scorecardresearch Skip to main content
g cover

Why does ‘Someone Like You’ make people cry?

There's more to Adele's song than lyrics, more than music. There is our human experience.

The Grammy for best pop solo performance will be announced Sunday. But even if Adele’s heart-wrenching “Someone Like You’’ doesn’t win, it still wears another crown, unofficial though it may be: tearjerker of the year.

If the pretty, zaftig, 23-year-old British artist sings it at this weekend’s awards show - Adele’s first public performance since her November throat surgery in Boston - the mascara will be running nationwide.

“Someone Like You’’ debuted in the United States in August and quickly became an anthem for the lovelorn. Half a year later, you can approach a random woman, inquire if the ballad chokes her up, and in almost every single case, she will confide her own heartbreak.


“My New Year’s resolution is to stop listening to it,’’ Allie Ellis, 25, a stylist at the Patrice Vinci salon on Newbury Street, said, tearing up at the thought of a recent breakup, and of Adele’s crushing opening lines, which she delivers with no backup singers or auto-tuning, just piano accompaniment.

“I heard that you’re settled down / That you found a girl and you’re married now / I heard that your dreams came true / Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you.’’

“I love it, but it brings me to a place I don’t want to visit,’’ Ellis said. Even so, Ellis played it when she retrieved her belongings from her ex’s house. It makes her weep, not just about her relationship, but life itself. “I’m struggling to find my place in the world.’’

It’s the same for Julia Decarbuccia, 38, an Oak Square YMCA employee. She recalled many times walking in the cold and dark and being pitched into loneliness when “Someone Like You’’ played on her phone.

“I’d feel like I couldn’t connect to anyone,’’ Decarbuccia recalled. Eager not to cry in public, she reminded herself - and reminded herself again - “it’s only a song.’’


Kendra Petrone, executive producer of ‘‘Matty in the Morning’’ on Kiss 108, turns up her speaker at the Medford studios when ‘‘Someone Like You’’ plays.erik jacobs for he Boston Globe

Well, maybe. But part of its power - although only part - relies on its well-known inspiration: the end of Adele’s 18-month relationship with a man she considered “The One,’’ and his subsequent engagement to another woman.

Since its release, “Someone Like You’’ has racked up the kind of numbers that make music producers cry, albeit with joy. It spent five weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 song chart, which measures radio play and sales; the Recording Industry Association of America certified the song triple platinum; and it has topped charts internationally. (Another Adele song, “Rolling in the Deep,’’ spent seven weeks atop the list, and the album including both songs, “21,’’ was Billboard’s top album in 2011.)

By November, the weeping here had become so widespread that “Saturday Night Live’’ writers spoofed a nation brought to its knees. The skit, which made viewers laugh and, of course, cry, starts with a lone office worker secretly sobbing while listening to Adele. The janitor and window washer succumb when they overhear the song, and eventually members of Coldplay, the night’s musical guest, join in the weeping. As an SNL player put it: “Everyone with a heart and an iTunes account [cries to it].’’

What is it about this song and others that achieves tearjerker status?

Stephan Pennington, an assistant professor of music at Tufts University, says songs most likely to make people cry combine emotional lyrics with music that amplifies those feelings. “Music can do that any number of ways,’’ he said, “from using instruments we associate with sadness, like swelling string sections, to crafting music with dark minor harmonies.’’


Stephan Pennington, a professor at Tufts University, says the music on ‘‘Someone Like You’’ counters Adele’s lyrics that she will move on. ‘‘It circles around the same notes, never resolving, never finding peace,’’ he says.JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF/Boston Globe

One of the things that makes “Someone Like You’’ so heartbreaking, he explained, is that Adele insists that she will move on and everything will get better, but the music tells you that isn’t true. “It circles around the same notes, never resolving,’’ Pennington said, “never finding peace.’’

Additionally, Adele is and seems to feel very alone when she performs. “The Supremes might sing about being sad and blue, but you know it’s OK because there are backup singers. They’ve got support,’’ Pennington said. “It’s the same with Aretha Franklin. You know she is going to get respect.’’

Jimmy Kachulis, a songwriting professor at Berklee College of Music, attributes the song’s power in part to its layering of simple blues-folk melodies over a classical-style piano accompaniment, a combination often used in hymns such as “Amazing Grace.’’

He compared it with J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G String.’’ “The descending bass is an ancient musical depiction of falling tears,’’ Kachulis noted.

“Someone Like You’’ gives even seasoned radio professionals a lump in their throats. Kendra Petrone, executive producer of “Matty in the Morning,’’ on Kiss 108, turns up the small speaker on her desk when the station plays the song - a highly unusual move.

“Whenever it plays, my interns and I get this somber look,’’ she said. “Every single person in the room has someone that it makes them think of. We’ve been doing this for months.’’


Petrone sighed. “The words are just so perfect.’’

“I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited / But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it / I’d hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded / That for me, it isn’t over.’’

Of course, not everyone cries to the song. There’s a type, according to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an associate professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. “People who really love the song tend to be more nostalgic, sentimental, and spend more time daydreaming,’’ he wrote in an e-mail. “People who dislike it are more shallow, pragmatic, and prefer positive and energetic mood states.

“The interesting thing is that [people who like it] use sad music to feel even more sad and miserable, but they enjoy that,’’ Chamorro-Premuzic wrote. “Suffering through someone else is easier than suffering through yourself, and experiencing other people’s problems puts yours into perspective.’’

And with Valentine’s Day approaching, you try staying dry-eyed while a young woman with a lovely voice and a tragic vibe stands alone and croons:

“Don’t forget me, I beg, / I remember you said: / Sometimes it lasts in love but / sometimes it hurts instead.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.