Listening to the lyrics of the most popular songs being played on the radio or downloaded from the web provides an increased understanding of important psychological characteristics of the U.S. population—and of how these characteristics may change in the future. Words used in popular song lyrics are a cultural product that changes along with cultural changes in the individual psychological traits of the population for which the songs are written and by which they are consumed. A new study conducted on U.S. song lyrics published between 1980 and 2007 shows the influence of this heretofore understudied cultural product in ways that reflect psychological transformations in their authors and listeners. The results show that, over a time span of 27 years, changes have occurred in the frequency of words related to self-focus, social disconnection, anger, antisocial behavior, and misery vs. the frequency of words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion.
The results of the study, conducted by researchers from the universities of Kentucky, Georgia, and San Diego State provide consistent evidence in support of the hypothesis that popular U.S. music lyrics now include more words related to a focus on the self with an increase in the use of first-person singular pronouns and fewer first-person plural pronouns over the last 27 years. Popular song lyrics now include fewer words related to social interactions and positive emotions, which parallels evidence in other studies showing increases in U.S. loneliness and psychopathology over time. Words related to anger and antisocial behavior have also increased significantly, which appears to reflect increases in narcissism and social rejection that are conducive to heightened anger and antisocial behavior. To arrive at these results, the researchers analyzed song lyrics for the 10 most popular U.S. songs (according to the Billboard Hot 100 year-end chart) for each year between 1980 through 2007, for a total of 88,621 words.
Changes in popular music lyrics appear to closely mirror increases in narcissism and self-focus. Just as people report more frequent instances of loneliness and social isolation over time (feelings of loneliness and social isolation in the United States rose 250% between 1985 and 2004), popular song lyrics have progressively included fewer words related to social interactions. Correspondingly, the use of angry and antisocial song lyrics has increased over the same time span, to such an extent that the tone and content of popular songs has become increasingly more angry and antisocial over time.
Other longitudinal data appear to support the findings in the song lyrics. For example, scores on the widely-administered Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) clinical scales, which measure mental health, have increased approximately one full standard deviation between 1938 and 2007. In particular, scores on the depression scale have risen by 0.66 standard deviation units between 1938 and 2007. This would indicate that more people meet diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder in recent generations as compared to their predecessors.
U.S. culture is continuously inundated with cultural products which are delivered through a wide variety of media and are increasingly consumed in isolation. Americans listen to popular music, view billboards, and watch TV programs and movies—in increasing numbers, they do these activities alone. The evidence that changes in cultural products reflect generational changes in psychological characteristics is not surprising. Given the ubiquity of cultural products, in spite of the ongoing controversy over whether the media induce or reflect cultural changes, we need a better understanding of how cultural changes over time influence personality traits, goals, and emotions. It appears that, at least on the basis of song lyrics, things aren’t looking up at all for social connection, altruism, and positive emotions.