoakam’s song about how “the only time I feel the pain is in the sunshine or the rain.” The song is fine, but it is pretty rote lyrically. Thats ok though. 99.9 % of country singles are rote and being rote doesn’t make a song bad.

  8. Well, the concept of “only hurts when I breathe” is a cliche; it has been used in songs for a long time. The same is true of the concept of running into an old flame and saying, “I’m doing fine.” In fact, there isn’t a single original idea/line in the song. In what way is the song creative?

  9. As examples:
    In 1981 the band Player released an album with a song called “It Only Hurts When I Breathe”
    Cop Shoot Cop had a song called, “It Only Hurts When I Breathe” in 1994
    Greenwheel had a album in June 2002 with a song called “Breathe” on it (was later covered by Melissa Etheridge). It has the line, “It only hurts when I breathe.”

  10. I honestly can’t think of a single song I’ve heard that’s used the same titular concept of this song. And to me, saying that the concept of running into an old flame is cliche is like saying that love songs are cliche, or that cheating songs are cliche – It’s a very wide umbrella, and I don’t think dealing with that particular concept is in itself cliche.

    The chorus in particular is creative because lines like “It only hurts when I’m breathing/ My heart only breaks when it’s beating/ My dreams only die when I’m dreaming” connect with thoughts and emotions beyond what the words themselves mean. That’s one of the marks of great songwriting.

  11. I gave you three examples of songs that came out before Shania’s song but use the same title/line. You can add Peter Joback and Amanda Hunt-Taylor to the list as well.

  12. When I posted my last comment, your comment had not yet appeared on my browser, so I had not yet seen your examples. Shania Twain might or might not have been aware of those songs when she wrote this, but either way, I think the evocative melody, and the emotion Twain puts into the song is more than enough to carry it.

  13. Well, that’s fine of course, but I was obviously addressing the comments about her writing. In terms of her lyrics, apart from some puns in her titles, she has never been all that great/original.

  14. Constructing a great melody and getting in touch with human emotions are part of great songwriting. I don’t feel like the fact that others used a similar title hook undermines or negates the emotional heft of the song as a whole.

    Shania Twain was not only original – she was revolutionary. She wrote from an assertive, forward-thinking viewpoint that was largely unprecedented from women in country music before her. Things such as her image and her hook-laden crossover-friendly song structure don’t alter that. It only seems as if she was not original because so many have attempted to emulate her, with varying degrees of success.

  15. I think you are reading things into my posts that are not there. I didn’t even reference the melody. I specifically said “lyrics.” I just mean that her lyrics, particularly when it comes to her “love” songs, were not original. “You’re Still The One,” “It Only Hurts When I Breathe,” “From This Moment On,” “When You Miss Me,” etc. are full of cliches lyrically.

    And of course melody is part of writing, but again I haven’t criticized her there. But lyrics are also part of writing.

  16. I don’t know too much about how music is composed, but u know that growing up I knew who Reba was and Dolly and all the country ladies. However, before Shania came along I would have never, ever listened or bought a country album in my life. Shania’s songs, her style, were so different than anything I ever associated with country. Even her pretty face was not threatening to other woman because she really seemed like the down to earth girl next door that just happens to be drop dead gorgeous. I love “it only hurts when I’m breathing” and so many of the “Up” songs. Even now I’m an adult and have my daughter listen to her music and we all an to see her in Vegas in March.

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