Pop Music, Now With Less Pep

Via Arts and Letters Daily is a link to an Aeon piece that claims pop songs have gotten increasingly sadder and negative over the last 50 years.  They lay out their method of analyzing lyrics and data which seems to reinforce this idea. Sadly, all the death metal, goth, emo, etc music my friends and I listened to in my youth didn’t seem to factor in as much as I hoped. It is hard to believe anyone today is titling and singing songs more blatantly depressing than Girlfriend in A Coma.

But I wanted to know why this trend might be manifesting. They posited three factors which might influence this: success bias, prestige bias or content bias. These terms are defined along these lines:

We checked for success bias by testing whether songs had more negative lyrics if the top-10 songs of the previous few years had negative lyrics…

…prestige bias was tested for by checking if the songs of prestigious artists of the previous few years also had more negative lyrics.

…Content bias was checked for by looking at whether songs with more negative lyrics also happened to do better in the charts.

Acknowledging that there is still more work to be done on studying this, they came to the following conclusions at this point in their research:

Although we found small evidence for success and prestige bias operating in the datasets, content bias was the most reliable effect of the three in explaining the rise of negative lyrics. This is consistent with other findings in cultural evolution, in which negative information appears to be remembered and transmitted more than neutral or positive information. However, we also found that including unbiased transmission in our analytical models greatly reduced the appearance of success and prestige effects, and seemed to hold the most weight in explaining the patterns. ‘Unbiased transmission’ here can be thought of in a similar way to genetic drift, in which traits appear to drift to fixation through random fluctuations, and in the apparent absence of any selection pressure

What really interested me was the idea that the decentralization of the recording industry removed a bias for distributing happier language in songs:

Given this preference, what we need to explain is why pop-song lyrics before the 1980s were more positive than today. It could be that a more centralised record industry had more control on the songs that were produced and sold. A similar effect could have been brought about by the diffusion of more personalised distribution channels (from blank cassette tapes to Spotify’s ‘Made For You’ algorithmic tailoring). And other, broader, societal changes could have contributed to make it more acceptable, or even rewarded, to explicitly express negative feelings.

This concept got me thinking about claims that no one wants to see theater dealing with serious themes any more and only want to see big flashy musicals that provide escapist entertainment rather than challenge people to think about their lives.

It could be that the fact people experience music privately through earphones allows them to gravitate toward a personal preference for negative themes that they don’t feel as comfortable engaging with through their public attendance of theatrical performances.

Or it could be that since theatrical production is so centrally controlled, the content that is distributed and marketed has convinced people about the type of shows they want to see. This may be particularly true if people don’t feel as confident in their ability to choose theatrical performances they want to see as they do music they want to listen to. It is easier to defer to the expertise of others.


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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3 thoughts on “Pop Music, Now With Less Pep”

  1. I’ve never been fond of musicals (and the few I like tend to be darker Sondheim ones), but I like farces as much as tragedies.

    I think that the American fondness for musical has been deliberately cultivated, in part by early training: almost all the programs that teach children about theater teach only musicals. We were lucky in Santa Cruz to have one group doing non-musical theater for kids (West Performing Arts), in addition to the 3 or 4 doing only musicals.


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