Radiance Blog

Societal values in music

Words-in-Popular-SongsWe stumbled across the interesting data visualization today, which shows how commonly different words or phrases have appeared in Billboard’s Top 100 songs over the past 50 years or so. 

As we scroll through the tables, the most obvious pattern is the increase in profanity (described as “foul words”) since 1990.  Prior to that era, it was almost unheard of to include profanity in a popular song, but … times have changed.

However, we find some more subtle patterns to be more of interest.  The word “love” has become notably less common since the turn of the century, along with the word “home”, and in its place we now hear more references to “sex” and “money”.  Is this a reflection of a less grounded society?  Or is it a contributing factor?

3 comments on “Societal values in music”

  1. My initial reaction is that this is a disturbing trend, however upon further consideration I am wondering what % of the overall population pays any attention to the Billboard Top 100 now compared to 50 years ago. I am also wondering about the age of those drivng the Billboard 100, if it is younger age groups that eventually grow out of the “attraction” of using profanity. I was born in 1944 and growing up I paid a lot more attention to the Billboard 100 than now. I think because of the language and the trends you mentioned I pay way less attention to those songs and ratings. I also notice that mp3’s offered often include two versions, one with explicit language and one without it. I would wonder what those sales are. Regardless of whether it is a smaller % of the population that pays attention to the Billboard 100 the trend is disturbing and my opinion is that those songs are a contributing factor to a less grounded population assuming that is the case. Do we really have a less grounded population, or do we have a different population now that defines itself differently from the “older established” ideas of what grounded means. I am kind of rambling on here, but wanted to weigh in on the conversation.

  2. My initial hunch is that the Billboard 100 is probably less influential in this era as a means of driving public opinion, but it’s probably still an accurate reflection of public opinion, since they’re listing the songs that are being most bought and most listened to.

    So if it’s still a good measure of public sentiment, how do we interpret this trend? A couple of immediate reactions are that we simply have less censorship in our music now, which allows the profanity, and we have more ways for music to be heard, which democratizes the musical process. That allows more music to be heard that would have been filtered out before. Theoretically, both of those changes are good, right?

    But is the outcome good? I’m not sure. Maybe lots of profanity and emphasis on low-level needs like sex and money are reflecting the state of our society these day, and our songs are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine to warn us of that. Maybe the younger generations that are producing music are not able to achieve the stability they need to ponder more lofty concepts.

    Or perhaps every young generation wants to write songs like that, and in the past those songs never made it past the producers’ tryouts.

    Regardless, music that concentrates on low-brow concepts and philosophies has arrived in force, and it’s apparently quite popular. It brings up the question of whether arts and culture has an obligation to lift us up as a society, or if it’s also a valid tool to pull us down as a society. I think that arts, culture, and music have historically been tools of enlightenment, and it was a sign of sophistication to participate. Our research in the area has shown that that’s still true for the most part, but it may not be a universal motivation these days. Is the model breaking down, or did people say the same thing about Elvis Presley back in the day?

    I guess my personal hope is that the artists who are profiting from the low-brow music today will personally grow over time, and that they’ll eventually start thinking about loftier concepts and using their popularity to pull the culture back up.

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