Whenever we’re going through something tough or traumatic, it’s always helpful to know that there’s an artist out that that not only can relate, but can articulate his or her feelings into a song. So in this article, I’m going to provide you with my favorite songs about pain, in hopes that it’ll help you heal and push through whatever difficulties you might be facing.
Songs About Pain
Let’s begin with a song by Nine Inch Nails.
Hurt by Nine Inch Nails
There’s something very uncomfortable about Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” The song slides in quietly with whispers from Trent Reznor and a chilling, discordant arpeggiated guitar chord. A vast majority of the 6+ minute track length proceeds at a slow tempo with no percussion whatsoever outside of a simple bass drum in the chorus.
The lyrics suggest the song is about self-harm, drug addiction, or suicide. These themes are very much touched upon and integral to Reznor’s headspace at the time of writing, but most of the lyrical content was created while Reznor struggled with his identity and public rockstar stage persona while recording The Downward Spiral. Sitting at a piano repeating the chorus’ refrain of “What have I become?” provided solace and a strangely soothing, human feeling. From this one simple moment, a pivotal song was born.
“Hurt” not only became one of Nine Inch Nails’ biggest hits, but it inspired Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover that essentially rebirthed the song all over again.
Pain by Jimmy Eat World
“Takes my pain away!”
Jimmy Eat World was on a hot streak coming off big singles like “The Middle” and “Sweetness” when they released 2004’s Futures featuring lead single “Pain.” It would become their second number-one hit and achieve Gold status by the RIAA, making it one of their most recognizable tunes ever.
The lyrics deal mostly with insecurity and uncertainty in the speaker regarding the relationships around them, namely one with a girl. We presume that she is a love interest, but the love may be unrequited as evident by “a kiss with open eyes and she’s not breathing back.”
The speaker tries different things to ease the pain including taking some “white pills,” and constantly reminds themself to “smile and not get worried. [They] try but it shows.”
We’re not left feeling confident that the speaker overcame the pain, but it’s a relentlessly catchy song nonetheless.
Songs About Painful Love
Let’s begin this section off with a bit of a unique curveball here, thanks to the talents of Rihanna.
S & M by Rihanna
Who says pain has to be a bad thing?
Strap up your Savage X Fenty and bust out the chains and whips, because bad girl RiRi likes to make it hurt. Her 2011 single “S&M” puts a creative spin on pain as a subject for an up-tempo certified quintuple platinum club banger, showing why Rihanna is one of the best at what she does and what helped make her one of the youngest self-made billionaires in the world.
The song is full of small victories– the acapella singsong melodies in the verse, the layered harmonies in the post-chorus, the stomp-clap beat driving everything forward, the infectiously catchy “na-na-na-na-na, come on!”
“S&M” reminds us that pain is not always bad!
Jeremy by Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam effectively evolved after the release of “Jeremy” from that Seattle grunge band that plays at sporting events to a bona fide legacy act. “Jeremy” received two Grammy nominations in 1993 and featured two music videos–one that won “Best Video of the Year” at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards and one that was rejected by MTV and did not air due to graphic content.
From the quiet opening guitar riff and ringing harmonics succeeded by the deep boom of the tom and snare drum combo, “Jeremy” rolls in with imagery of a troubled boy daydreaming of death to those around him. Unfortunately, “Daddy didn’t give affection” and “the boy was something that Mommy wouldn’t wear.” The scene becomes even more desperate as Vedder can recall “picking on the boy” too.
What we now have is a cautionary tale of how pain can build up to a breaking point. The song’s iconic refrain “Jeremy spoke in class today” refers to a true tragedy that inspired the song where a 15-year-old boy committed suicide in front of his teacher and classmates.
Tainted Love by Soft Cell
“Tainted Love” is an 80’s new wave pop classic about a romance gone wrong. The speaker of the song feels trapped by a bad romance and has to “get away from the pain [they] drive into” their heart. Although the relationship seems doomed, we get a sense that the speaker’s lover is not in agreement and feels that they should keep the possibly toxic romance alive. And by the lyrics in the bridge, we get that the speaker may not “pack [their] things and go” because they do, underneath it all, love this toxic, tainted partner.
The song was a monster hit selling over a million copies during the Second British Invasion when the new wave genre flourished most. At one time it enjoyed status as UK’s bestselling single in 1981 until a 2021 recount awarded the title to Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.”
“Tainted Love” is confusingly catchy, featuring layers of echoing synth sounds and vocal harmonies behind lead lyrics. Although it is actually a cover of a 1964 Gloria Jones song, it has inspired numerous subsequent covers including goth metal superstar Marilyn Manson.
You’ll most often hear “Tainted Love” at retro nights and karaoke bars, but it’s still a certified classic.
Songs About Pain and Trauma
Let’s start this section off with a classic by Kanye West.
Through the Wire by Kanye West
Before Kanye West was the colorful and zany public persona (and former presidential candidate) we know him as, he was a relatively unknown rapper and producer from Chicago. “Through the Wire” was his debut single and provided a recount of a traumatic car accident West suffered in 2002. The name refers to the literal fact that his broken jaw needed wires to be held together.
Musically, the beat is great, but we’d expect no less from heavyweight producer and cemented champion rapper Kanye. He borrows from Chaka Khan’s 1985 “Through the Fire” and speeds it up (something Chaka wasn’t too happy about). Lyrically, his blend of comedy and horror story imagery is poignant. In the same song, we have an image of Kanye sipping syrup through a straw because he can’t eat his pancakes, and a doctor telling his mother that he’s on life support.
