Pop Songs Have Gotten Angrier Over the Decades

A new study finds that pop music increasingly expresses rage against the machine—and almost everything else.
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Guitar on fire music

The odds of a hit song expressing anger, fear, or disgust all rose steadily and consistently over the decades, with spikes in angry lyrics in the early 1990s and mid-2010s.

Turn on the radio, and there's a good chance you'll be bombarded with angry outbursts. Voice after voice will express rage and resentment, often at high decibels.

The Rush Limbaugh Show? Well, sure. But the description also applies to most music programs playing today's hits.

An analysis of the most popular songs in the United States each year shows a gradual but profound shift in emotional tone from the early 1950s to the mid-2010s, with lyrics growing ever darker.

"The results show a clear trend towards a more negative tone," write Kathleen Napier and Lior Shamir of Lawrence Technological University in Michigan. "Anger, disgust, sadness, and conscientiousness have increased significantly, while joy, confidence, and openness expressed in pop-song lyrics has declined."

Come on, baby, stoke my ire.

Tracing the trajectory of pop lyrics has become a mini-field in itself. A 2011 study showed how hit songs have come to reflect our increasing narcissism, while a paper published last year found that references to sex, drugs, and alcohol all rose steadily from the 1960s to the 2000s.

The new research, published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, focuses entirely on lyrics. That's an imperfect way of measuring the emotional content of a song; think of how the 1970s pop group ABBA juxtaposed bouncy, upbeat melodies with often-depressing lyrics.

But the trajectory the researchers find is clear, and presumably reflective of changing public taste.

"The change in lyrics' sentiments does not necessarily reflect what the musicians and songwriters wanted to express," Shamir noted in announcing the findings, "but is more related to what music consumers wanted to listen to each year."

Shamir and Napier used "automatic sentiment analysis" to measure the emotional tone of each of the 6,150 songs in their set—every tune that made Billboard magazine's "Hot 100" list for the years 1951 through 2016. The chart has traditionally measured record sales and radio airplay, but has been modified in recent years to also reflect streaming and sharing on social media.

They used a "computational linguistic tool" called Tone Analyzer, which uses "a combination of psycholinguistics and machine learning to determine the type of tone found in a text." For example, analyzing specific words and phrases, the tool calculated that the dominant tone of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" was sadness, along with a good deal of fear and only a tiny bit of joy.

The researchers averaged the songs' emotional scores for each year, and found "a clear trend toward a more negative tone in pop music lyrics." The odds of a hit song expressing anger, fear, or disgust all rose steadily and consistently over the decades, with spikes in angry lyrics in the early 1990s and mid-2010s. Conversely, lyrics reflecting joy decreased consistently from the mid-1950s to the mid-2010s.

In part, the researchers write, this shift reflects the rise of rap. "Anger and disgust are tones that are much more common in rap songs compared to pop and country, while joy is expressed less often," the researchers report.

So have teens and young adults grown angrier over the generations? Or are they simply more open to having the anger and sadness they feel reflected in their music? It's hard to say. But the hits keep getting more bitter.

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