Only Pharrell is 'Happy': Today's Pop Music Focuses on Pain and Desperation

Kids today: they’re inspired, desperate and in pain.

Or at least they were in 00s, according to an analysis of US chart hits. More specifically, the study All You Need is Love? Communication Insights from Pop Music’s Number-One Hits, a paper that’s appearing in the Journal of Advertising Research this month.

Now, keep in mind that the purpose of the study – according to the paper’s lead author Dr David Henard, was to help advertisers identify what themes were most resonant with consumers, to allow advertisers to “cut through the clutter”. The idea was that the themes that make people buy records should give clues to how companies should craft their ad campaigns in order to sell stuff.

So they took assigned common words and themes – love, heart, good, baby, night and so on – and assigned them to 12 different categories: loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion.

And what did they find?

First up, if you want to write a huge million-selling hit, your safest bet is to make it about a breakup. That’s been the most consistent theme, fluctuating barely at all since the 50s.

Secondly, that love’s less important now than its ever been: after being the number one most influential word of the first three decades studied, it slipped to third in the 90s and to ninth in the 00s, beneath “time”, “good” and (ahem) “nigga”. In those two decades the two most influential words were “quantity” (presumably a theme: “lots” and “all” and “many” rather than “Oh girl, gonna give you my quantity”) and “baby”. So presumably your breakup song should also be about a whole lot of babies, but not necessarily how much you love them.

And it’s possible to create a just-so story based around these findings, if you fancy putting together a neat pop-music-as-cultural-mirror narrative.

In the 60s our songs were all about nostalgia, pain and rebellion: themes most perfectly summed up in the seeming dozens of cautionary tales about motorcycle accidents: Leader of the Pack, Terry, Condition Red … on this evidence, universal helmet laws could have changed the entire cultural shape of a decade.

In the 70s the vibe was nostalgia (perhaps for the far superior 60s?), rebellion, and being jaded. One the one hand, this was a period when punk was on the rise. On the other, one of the most consistently successful acts of the decade was Abba. Then again, no band better summed up the impotent fury and pervasive hopelessness of the era: timeless protest songs like Waterloo, Fernando and Dancing Queen still have a visceral power that has barely diminished over the decades.

In the 80s, it was all about loss, confusion and aspiration. It was, after all, the decade of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and U2. The 90s were about loss, inspiration and escapism (and Mariah Carey, and Celine Dion) – and then, presumably, we discovered we couldn’t actually escape since the 00s were all about inspiration, pain and desperation – which makes sense when you realise that Eminem was the biggest artist of the era.

So what lessons can we take from this? Well, maybe we can take heart from Pharrell Williams’ Happy looking like being the biggest single of 2014. Maybe everything’s going to be fine after all!

Then again, that song is in F minor, which is a pretty miserable key – but that’s another study altogether.

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