The one thing that has stayed a standard theme in the history of pop music is the upbeat, happy, extroverted vibe it gave us all. From "All You Need Is Love" to "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" - pop music has had it's limelight period and continues to do so.
The new wave of pop music, however, has cultivated into a different genre altogether. Songs like "Ocean Eyes" and "Falling" have all made it to the top of the charts - but the moods and tones of these songs differ vastly from those of classic pop music.
So is it true that pop music has become darker and more nihilistic, even? We looked at some data and found out if this was true -
Lior Shamir's Analysis
Lior Shamir at Lawrence Technical University gathered the lyrics of 6,150 Billboard Hot 100 singles from 1951 to 2016 and fed them to an algorithm. The software had been previously trained to identify linguistic markers of different emotional states and personality traits – including sadness, fear, disgust, joy, and extraversion.
“You see a very consistent, very clear change that lyrics become angrier, more fearful, more sad, and less joyful,” Shamir says. “There are very substantial differences between lyrics in the late 50s compared with lyrics in 2015 and 2016.”
Shamir pointed to a string of hits in the 1950s with the dominant feelings of ‘joy’ – songs like Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up, which scored 0.702 for that emotion, or Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally, which scored 0.82. In contrast, the angriest songs to hit the charts came from the 2000s, including Ne-Yo’s When You’re and Busta Rhymes Tough It (which scored 0.97 on the anger scale).
Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood scores highly on fear, with very little joy, while Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball and Justin Bieber’s Sorry score high on sadness – all of which were some of the biggest hits of the last few years.
Natalia Komarova's Analysis
A study by Natalia Komarova was conducted at the University of California Irvine because of Natalia's own daughter. Natalia was shocked to see the kind of music her daughter took an interest in and listened to regularly.
To find out how song emotions had changed over time, she turned to a research database called AcousticBrainz, in which users could apply an algorithm to extract acoustic features – such as the use of major or minor chords and tempo – which it then used to score a song on emotions like sadness.
Looking through half a million songs released in the UK between 1985 and 2015, Komarova and colleagues found that the tone of the music had become less joyful since 1985 – just as Lior Shamir’s analysis of the lyrics had also suggested.
The reasons are unclear, and Komarova was reluctant to offer any specific hypotheses when asked by her colleagues. “[But] one may speculate that this is related to some changes that take place in the society,” she stated.
Shamir agreed, pointing out that in the 50s most popular music was a form of escapism – but since the 60s it has been much more socially engaged. “Music changed its role from fun expression to an expression of political views.”
The Scroll.In Analysis
Scroll.in, a publication ran a similar experiment and analysis like Shamir and Natalia. For their analysis, they used two different datasets. One contained the songs included in the year-end Billboard Hot 100 charts. The second dataset was based on the lyrics voluntarily provided to the website Musixmatch.
With this dataset, we were able to analyse the lyrics of more than 150,000 English-language songs. These include worldwide examples, and therefore provide a wider, more diverse, sample. Here they found the same trends that were found in the Billboard dataset, so they were confident that it can be generalised beyond top hits.
They found that English-language popular songs have become more negative. The use of words related to negative emotions has increased by more than one-third. The usage of “love”, for example, practically halved in 50 years, going from around 400 to 200 instances. The word “hate”, on the contrary, which until the 1990s was not even mentioned in any of the top-100 songs, is now used between 20 and 30 times each year.
What We Can Conclude
The rise of negative lyrics in popular English-language songs is a fascinating phenomenon, looking at the data we can see that there has in fact been an uprise in more negative words and feelings - like hate, anger, sadness and jealousy.
It seems likely, then, that pop songs capture the moods of both the artists and the listener. The composer tunes into these moods and the resulting sadness or anger is, in turn, more appealing to the consumers, who recognise their feelings within the music and lyrics and push those songs to the top of the charts.
With the times changing, so is the music and maybe that will always be the case - with a woke generation comes woke music, I guess?