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How the Evolution of Pop Music Explains Hookup Culture

If pop music is a proxy for the culture at large, then America has truly undergone a radical cultural transformation over the past 50 years with regard to dating, love and sex.

Namely, men have collectively turned into a bunch of commitment-averse, sex-crazed Lotharios, while women remain as lovelorn as ever.

A new study published in the journal Sexuality & Culture, which bills itself as “the most exhaustive analysis of popular music lyrics conducted to date,” finds that male pop stars sang about dating in just 59 percent of songs released in the 2000s, a 10 percentage-point decrease from the 1960s.

And male pop performers became more explicitly sexual over the same period. They referenced sex in 40 percent of pop songs in the 2000s, a fivefold increase from the more sexually modest 1960s, when sex appeared in just 7 percent of pop songs.

The researchers conducted the study by analyzing the lyrics to songs that appeared on the Billboard top 100 songs of the year from 1960 to 2008. They analyzed 1,250 songs in total, and their analysis shows that pop music reflects our increasingly lax attitudes about casual sex.

“If you look at the changes from one decade to the next, you definitely see guys singing about romantic relationships less over time, and that coincides with an increase of guys singing about sex,” says Andrew Smiler, the lead author on the study and a psychotherapist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “As racy as Elvis was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he really can’t hold a candle to a lot of what we see today.”

Male pop stars went from telling women “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to dropping all pretense and singing “I Wanna Fuck You.” It’s the pop music equivalent of a guy ghosting you for two months only to send an unprompted 3 a.m. “u up?” text one night.

Female pop performers are more overtly sexual now, too, albeit to a far lesser degree. Among female pop performers, the proportion of songs that reference sex was at 6 percent in the 1960s, and remained between 16 and 21 percent from 1970 to 2000—about half the rate that their male counterparts sing about sex.

“We have this longstanding double standard in the U.S. regarding men women talking about sex. While we’ve had some sexual liberation for women, there’s still some very real risk of them looking bad [for talking about sex],” Smiler adds. “Women who sing about sex are labeled ‘dirty.’”

Unlike their male pop star counterparts, female pop performers have remained just as interested in dating as they did in the ‘60s. The number of female-performed pop songs with references to dating “stayed relatively constant across five decades,” between 78 and 83 percent, according to a release about the study.