We’ve all got at least one: the wildly accessible mainstream pop song about heartbreak that connects with us. Tracks about heartache enter the zeitgeist, year after year, and while you might not cotton to all of them, you’ve almost certainly sang along to at least one of them.
Maybe it was “Say Something,” the nigh-ubiquitous piano ballad from A Great Big World (featuring Christina Aguilera), in 2014. Or perhaps you found yourself getting a little choked up to Post Malone’s pulsing “Better Now” in 2018. Maybe Adele’s 2021 divorce lament “Easy On Me” earwormed its way past your defenses. (Too good for all of those? How about “Maps,” you hardhearted bastard.)
So what makes a sad song popular? There weren’t many downbeat numbers about heartache near the top of Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 Songs chart in 2021, but the ones that are there made an impact. Probably none more so than Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license” (No. 8 on the chart), which—as SNL slyly pointed out—seems to have the power to reduce anyone to tears.
And the deceptive dance floor groove of The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” (No. 2) masks a song practically suffering from depression, as Abel Tesfaye sings about the desperate desire to win back the woman he left, both of them stuck crying in a hopeless situation.
But those are the only two sad songs in the top 10, and musically, they have almost nothing in common. One is a classic ballad that introduces a thumping beat, only to pull it out from under the listeners’ feet. The other is a funky, churning slice of ’80s soul-pop that sneaks its lamentations in under the guise of an upbeat bop.
You’ll have to scroll a ways down the list to find any more heartbreak. Most of the melancholy numbers are less of the sad, and more of the rueful “hey girl/boy, stick around, it’s all good” variety. (See: “Stay,” by The Kid LAROI & Justin Bieber, as an example.) You have to go all the way down to No. 31—“Heartbreak Anniversary” by Giveon—before you’ll find the next traditionally composed sad song.
This shift, to a more varied and unpredictable style of sad song, has been happening for a while now. Numerous tracks that are musically less downbeat nonetheless traffic in sorrow. In 2018, Vulture even ran a piece wondering why so much popular music seemed to be wrestling with sadness and bleak themes, calling it “the year of the sad song.”
True, there’s a difference between a sad song in the general sense, and a sad song of the lovelorn and heartbroken variety. Call it the difference between Drake’s “In My Feelings” and Shawn Mendes’ “If I Can’t Have You”—both sad, but only the latter is really in mourning.
But sadness has always run the gamut in pop music. Halsey’s “929,” a crushing self-assessment on fame and loneliness, sits comfortably beside Taylor Swift’s “exile,” a bittersweet duet with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon about the tragedy of a failed relationship as seen from both sides.
Deservedly mocked posture-rock outfit Imagine Dragons had a minor tragedy-porn hit with “Wrecked” last year (No. 33 on the year-end US Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart), one that would segue smoothly (lyrically, anyway) into Ryan Hurd and Maren Morris’ “Chasing After You” (No. 61, year-end Hot 100 Singles), with its country-fried lament for a love who never seems to stay.
Compared to previous decades, there’s a stark lack of shared musicality among these songs. If you made a list of the most popular sad songs of 10 years ago, or 20, you’d find different genres, true, but also a unifying thread within those self-contained styles.
Nelly’s “Just A Dream” embodied the sad-faced hip-hop bounce of 2010, sitting alongside similarly genre-repping hits from Jason Derulo, Jay Sean, and more. And belted-out pop ballads from the likes of Lady Gaga and Michael Bublé certainly didn’t break any molds in terms of composition.
But more importantly, you’d find a lot of sad songs on the charts at the time. Alicia Keys’ “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” (No. 99) was literally right next to country rocker Jerrod Nieman’s cover of “Lover, Lover,” (No. 100) both a stones’ throw away from Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It” (No. 88) and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” (No. 74). Those four alone alone are already as many sad songs as fill up the top half of last year’s Hot 100 list, and there’s well over a dozen more to go.
Yes, sadness is a rarity on today’s charts—but not on today’s playlists. Popular Spotify playlists with names like “Songs to sing in the car” (9.7. million followers) are chockablock with sadness and pain, and only a fool would think the lack of heartache-based hits from the top streamed albums from artists like Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift meant people were skipping the tragic numbers. It’s simply that the music is being consumed in a more diversified form that spreads the heartbreak around, rather than uniting around specific tracks. Save, of course, for those few “drivers license”-level hits that pierce the zeitgeist.
So what does make hit sad songs connect? The main unifying element—indeed, seemingly the only unifying element—is the emotion behind the lyrics. Is there a more universal human condition than that of perpetually vacillating between “it’s all their fault” and “it’s all my fault?” Nearly every hit sad song falls into either one camp or the other (and sometimes, as in the case of Drake’s more downbeat tracks, both).
It seems we’re never not eager to set our most deeply held anguish to music, and as might be expected, outsized emotions tend to be simplified to an equally outsized degree. Whether pointing a finger outward or back at themselves, “woe is me” remains the defining trait of sad songs.
The more invisible link among nearly all the songs that have connected atop the Billboard charts and Spotify streaming lists is the Max Martin formula for pop success. The songwriter and producer behind some of the biggest hits of the past two decades (to say nothing of his legions of acolytes who have helped craft countless more), has been very public with his rules for making a pop hit.
To a one, all of the success stories above meet the criteria: fit your syllables to the notes of the melody, make every other line a mirror image of the previous one, hit the chorus by the 50-second mark, and so on. This may sound dispiriting—pop music, an already limited musical bag, has been hemmed in even further?—but honestly, his rules aren’t much different from those that governed the Brill Building hits-by-committee songwriting process of the late ’50s and ’60s.
The other element playing a role in all of this is the ongoing fracturing of popular culture into ever-more-proliferating little fiefdoms: the “long tail” issue. Put plainly, the Long Tail theory argues that “the Internet drives demand away from hit products with mass appeal, and directs that demand to more obscure niche offerings.”
In other words, the longer the current age continues, the more musical tastes will fragment into increasingly specific genres that will prevent the kinds of all-encompassing, “drivers license”-style hits from emerging, instead elevating numerous different songs and styles into midsize success stories.
In short, if you’re looking for the secret code hidden within successful sad songs in 2022, forget it, Jake: It’s Sombertown. Write about heartache and sadness, pair it with a catchy melody, follow Martin’s rules, and roll the dice. If recent years are any indication, making your sad song a traditional ballad or slow-moving number means the chances for some breakthrough chart achievement are dim. But pairing your agony with a funky, dance floor-ready beat? That improves your odds of Billboard fame.
Then again, in a world where popular Spotify and Apple Music playlists are arguably better signifiers of what people are listening to, does it even matter? Melancholy music is everywhere, and just because heartbreak-heavy albums rarely elicit a hit single doesn’t mean it’s not one of the dominant trends in music at nearly any given time. (Remember sad-girl autumn?) We may not be sending it to the top of the singles charts, but who doesn’t love a good musical bummer? If you’re not convinced, maybe play “Maps” again.