Pop Music is Human Nature

September 13, 2011 in Blog

I’ve got a proud confession: I’m a pop music junkie. Drizzy Drake, Britney, Adele, Nicki, Ke$ha, you name it. I love it. But I’ve got to admit, after awhile it all seems to jumble together. If I listen to too much of it, I get sick of the repetitiveness; there’s only so many times I can hear about winning or sleeping with a million different women before I need to read a darn book.

Still, I keep coming back. I’m fascinated with pop culture, and why pop music is, well, popular. Undoubtedly, there are a large number of reasons why songs would rise in the charts, including instrumentation, melody, tempo, and the singer’s sound, sincerity, storytelling, and emotional expressiveness. Lyrics also plays an important role, and one unavoidable theme in the lyrics of pop songs is reproduction.

In a recent paper, Dawn Hobbs and Gordon Gallup analyzed the lyrics of 174 songs that appeared in the 2009 Billboard Top Ten for the following categories: Country, Pop, and R & B. Reproduction was everywhere in the lyrics: 92% of the songs contained one or more reproductive references, and there was an average of 8.76 different reproductive references per song. Here is the distribution of 18 different reproductive categories found in the lyrics of the songs:

There’s no doubt: short-term sexual relationships and promiscuity is a reoccurring theme in R & B and Pop music. The four most frequent reproductive categories in pop songs were 1) sex appeal, 2) reputation, 3) short-term strategies, and 4) fidelity assurance. Money and status are more prevalent themes in R & B lyrics: the top four most frequent reproductive categories for R & B songs were 1) sex appeal, 2) resources, 3) sex act, and 4) status. Interestingly, there were significantly more reproductive categories in R & B songs compared to Country and Pop, but there was no difference between Country and Pop.

While pop and R & B was more focused on promiscuity, the country music lyrics were more focused on the long-term. The four most frequent reproductive categories contained in the lyrics of popular Country music were 1) commitment, 2) parenting, 3) rejection, and 4) fidelity assurance. As the researchers note, there tends to be more women listeners of Country and Western music compared to pop and R & B. Similar themes to Country are also prevalent in romance novels, which also include a high proportion of female consumers. I imagine there are other reasons for this as well. I may be wrong, but aren’t a higher proportion of Country listeners also older and more conservative than listeners of Pop and R & B?

The presence of reproductive themes in the lyrics of all the songs was an important contributor to popularity/sales of the songs: there were more reproductive messages per song for country songs, pop songs, and R & B songs compared to songs by the same vocalist in the same album that did not appear in the top ten.

Here’s how stable the number of reproductive messages in top ranked popular songs have remained over the past six decades:

That’s pretty stable! Note that since 1989 there has been a huge increase in reproductive messages contained in the most chart topping R & B songs. Still, looking at all the genres together, it’s clear that references to reproduction in the lyrics of chart toppers hasn’t changed much since 1959.

What if we go back even further in time? To see how enduring the presence of reproductive message are in popular song lyrics, the researchers analyzed the lyrics of popular art songs and opera arias dating back to 1597 using a combination of books, websites, and sheet music anthologies. Here are the results:

As can be seen, there are a lot of similarities between the reproductive themes mentioned in contemporary pop songs and the lyrics of opera and art songs dating back hundreds of years. When it comes to mentioning other body parts, courtship, arousal, and rejection, pop music today just can’t compare to the art songs of the distant past. When it comes to sex appeal, Opera has them all beat!

The six most common themes to emerge from all of their analyses of song lyrics (past and present) were 1) fidelity assurance, 2) commitment, 3) rejection, 4) arousal, 5) sex appeal, and 6) other body parts. The researchers note that their analysis of the different reproductive themes in the lyrics “read like topics taken from an outline for a course in evolutionary psychology” and “listeners are in fact processing at some level (wittingly or not) the evolutionarily relevant portions of the lyrics contained in many popular songs.”

They do admit that marketing on the part of the record companies plays a role in public exposure to the songs, and can have an influence on chart ranking and sales. They argue though that it is unlikely that marketing accounts for the prevalence of reproductive messages in the lyrics of the most popular songs. For one, the prevalence of reproductive themes in art songs and opera arias is comparable to more contemporary pop songs. Also, they argue that if chart ranking is simply a reflection of promotion then popularity should be independent of the lyrics of the song, and their results clearly suggest this is not the case. Instead, they make it clear they favor human nature:

“In our view, the ubiquitous presence of these reproductive themes is a reflection of evolved properties of the human psyche, where people are voting with their pocket books and listener preferences are driving the lyrics.”

This is part of a larger trend to view reoccurring themes in popular media– such as romance novels, literature, even front-page news stories— through the lens of evolution.

Good to know my taste for sleazy pop culture is natural. Although, I should remind myself, just because something is natural doesn’t make it good!

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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