Guilt is a powerful emotion. As a result, it has inspired its fair share of songs. People experience guilt under a wide range of circumstances. As such, one song about guilt can be quite different from another. That makes for remarkable musical diversity.
10. “The One That Got Away” – Katy Perry
Romantic relationships generate a great deal of guilt. After all, it is normal for people to feel strongly about them, whether positively or negatively. Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away” is an excellent example of a song lamenting the perfect relationship that should have been. It doesn’t matter whether this was true or not. So long as people believe in the perfect relationship that should have been, that belief possesses enormous power over them.
9. “Mama Tried” – Merle Haggard
This song is the story of a young man who did something bad enough to warrant a life sentence without parole. It isn’t clear what he did. However, it doesn’t matter because it is irrelevant. After all, this song is about his regret about winding up where he is even though his mother did everything she could to put him on the right path. Indeed, she did so as a single mother, meaning raising him was even tougher on her.
8. “All Apologies” – Nirvana
Nirvana has a reputation for songs that are up for interpretation because of their ambiguous lyrics. “All Apologies” has something of that ambiguity. Even so, there can be no doubt that it is an expression of regret. What exactly the viewpoint character is regretting isn’t known. Still, they feel so bad about it that they are willing to accept all of the blame.
7. “When I’m Gone” – Eminem
Eminem has released more than one song about his family issues. This one is an expression of his love for his daughter. Simultaneously, it contains a great deal of guilt because he recognizes that he is to blame for his troubled relationship with his daughter. Specifically, “When I’m Gone” points out the times Eminem chose his career over his family, presumably reflecting his internal thinking on the matter.
6. “Alive” – Pearl Jam
“Alive” is Pearl Jam’s debut single. Many people choose to interpret it as a life-affirming song. In truth, it both is and isn’t that. Interested individuals should know that “Alive” is darker than most people expect, being a reminder of how one person’s guilt can affect the people around them for the worse. In short, it starts with a mother telling her son that his father is his stepfather. Subsequently, she initiates an incestuous relationship, spurred on by her grief over her son’s biological father. Eddie Vedder has said the first part is autobiographical. Fortunately, the second part is pure fiction. Curiously, Vedder has also said the song’s meaning changed for him over time. Once, its key statement was a curse. Now, his fans have succeeded in convincing him to see it in a more life-affirming light.
5. “Because of You” – Kelly Clarkson
Moving on, “Because of You” is about Kelly Clarkson’s not-so-positive relationship with her father. It mentions several ways said relationship negatively impacted her. For example, the song mentions how the viewpoint character can’t trust either her or the people around her. Similarly, the song mentions how she conceals her feelings because her father thought showing them was a sign of weakness. With that said, the music video ends on a hopeful note. It acknowledges the troubled past. Despite that, it suggests people can do better by avoiding their parents’ mistakes.
4. “Damn Your Eyes” – Etta James
Romantic feelings are often messy. Here, Etta James sings about how she wants to get back together with a romantic partner even though she knows they are bad for her. Indeed, she understands this so well that she gave herself a pep talk about how she didn’t need him beforehand, which didn’t do her the slightest bit of good. As a result, she feels a fair amount of anger and other negative emotions even while she is full of longing.
3. “Tears in Heaven” – Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton wrote “Tears in Heaven” as a way of coping with the death of his four-year-old son from falling out of a window. There is a great deal of guilt and sorrow packed into the lyrics, which makes sense because that is a parent’s worst nightmare.
2. “Hurt” – Johnny Cash
Nine Inch Nails did the original version of “Hurt.” Later, Johnny Cash released his take, which is popular enough to overshadow its predecessor for the most part. Guilt is a constant in the song. The viewpoint character mentions painful memories that seem to overwhelm everything else. They are so powerful they won’t disappear even when he tries to use drugs to drive them away. These feelings are so bad that they root the viewpoint character in his place even as everyone and everything else continues to move around him. Curiously, the song ends with the idea of the viewpoint character doing things better if they could do things all over again. Sadly, that isn’t possible. We cannot change the past. Moreover, the song gains extra emotional weight because we know Cash was already low on time when he released this song.
1. “Like a Rolling Stone” – Bob Dylan
“Like a Rolling Stone” is one of the most famous songs ever released. Read literally, it is about a woman from a privileged background who didn’t take things seriously. As a result, she has fallen so far that she has to prostitute herself for survival. It is common for people to speculate about who that individual might be. Popular candidates include both men and women. With that said, the single most interesting candidate is Dylan himself. The argument is particularly convincing when one remembers Stone was the surname of Dylan’s mother, which would give the title not one but two layers of meaning. Regardless, it seems safe to say the titular character feels a great deal of regret, perhaps run through and through with veins of guilt.