In tough times, do happy or sad songs top the charts? Do we prefer music that reflects our fears and hardships, or tunes that allow us to temporarily forget our troubles?
Newly published research suggests the answer varies dramatically by genre. Pop fans reflexively gravitate to music that mirrors their emotions, while country devotees go for escapism.
In an analysis of the most popular country songs over six decades, Jason Eastman and Terry Pettijohn II of Coastal Carolina University finds top hits are “lyrically more positive, musically upbeat, and use more happy-sounding major chords during difficult socioeconomic times.”
In contrast, previous research on best-selling pop songs found that, in times of societal stress, those numbers “are longer, slower, more lyrically meaningful, and in more somber-sounding keys.”
“Even though country music is often stereotypically thought to focus almost exclusively on the darker and depressing aspects of life, Billboard country songs of the year are less likely to lyrically incorporate negative emotions during difficult social and economic times.”
In the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Eastman, a sociologist, and Pettijohn, a psychologist, looked at the 63 songs that topped the Billboard magazine country music chart each year from 1946 to 2008. The music and lyrics of each was analyzed, along with the age and gender of the performer(s).
This information was then compared with how the nation was faring in the year of its release, as determined by Pettijohn’s General Hard Time Measure. It uses a variety of statistics, including the rates of unemployment, divorce, suicide, and homicide, plus the consumer price index and “changes in disposable personal income,” to create “a measure of society-wide well-being.”
The results: “Even though country music is often stereotypically thought to focus almost exclusively on the darker and depressing aspects of life, Billboard country songs of the year are less likely to lyrically incorporate negative emotions during difficult social and economic times.”
Songs released in these periods also tended to have more upbeat tempos and a larger proportion of major chords. All of those trends are the mirror opposite of pop music.
This likely reflects the differing attitudes held by members of various socioeconomic groups, according to Eastman and Pettijohn, who note that the audience for country music remains predominantly working class.
“Middle-class parents socialize their children to take control and master their environment,” they write. “As the primary consumers of pop music, this audience likely seeks out sadder, more serious songs in bad socioeconomic times to match the negative emotions and anxieties they personally feel, but are ultimately confident they will overcome.”
“In contrast, working-class parents are less secure because of their lack of power and resources, and thus socialize their children to be accepting of life’s hardships,” they add. This attitude leads them to seek out “songs that offer temporary relief from stress and anxiety they believe is inevitable, and inescapable.”
While that’s a reasonable and compelling analysis, it’s worth pointing out that recessions don’t hit all socioeconomic groups with equal force. The most recent downturn, which does not figure into this study, is essentially over for college-educated pop fans, but is very much still a fact of life for the working-class country crowd.
So over the next few years, upbeat songs may be particularly popular in both genres—for opposite reasons.