Top 10 Most Heartbreaking Stories Behind Famous Songs
VOICE OVER: Sophia Franklin
WRITTEN BY: Andy Hammersmith
These famous songs came from some heartbreaking places. For this list, we'll be looking at the most well-known tracks with sad origins story behind their creation. Our countdown includes "Candle in the Wind," "Loser," "Jeremy," and more!
Top 10 Most Heartbreaking Stories Behind Famous Songs
Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Most Heartbreaking Stories Behind Famous Songs.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the most well-known tracks with sad origins story behind their creation.
Did we forget one of your favorite songs? Let us know in the comments below.
#10: “Candle in the Wind” (1974)
Elton John and Bernie Taupin penned this hit that explored fame through the lens of actress Marilyn Monroe. The lyrics delve into the dangers of celebrity status and the lasting impact of the actress' artistry. It remains a classic from the 1973 album "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" long after its release. "Candle in the Wind" received an update in 1997 as a tribute to Princess Diana after she tragically passed away. Both songwriters repurposed the track with a powerful lament about the fallen icon. In both cases, John sang his heart out in this moving meditation about people who died much too soon.
#9: “American Pie” (1971)
Don McLean's epic tale of American culture and tragedy spawned from a heartbreaking headline. The singer delivered newspapers in 1959, the year Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash. It was known as "The Day the Music Died" and inspired the singer's lyrical tribute to the dead musicians. However, McLean's words took listeners on a much more complicated and metaphorical journey through pop culture. There are so many references to music, art, and history that the song deserves its own college course. It was a somber day for early rock and roll but McLean manages to create something so beautiful from the devastation.
#8: “Shiny Happy People” (1991)
"Shiny Happy People" carried a bubblegum pop sound that contributed to its status as an early 1990s hit. R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe took inspiration from an unlikely place to craft the song's seemingly fun lyrics. Little do people know, the track repurposes Chinese government propaganda into a satirical statement. Stipe spotted a poster after the events at Tiananmen Square that called for people to come together. He altered the government-issued slogan into a feel-good sentiment. The track’s upbeat message received a mixed reception despite its success. Even the band itself shunned the song as one of their least favorites. Catchy or annoying, this ironic single turned history on its head.
#7: “Loser” (1993)
Before his critical acclaim and Grammy-winning albums, singer Beck was a struggling musician in New York and Los Angeles. He worked low-paying jobs and even dealt with homelessness for a period of time. This all contributed to his first big single "Loser," which partially chronicled his unsuccessful beginnings. His feelings of inadequacy created a memorable chorus filled with self-deprecation. The remaining lyrics came about through improvisation as the artist experimented with ways to keep audiences interested in his early performances. It all paid off as the hit propelled the artist into the spotlight with his first huge success.
#6: “Let It Be” (1970)
Paul McCartney spent his final years in the band writing some of his most indelible songs. "Let It Be" found the singer channeling his mother Mary, who died of cancer when he was a teenager. The songwriter saw his mother in a dream where she gave him the immortal title words for the track and provided a soothing message of peace long after her passing. McCartney, in all his talent, transformed the prophetic words into a once-in-a-generation ballad and perfectly assembled an effective piano part to underscore his memorable lyrics. Through a career filled with true-to-life songs like "Hey Jude" and "Little Willow," this personal piece demonstrated the artist's emotional peak.
#5: “Tears in Heaven” (1992)
In the late 1980s, musician Eric Clapton had a son with then-partner Lory Del Santo. Young Conor tragically fell from an apartment window when he was just four years old. It was an unspeakable accident that would have derailed the personal and professional life of anyone. Clapton attempted to process his pain in the song "Tears in Heaven." His moving acoustic ballad asked a difficult question to his son in the afterlife. With the hopes that he would reunite with him one day, the singer sang about his complicated mental state and the unprecedented loss.
#4: “The Needle and the Damage Done” (1972)
Neil Young released this haunting song off his classic album "Harvest." “The Needle and the Damage Done” dealt with the circumstances surrounding fellow bandmate Danny Whitten's heroin use. The haunting story apparently includes reference to other musicians as well, but we imagine Whitten was closest to Young. Refusing to mince words, the folk singer provided a look into the vicious cycle of addiction and the deadly substance’s hold on people. It clearly resonated with listeners as several eclectic musicians have covered the song. There have been few musical tales as timeless as this track about a friend’s drug-fueled demise.
#3: “Something in the Way” (1991)
One of Nirvana's most mournful songs came from the lead singer's personal memories. Kurt Cobain spent a period before fame as a homeless musician in Washington state. While certain details might have been embellished, they spoke to Cobain's inner feelings about life as a transient artist. He managed to transmit his undesirable past into music with an authenticity that few writers of his generation could match. It was rare for the singer to write an acoustic track, considering the power of his other electric compositions. In the end, he made this one especially memorable for its intimate narrative.
#2: “Jeremy” (1992)
Pearl Jam's song "Jeremy" revolved around a heartbreaking tale that was unfortunately very real. Singer Eddie Vedder read a newspaper article about a high school student that ended his life in front of his class. Imagining the complex emotions of the child, the frontman used his earthy voice to bring out the fury surrounding the painful event. His detailed words speculate on both the origins of the act and its lasting effects on the community. Accompanying the lyrics is an indigant and effective instrumentation. Ultimately, Vedder didn't pull any punches in depicting this American tragedy.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
“Save the Last Dance for Me,” The Drifters
Doc Pomus Wrote This Stand-Out About a Time When Polio Prevented Him from Dancing with His Wife
“Jesus to a Child,” George Michael
Michael Delivered a Moving Tribute to a Former Lover Who Passed Away
“Rehab,” Amy Winehouse
The Talented Singer Explored Her Personal Struggles in an Award-Winning Track
TLC Infused This Memorable Hit with Comments on the HIV/AIDS Crisis & Illicit Drugs
“The Way,” Fastball
Fastball’s Biggest Song Was Inspired by an Ill-Fated Journey That Left a Couple Dead
#1: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)
Joy Division's post-punk sound influenced a new era of music with songs like "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Singer Ian Curtis infused this tortured number with thoughts about his own life and relationships. He juggled a failing marriage with his wife Deborah and another relationship with a journalist. The doomed relationship created this heartbreaking subversion of a love song. It also came from feelings of self doubt and his health struggles with epilepsy. Months after recording the track, Curtis took his own life on the cusp of the band's second album release. This classic single pulled together the singer's poignant life into one outstanding piece of music history.