Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

country-music

(Photo: maradonna 8888/Shutterstock)

When Things Look Dark, Country Music Gets Sunnier

• April 16, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: maradonna 8888/Shutterstock)

New research finds socioeconomic conditions impact the type of songs that become hits, but in opposite ways for pop and country music.

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.


December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?


December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.


December 15 • 4:00 AM

Mating Mindset Interferes With Attempts to Stop Smoking

Taiwanese researchers find photos of attractive women put men in an immediate-gratification state of mind.


December 15 • 2:00 AM

Where Innovation Thrives

Innovation does not require an urban area or a suburban area—it can happen in the city or in a small town. What it requires is open knowledge networks and the movement of people from different places.


Follow us


Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.