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“Applaud if you feel happiness is the truth,” Pharrell Williams sings in “Happy,” but the joyous feelings in that 2013 hit are becoming increasingly rare, according to a new analysis of decades of song lyrics. The study reveals that the lyrics of popular music have become progressively angrier, sadder and more frightening since the 1950s.
Lior Shamir, a computer scientist at Lawrence Technical University in Southfield, Michigan, analyzed the lyrics of more than 6,000 songs using IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence platform. The songs are taken from the Billboard Hot 100 list of the most popular songs of each year from 1951 to 2016. Watson can use a combination of psycholinguistics and machine learning to measure the feelings of any piece of text. The emotions of anger, fear, disgust, joy and sadness were rated in each song and were rated from 0 to 1.
For example, “Turn around every now and then I feel a little lonely and you never come back” – the opening line from Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – got a sadness score of 0.78. The song as a whole scored 0.52 for sadness and 0.53 for fear, while joy only scored 0.09. Village People’s “YMCA”, released in 1978, scored 0.65 for joy and 0.11 for anger.
Shamir found that the average scores for fear, anger, disgust, and sadness in each year’s crop of chart tops have increased steadily and steadily over the decades, while the joy has declined. The 1956 Fats Domino classic “Blueberry Hill” got a joy score of 0.89, while Sam Smith’s plaintive “Stay With Me” from 2015 got just 0.15 joy ( the aforementioned “Happy” scored 0.79). The most angry song in the database is Busta Rhymes’ “Touch It” from 2006, which scores 0.97. In contrast, Madonna’s 1983 “Borderline” is much angrier than most other songs from the 1980s, but only scored 0.35.
Since the Billboard Hot 100 only includes the most popular songs from each year, emotions reflect what audiences want to listen to, rather than what musicians in general want to express, Shamir said. He suggests the trends are related to the role of music in society, and some of the spikes in the data may reflect what was happening in the world at the time.
“During the 1950s the purpose of music was entertainment and fun, and I think that relates to the happier and less angry lyrics,” he said. “In the late 1960s and early 1970s, music also became a social and political tool, used to express and even advance social activism and political opinions. The rise of these protest songs has led to an increase in anger and disgust.
There are also more low-key events that can be reflected in the tone of popular music. The sudden drop in fear in 1988 that the analysis revealed could be linked to the end of the Cold War, suggests Shamir, while an increase in fear in 1998 and 1999 may reflect anxiety about the impending turn in the world. millennium.
David Metzer, music historian at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said this digital exploration of lyrics offers a valuable new perspective on the feelings expressed in music. He is particularly interested in the difference between Shamir’s findings and his own work on emotion in popular music.
“It came as a surprise – I didn’t notice a growing anger, and sadness is still a part of music,” said Metzer, who has studied emotion in popular ballads from the 1950s to the present day. . “I think modern songs mix emotions a lot more; we’re more interested in the idea of emotional intensity than any particular emotion.”
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” is a good example, said Metzer. “I was singing it at karaoke last night, and there’s sadness to a certain extent, but there’s also that feeling of euphoria and a release of emotion.”
Part of the difference could be due to Shamir’s emphasis on lyrics.
“Songs are more than words, there is also music and performance,” said Metzer. “I try to always keep the three in play.”
Metzer said it would be helpful to combine the two approaches – his own low-tech technique of reading old Billboard magazines on microfilm in library basements, and Shamir’s AI-powered data mining. “They offer different perspectives, and both are valuable,” he said.
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