A new study out of the University of California Irvine claims that while the hits of today are happier and more danceable, those songs are more likely to be crooned by women, and pop music overall, because of men, has gotten sadder in the last thirty years. In other words, happy female-sung pop hits good, sad sack male-sung songs bad.
What’s going on? Are we more depressed than ever? Are women still our upbeat, chipper, pop-music saving grace?
The researchers looked at half a million Top 100 songs released in Britain between 1985 and 2015 and quantified them based on what they call acoustic features and a “superstar” variable. “Interestingly, successful songs exhibit their own distinct behavior: They tend to be happier, more partylike, less relaxed and more likely to be sung by a woman than most,” lead study author Natalia Komarova said of the research. So in spite of the fact that more sad songs are coming out, people still want something you can dance to.
As the NYT puts it:
The researchers emphasize that a gradual decrease in the average “happiness” index does not mean that all successful songs in 1985 were happy and all successful songs in 2015 were sad. They were looking for average trends in the acoustic properties of the music and the moods describing the sounds.
Some songs with a low happiness index in 2014 include “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith, “Whispers” by Passenger and “Unmissable” by Gorgon City. Some from 1985 with a high happiness index include “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen, “Would I Lie to You?” by the Eurythmics, and “Freedom” by Wham!
But, to be clear, “Glory Days” is not a happy song. If it’s not profoundly sad — it’s literally about sitting around remembering the better times that passed you by, because, make no mistake, those days are over — then is at least about nostalgia. Similarly, “Would I Lie to You?” by the Eurythmics, is certainly danceable. But if you read the lyrics, it’s about a woman telling a man she’s going to leave him, making clear that she isn’t bullshitting. Similarly, “Freedom” by Wham! (the 1985 one, not the 1990 George Michael one) is about loving a cheater.
It’s okay if you didn’t realize this as a listener. Music critic Steven Hyden, author of the new book on classic rock Twilight of the Gods, tells MEL that’s kind of the point of pop music. “I feel like music is so tailored now to specific moods or activities that it can be sad if you want it to be, or happy if you want it to be,” he says. “It’s also hard to define what ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ music is because many great songs are neither just happy or just sad. Listeners often project their own experiences on to the music they like, which can make a happy-sounding song with sad lyrics seem either like an upbeat party jam, or a song you wallow in during a heartbreaking time. I don’t know even know how you conduct a study like this without making value judgments that might not translate for every listener.”
That complexity is not a flaw of the music, it’s arguably its greatest strength. Pop music is a Trojan horse in my view: it has always been great not in spite of, but because of its deceptive simplicity and ability to service a dark truth in the wrapper of a slick beat, or the reverse. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper is a perfect example. What’s often used as an upbeat party girl anthem of the lol, nothing matters variety is also a profoundly dark pop song about the fact that women are fundamentally cut off from the freedom and opportunity of pleasure men enjoy. That they are, in essence, unable to walk in the sun on their own terms.
Research on the themes of the most successful hits of the past 50 years back this up. It found that there are enduring subjects in the most successful songs, and they are no chill hang, friend. Here are the top 12 themes:
Even when you break that up by decade, it’s clear we wear our precious emo feelings on our sleeves:
- 1960s: Nostalgia, Pain, Rebellion
- 1970s: Nostalgia, Rebellion, Jaded
- 1980s: Loss, Aspiration, Confusion
- 1990s: Loss, Inspiration, Escapism
- 2000s: Inspiration, Pain, Desperation
And what’s more, songs that hit on these themes are more likely to be hits. Why, it’s almost as if dance music is a trick to sound light and fun when really it’s bleak and downtrodden. Pharrell’s “Happy” is the blip, friend, not the enduring truth.
What’s more, if there are some recent standouts in female-sung happy pop music, that’s the exception and not the rule, too. Pop music is more male dominated than ever, from the people on the mic to the people behind the board, with ladies making up only 22 percent of performers of the 600 most successful songs between 2012 and 2017. That’s a distinct difference from previous eras when women like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and others used to crush it. For a period of time in the ’90s, women were about to hit the equality representation milestone, but then, well, it didn’t happen.
It’s not that they don’t exist or don’t write big hits — we can list Carly Rae Jepsen’s, Taylor Swift’s, Lorde’s, Britney’s, Rihanna’s Kesha’s, Beyonce’s ‘til the cows come home. But as for most successful? Well, we went a full year recently without having a single female fronted №1 track on the charts. Well, not if you count that Chainsmokers song “Closer,” which had Halsey singing on it! you might smartly counter here with a smirk. Right! What was that one about? Oh yeah. It’s a sad, nostalgic song about a breakup.
I asked music critic and journalist Annie Zaleski what she made of the study, and whether she could see evidence of a trend toward allegedly sadder music, even if just outwardly sadder sounding. “I don’t necessarily think music feels sadder,” Zaleski told me. “If anything, I sense a more nostalgic tone, especially in modern mainstream pop hits. That’s because electronic instruments such as synthesizers lend themselves well to wistfulness and emotional nuance. What’s construed as sadness might just be the keyboard timbre, which is a far different, more futuristic tone than an electric guitar.”
Zaleski notes a few significant shifts that might drive happier sounding tunes: the explosion of popularity in electronic dance music in recent years, and a festival culture where “people are attending simply to have a good time,” where “a sadder song would be a total buzzkill.”
Plus, she notes the shift in how we listen to music, such as platforms that promote sharing music, like radio, streaming platforms and video, that explain why happier music is more popular. “I think of a song such as Katy Perry’s ‘Roar,’ which is a unifying anthem,” she writes. “Happy-sounding songs are ones you use to feel connected to other people. Songs that are more introspective — or, yes, sadder — can be more private and personal, and may not be what you want to play when hanging out with friends. When you’re heartbroken or feeling down, you might not want to be hanging with other people blasting, say, Adele’s ‘Hello.’”
Adam Behr, a lecturer in pop music at Newcastle University, wrote at The Conversation that the study’s finding that pop songs have gotten sadder is a clicky headline, but its belief in data over social context misses not just what pop songs are about versus how they sound, but also how we listen to them. Behr writes:
Take the example of a song that topped the charts twice, 16 years apart, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s a complex multi-layered production, not straightforwardly danceable and sung from the perspective of a nihilistic murderer to whom “nothing really matters.” Yet it’s the source of much joyful group participation.
The charts, he notes, are also no longer the dominant metric they were when we simply had little other choice but to find music on the radio, and in essence, having all of recorded music in our pocket now has democratized so-called serious music alongside the more fun stuff.
That said, it’s hard to deny one thing: We are, as a population, a lot more depressed. According to recent research, we’re in the midst of an 80-year increase in anxiety and depression. So if men still write and produce more songs, it’s entirely believable that the music they make is sadder sounding, if you go by vibe alone. And like going to see pictures during the Depression, it’s also not hard to believe that during particularly trying Trumpian times, we’d be more inclined to turn to pop music as a coping mechanism.
It’s just that pop music has always been weirdly sad, in spite of the vibe, and this is what we’ve always used it for. We have always asked it to to tell us something true, for better or for worse, that we can also dance to. It has, and continues to be, really really good at that.