As Economy Improves, Music May Get More Upbeat

If the economic optimists are right, we may have some music changes on the horizon.

Studies of U.S. music preferences across a half-century found that tough times make listeners prefer tough songs and tough artists. But healthy economies nurture cheesy pop.

Published last year, the studies are particularly relevant today, said lead researcher Terry F. Pettijohn, II, a psychologist at Coastal Carolina University, as millions of Americans have lost their jobs, homes or both. And now, some pundits say they have spotted economic recovery.

If previous economic swings in American history are any guide, our resulting moods not only affect album sales but what type of music we prefer.

We want to wallow

When times are difficult, research suggests, Americans do not bury their heads in fluff  despite popular theories about escapism. Instead, we seek out slower, issue-laden songs, particularly from more mature artists.

Music tastes are more a reflection of how we feel, than a source of distraction, Pettijohn said in a telephone interview last week.

"Sometimes we are going to want to escape, but for the most part we want to delve into what we are experiencing," he said.

To determine times of hardship in the United States, Pettijohn and Donald Sacco of Miami University in Ohio examined key indicators of social and economic health from 1955 to 2003. Specifically, they took into account changes in unemployment rate, disposable personal income, changes in consumer price index, death rate, birth rate, marriage rate, divorce rate, suicide rate and homicide rate.  

While the measure can fluctuate broadly year-to-year, the late 50s and late 90s were found to be relatively good times for the country, while the mid 70s and early 90s were rather difficult. The last few years are expected to fall in the latter category  surprise, surprise.

Tough songs

Billboard's No. 1 Song of the Year, for each of the 49 years, was rated for its tendency to broach important issues ("meaningfulness"), its focus on romance and its tempo. In a second study, a computer program catalogued word usage in the lyrics.

During stressful periods in recent U.S. history, more meaningful and more romantic songs topped the charts, the researchers found. The songs were also longer, slower and had more words per sentence. Lyrics included more plural pronouns, such as "we" and "us," while in happier times, songs fixated on "I."

When faced with hardship and uncertainty, we want to know how other people have coped, so we turn to meaningful music for both advice and comfort, Pettijohn said.

"We also have a greater need to affiliate  a desire to be with other people," Pettijohn said, explaining the popularity of romantic songs, and songs with plural pronouns, during rough times.

In the wake of tragedy or during periods of prolonged stress, people re-examine their priorities with romance and family usually rising to the top. "After 9/11, marriages spiked," Pettijohn said. Accordingly, the most popular song of 2001 was the plaintive love song "Hanging by a Moment" by the band Lifehouse.

In contrast, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, upbeat dance songs were all the rage (Santana's "Smooth" in 1999 and Destiny Child's "Independent Women Part I" in 2000), similar to good times in the 50s (Elvis Presley, "All Shook Up") and 80s (Madonna, "Like a Virgin.")

Tough artists

Billboard's #1 song of 2009 was the Black Eyed Peas' repetitive, and surprisingly dark, dance song "Boom Boom Pow." While some may wish to interpret its tempo as a sign of economic optimism, or even an outlier of a general trend, the mature-looking faces of the band members  pronounced chins, thin cheeks, small eyes  may also have influenced listeners.

In tough times, we tend to gravitate toward friends, lovers and even performers with stronger, more emotionally stable looking faces, Pettijohn said.

Baby-faced Bobby Darin and members of Destiny's Child were most popular during good socioeconomic years, explain the researchers. But Roberta Flack, Elton John and Nickelback, with their smaller, wiser-looking eyes, were favored during more difficult years.

"More mature-looking performers may be writing more mature music," Pettijohn said, noting that research has shown facial features loosely correlate with actual personality.

The music industry also tries to match songs and performers according to expected consumer preferences. "If you have Miley Cyrus sing a political song, it just doesn't make sense," he said.

The study on song and performer preferences was published by the journal Psychology of Music in April 2009, while the study of lyrics was published by the Journal of Language and Social Psychology in September of 2009.

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Robin Nixon Pompa

Robin Nixon is a former staff writer for Live Science. Robin graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior and pursued a PhD in Neural Science from New York University before shifting gears to travel and write. She worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan, for companies doing development work before returning to the U.S. and taking journalism classes at Harvard. She worked as a health and science journalist covering breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology for the lay public, and is the author of "Allergy-Free Kids; The Science-based Approach To Preventing Food Allergies," (Harper Collins, 2017). She will attend the Yale Writer’s Workshop in summer 2023.