A lot of pop songs become hits because they perk you up.
But not this pop song.
Among current chart-topping bops like Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” and Lil Naz X’s “Old Town Road,” there’s the absolute crusher of a song called “Someone You Loved” that has spent 19 weeks on Billboard’s Top 100. This week, it’s sitting at No. 4.
On the piano ballad, Scottish singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi ruggedly confesses, “I was getting kinda used to being someone you loved.” The line drops like a ton of heart-breaking bricks.
It’s not the kind of song you’d typically dance along to. It’s the kind of song you scream along to while crying in your car.
And yet, there it is. It’s being played on pop radio more than Taylor Swift’s newest singles. “Someone You Loved,” has stolen the hearts of people like Sam Smith and Elton John, who was such a fan that he invited Capaldi to have lunch. This summer, it was the eighth most-streamed song globally on Spotify. It has been No. 1 in the U.K. almost longer than any other song ever.
The 22 year-old Capaldi, who has been playing music since he was 4, didn’t think the song would explode like this.
“I’m definitely glad, because the other option was unemployment,” Capaldi said. “I never expected to be here.”
“Someone You Loved” was the last song he wrote for his album “Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent.” He was inspired by his experiences “losing people in different forms,” he said.
“It’s about loss in general, whether that be friendships breaking down or relationships ending or people in your family passing away,” Capaldi said in a phone interview ahead of his show Tuesday at The Ogden Theatre. “I wanted to keep it quite broad because I wanted people to apply their own stories. That’s one of my favorite things about the song is so many people come up to me and say, ‘This song means this to me.’”
Songs such as Capaldi’s have an unlikely role on pop radio, according to Nate Sloan, a music professor at the University of South California. He’s also a co-host of Switched on Pop, a Vox Media podcast about music trends.
“Someone You Loved,” isn’t your “bread and butter Top 100 pop,” but as Sloan says, it has struck a nerve for a reason: It connects with people.
“There’s this phenomenon in pop music where every once in awhile, there will be these very sad, sparse, heart-breakers that just surge to the top of the pop charts,” he said, referencing Adele’s “Someone Like You” as an example. “Occasionally, perhaps, we need some sort of collective catharsis. We need a song to provide us with this sense of emotional release.”
Sloan has a phrase for these songs: “Sad banger.”
“It seems like an oxymoron,” he said.
These songs are devastating in subject matter and still impossible to ignore, if not jam out to, when they come on. They don’t fade into the background.
The Lumineers’ latest album, for example, is full of sad bangers. Wes Schultz, the band’s lead vocalist, recently told NPR that fans are most responsive to sad songs at shows.
“Every show you ever go to, someone’s talking about getting their heart broken, most likely, and there are people who put their arms around each other,” Schultz said. “Coming together for a concert or hearing someone say something that you only thought you felt; I think that’s why it’s positive even though it’s counterintuitive that heartbreak music would be when people cheer the loudest.”
At Capaldi’s show on Tuesday, you could bet fans will be loud when he sings, “I was getting kind of used to being someone you loved.”
That line, the singer said, was inspired by “that sentiment at the end of the relationship that you just want more time.”
“It’s like, ‘I was kinda getting used to you being around,’” Capaldi said. “No time is never enough with someone you love, you know?”
It works so well because it sounds like something you’d say in casual conversation.
“It feels like you’re not listening to a song,” Sloan said. “It sounds spontaneous and from the heart. The sentiment is powerful and devastating.”
Just as Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” can instantly put a smile on your face, a song like “Someone You Loved” can instantly make you feel, well, sad. Both have a purpose.
“You can’t live on EDM (electronic dance music) alone. We need those sad songs that will allow us to express that emotional side,” Sloan said. “My gut tells me that listening to a sad song makes you, ultimately, feel less alone in your sadness. And there is something comforting about that.”
There’s also something about it that makes pop radio keep hitting “play.”