Bad Romance: Changes in Pop Lyrics, 1960 – 2010

After inadvertently being exposed to some of this modern “popular” music, I was struck by the lyricists’ choice of words. The subject matter seemed to be quite, er, explicit. There seemed to be an emphasis on going out to parties, getting girls drunk and then having sex with them. Or, if the singer was a female, it seemed to be about going out to parties, getting drunk and then having sex with guys.

I don’t mean to judge this kind of lyric – I’m sure the music back in 1960 was just as boring in its own way – but what interested me was the change in content. I don’t remember listening to Cliff Richard singing about foreplay. So I asked myself how have lyrics changed in the last fifty years?

For this experiment, I took the lyrics of all the #1 hits of 1960 and the lyrics of all the #1 hits of 2010 and compared them.

Changes in the Music Business

Firstly, here’s a note on the change in the music singles business. There has been a trend in recent years for songs to be promoted heavily, hit the #1 spot and then moved on quickly. This explains the difference in sample size between 1960 and 2010.

  • 1960: 16 #1s over 50 weeks at an average of 3.13 weeks at #1. Longest: 8 weeks at #1.
  • 2010: 35 #1s over 53 weeks at an average of 1.49 weeks at #1. Longest: 3 weeks at #1.

With a sample size for 2010 more than double that of 1960, for a fair comparison between the two I refer to word frequencies as a percentage of the total words for that sample. Here we got then.

I, Me, My, Mine

Our lyricists appear to be more selfish these days.

  • In 1960, #1 songs had a balance between “You” and “I”, with “You” just about more popular, appearing as 4.34% of words. 
  • In 2010, 5.76% of words are “I” and only 4.05% “You”.

Does this pronoun switch signal a change in focus for lyrics, putting “I” at the centre, rather than singing songs for “You”. Has the romance of song-writing died?

Love Lost

  • In 1960, the fourth most common word in lyrics was “love”. “Love” was more popular in songs than “the”. [This is what I meant by 1960s songs being boring in their own way!] “Love”, “loved”, “loves”, “lovely” and “lovers” made up 3% of all words in #1 songs from 1960. 
  • But by 2010, “love” had fallen to be only the twenty-sixth most common word, appearing as just 0.72% of the total words.

No kissing!

The collapse of romance in pop songs between 1960 and 2010 is also shown by an even more precipitous fall in the use of the word “kiss”.

  • In 1960, “kisses” and “kiss” made up 0.53% of words. 
  • In 2010, this was down to 0.06%.

Yo, bitch!

I could go on.

  • In 1960, the female protagonist of songs was called “baby”, “dove”, “girl”, “honey”, “dear” – or even “maid”
  • In 2010, the female protagonist is “baby” (or “babe”), “girl” (or “gurl”), “honey”, “lady” or “bitch”

Not altogether romantic.

Shake or sex?

  • In 1960, the most sexual excitement to be found in pop songs were “shaking”, “kissing”, “teasing” – or “marriage”
  • In 2010, we have a bit of “kissing”, but also “fantasies”, “sex”, “foreplay” and straight-out “fucking”.

Lonely or just alone?

There is also an interesting nuanced change to do with loneliness.

  • In 1960, the protagonists were occasionally “lonely”
  • In 2010, however, they are never “lonely”, but only “alone”

It seems to me that this implies a temporary condition that could be corrected by a visit to the local “disco” for some “bitches”, rather than the 1960s long-term loneliness of “devotion” that led to “heartache” for the hero.

Disappearing up its own…

And it’s these discos that represent the most fascinating change between pop songs of the 1960s and the pop songs of today. It’s a change that has come about in lyrical “plots”.

In 1960, there were scarcely any mentions of singing or songs (0.0006%) – or anything else to do with music, but in 2010 an astonishing 1.47% of words are to do with clubs or discos, dancefloors or DJs, clubbing or raving and raves, singing or songs. That’s twice as frequent as references to love in these songs.

  • Does this mean we are a more sexualised culture, interested only in the lust that can be found on a pounding dancefloor? 
  • Or does it just mean that our lyricists can’t think of anything better to sing about? – perhaps because it’s all been sung before, by the singers of the sixties. 
  • Or is it something to do with the rise of the music video? Singing about romance, devotion and marriage just isn’t that exciting. You can’t really make a compelling music video with that, can you? It’s much easier to hire some hip-hop honeys, pack them into a sweat-stained nightclub and wheel out the disco lights. 

Sex sells.

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