Someone Like You: Music, Pain, and Sentimentality

For even the most casual listener of Radio 1, it is self-evident that pain, rejection, and love-lost provides a deep well of inspiration for popular music. I remember being at a Snow Patrol gig and after several high-energy songs with the full band, the stage emptied apart from Gary Lightbody and the pianist. With the lights focused on the lead singer, the piano started and Lightbody sang his self-penned ‘You Could be Happy‘, a song that details the aftermath of his broken relationship. It was a particularly vulnerable moment for Lightbody in front of a crowd of 10,000+. Or perhaps more recently, Adele’s ‘Someone Like You‘, a song that gave her international recognition, speaks of deep rejection and the fear of an opportunity missed that will now never be realised. It was a rejection that Adele experienced and that inspired the now-famous lyrics.

I’m sure that for both Lightbody and Adele, writing these songs gave voice to strong feelings stemming from the loss that they deeply experienced. And by virtue of their success, especially for Adele, it is clear that the lyrics resonate with the listener’s experience of broken relationship. In his introduction to Adele’s performance at the 2011 Brit Awards, host James Corden comments before she sings, ‘If you’ve ever had a broken heart, you’re about to remember it now.’

For me, the repeated performance and worldwide consumption of songs that originate from places of deep hurt and loss raise interesting questions, both in relation to the artist and the listener. For the artist, what happens when the song is sung again and again, in front of crowd after crowd of people? What does that moment that the song inspired become? Is it helpful for the artist to reveal (and perhaps relive?) that pain night after night? While it might be that artists who bravely put their work out into the public sphere are probably best placed to answer these questions, there also seems to be important pastoral issues to consider. Perhaps further discussion related to this can commence in the comments.

What I want briefly to focus on is what repeated engagement with these kinds of songs means for the listener and suggest a caution. While I do not doubt that songs like these can be cathartic as the listener’s pain is put into words one cannot yet express, a question remains: By repeated exposure to this kind of music, are we in danger of collectively wallowing in the muck of human pain and suffering? Put another way, are we at risk of emotional self-indulgence and sentimentality?

To start the discussion, I turn to Jeremy Begbie’s essay in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts where he approaches this issue of sentimentality with a multi-part definition. His first characteristic, misrepresenting reality by evading evil, presents what is commonly associated with sentimentalism. However, what is most pertinent to this discussion is how Begbie extends the definition to include emotional self-indulgence.[1] Related to the latter, Begbie continues: ‘…the sentimentalist appears to be moved by something or someone beyond themselves but is to a large extent, perhaps primarily, concerned with the satisfaction gained in exercising their emotion.’[2]

As a listener, there are times when a song like ‘Someone Like You’ is helpful to express the hurt that we feel and the sorrow that consumes us. And we can affirm that representing our emotions in art is a good thing. However, when does it move beyond what is good and helpful to become something that merely makes us feel? When is it something that satisfies our emotions but prevents the ‘Easter Sunday’ redemption and restoration from coming to pass? [3]  How is this discerned?


[1] Begbie, Jeremy. “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts.” In The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, edited by Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin. 45-69. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007. The third part of his definition is the avoidance of ‘costly action’.

[2] Ibid., 51.

[3] Ibid. For Begbie, a Holy Saturday theology – holding Good Friday and Easter Sunday together in tension – is necessary for overcoming sentimentality.


  • Sara Schumacher is the editor and a regular contributor to Transpositions. Prior to life in academia, Sara worked as a graphic designer in Oxford where her experience as an artist and a Christian raised many questions, ultimately leading her to pursue further study in theology and the arts at St Andrews. Sara holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and an A.A. in Cross-Cultural Services from John Brown University and has recently completed an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD at St Andrews, focusing on church patronage of the arts.

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  1. says: Katie Munnik

    A good set of questions. I was reminded of Wallace Stevens’ definition of sentiment as failed emotion – failed perhaps because it is concocted and edited rather than honestly and fully felt.
    As an extension of your question about that which satisfies our emotions but prevents “Easter Sunday redemption”, I wonder about the commodification of feeling. Is it right to consume the emotions of others, however beautifully presented they may be? What does that do to our perception of the lives and loves of other people, and to our attempted to live in community? We are called to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” yet these performed emotions can have an abstracting effect, don’t they? I think that you have hit the nail on the head by referring directly to the “repeated exposure” that this music requests.
    Would it help if it was fiction?

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