The universal appeal of heartbreak ballads explained

Adele and Beyonce have made contributions to the art of sadness, but there's plenty of classic material in this genre to discover.

Carole Bayer Sager took a lighter touch in 1977 with You’re Moving Out Today. Getty Images
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If there's one thing we know about heartbreak, it's that it has at least as many colours as love. With Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool, Adele's 21 and Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago all inspired by personal experiences with Cupid's failure, some of the most resonant songs about love gone wrong turn personal pain into something universal.

Jimmy Ruffin's 1966 version of What Becomes of the Brokenhearted is a dazzling case in point. Yes, the song's narrator is heart-broken, but he also has an affecting understanding of a much wider social malaise, namely the intense loneliness and vulnerability of the millions of people for whom "all that's left is an unhappy ending".

Though it's not a heartache song as such, Ervin Drake's wistful, strangely structured masterpiece It Was a Very Good Year, made famous by Frank Sinatra and later covered by The Flaming Lips, also has universal appeal. It's not so much the loves lost that the narrator is mourning, but rather the years that have passed. Life itself, not love, is slipping away, yet the narrator raises a grateful glass to all that life has brought him.

With bruised hearts being such a ubiquitous topic of popular song, honesty and originality go a long way. It is hard to think of a more stark summation of dying romance than The Waterboys' 1984 ballad The Thrill is Gone, while Carole Bayer Sager's 1977 hit You're Moving Out Today brings rare laughs to the break-up song, its female narrator listing all the things she isn't going to miss about her boyfriend.

Of course, the heartache or break-up song can easily succumb to glibness, but there's no danger of that in the brilliant opening lines of A Good Year for the Roses, the country classic made famous by George Jones and covered by Elvis Costello: "I can hardly bare the sight of lipstick / On the cigarettes there in the ashtray / Lyin' cold the way you left them / But at least yours lips caressed them while you packed." The poor narrator's doomed love for the woman who is leaving him is so strong that he is envious of the attention she lavished over a cigarette.

Long before her current album Lemonade, Beyoncé's songs offered a perspective on the predicament of women wronged. Take If I were a Boy, for example, the singer's 2008 single.

Verse three runs: “If I were a boy / I would turn off my phone / Tell everyone it’s broken / So they’d think that I was sleeping alone.” The first time I heard that I remember thinking, “Bey, if I were a girl, and I was one of your friends, I’d tell you to ditch that guy pronto. Either that or electronic tag him”.

It's easy to poke fun at If I were a Boy, but in truth, it's an extraordinarily moving song that really gets you thinking about gender differences. It also has a universal truth about love sewed into its mighty final choruses: only when you have been burnt yourself do you begin to understand the depth of the hurt you might have caused someone else.