The combination of lightheartedness and grave imagery is brilliant and shows how, despite some of his more bizarre public behaviors, he’s still one of the greatest artists of our time.
Praying by Kesha
Kesha was a mainstay on every DJ’s playlist to keep the club bumping and thumping, including club classics like “TiK ToK,” “Timber,” and “Die Young.” On her third studio album in 2017, she flipped the script and shocked audiences everywhere with this melancholic but triumphant ballad written about finding strength after experiencing great pain.
While Kesha does not refer to anyone by name on the track, critics theorize the song is written for Dr. Luke, her former producer and record label boss, whom she accused of sexual assault and emotional abuse.
The overall vibe of the song starts slow and somber with a strings and soulful piano melody, but it builds up with a percussive stomp to a bombastic brass section and poignant high note by Kesha. We know that she has dealt with great pain, and we know that it has made her stronger.
I’ll Be Missing You by Puff Daddy f/Faith Evans and 112
At the peak of Bad Boy Records’ success, radio play domination, and endless production of hit singles, Sean “Diddy” Combs, then known as Puff Daddy, borrowed the music from Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” and created a timeless masterpiece in dedication to Christopher Wallace to cope with the pain following his death.
In addition to the heartfelt lyrics that detail his feelings towards the loss and his plans to keep working hard to make Bad Boy the biggest name in the rap game, Diddy features talented singer Faith Evans for an emotional chorus and outro lyrics by the R&B singers of 112.
“I’ll Be Missing You” was one of the biggest singles of Diddy’s career and remains one of the best-selling singles of all time.
Wounded by Third Eye Blind
Third Eye Blind was a household name in 1997, pulling hit after hit off of their eponymous debut album. They were so wildly successful that they segued right into 1999’s Blue, shredded up the radio waves with “Never Let You Go,” and faded into cult classic status and obscurity.
It’s remarkable how this happened. The band still put out quality music backed by the poignant poetry and one-of-a-kind voice of Stephan Jenkins, including the underrated masterpiece “Wounded,” but began slowly receiving less mainstream attention.
“Wounded” is sung from the perspective of a friend helping their friend recover from a sexual assault. She is understandably leery of men and attending women’s groups for assault survivors, but he misses her and wants her to know that she’s “the marigold” that pulls magic from madness.
She’s physically and emotionally bruised, but he wants her to know that her friends, including him, can’t wait until she comes back around to “knock ‘em down like [they] used to.”
Tearz by Wu-Tang Clan
“After laughter comes tears.”
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut album and a landmark release in the hip hop community, bringing up timeless classics like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Protect Ya Neck.” “Tearz” was a lesser-known track from the album, sampling Wendy Rene’s 1964 “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” that talks about the pain associated with losing our loved ones.
The first verse, courtesy of the RZA himself, sets the scene of him hanging out on the block when he heard the news that his little brother stood up to a gunman and was shot. He describes finding his little brother in blood on concrete and “his eyes shut, that’s when I knew that he was–” RZA can’t even say the word as he fights through the pain of that moment– “Aw, man! How do I say goodbye?”
Ghostface Killah gets the second verse and tells the tale of his bud, endearingly known as Big Moe. Although Ghostface advised Moe to use a condom when sleeping around with loose women, Moe disregarded the advice and eventually contracted HIV. According to the song’s lyrics, Moe was given 2 years left to live.
The song is one part cautionary tale, but mostly about the pain from losing our loved ones
Songs About Pain and Loneliness
It’s time to transition to the topic of pain and loneliness, which I think is summed up quite well in this classic, and sultry, R&B hit by Toni Braxton.
Un-Break My Heart by Toni Braxton
“Un-Break My Heart” was the undisputed breakup anthem of the late 90’s and has sold over 10 million copies worldwide making it one of the bestselling singles of all time as well.
The soft music and slow tempo really lends itself to this somber tune about an unceremonious breakup wherein Toni’s ex-lover “walked out the door and walked out of [her] life.” Devastated by the loss, she pleads for him to undo the damage and ease her pain.
By the end of the song, the music reaches an emotional crescendo and Braxton breaks loose and showcases her vocal prowess. It’s unsurprising the level of success this has enjoyed because Toni Braxton proves on this track that she is a true talent.
Days Go By by The Offspring
The Offspring essentially fell off the map after 1998’s Americana, but the band stayed together and released regular albums in their punk-alternative fusion style. “Days Go By” was the first single and title track off their ninth studio album, released in 2012, and featured more thoughtful and contemplative lyrics as compared to some of their more flippant past releases. We’re looking at you, “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)!”
Although The Offspring still adds their trademark distorted guitars and hard rocking flavor to the song, it’s slower than many of their more in-your-face tracks and uses clean guitar tone in the verse for a softer and more sincere delivery of the vocals.
“All your anger, all your hurt doesn’t matter in the end. Those days go by, and we all start again.” What we’re getting from an older, wiser Offspring is that life is full of trials and tribulations. You’ll get knocked down. You’ll suffer, but time still marches forward and you’ll pick yourself up again.
You’ll push past the pain and make it through, stronger than you could’ve ever imagined.
Songs about pain help us express our feelings and our hurt, giving it an outlet and helping us move past it. Knowing that our favorite musicians and musical artists have suffered in similar ways to us is one step towards easing the burden and letting it go.
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