Is Pop Music Getting Sadder?
The study, which was published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, claims that Top 40 hits have been getting sadder—and more complex—for the last half-decade. The study’s authors researched the tonality of more than 1,000 Billboard chart-toppers from 1965 to 2009, ultimately concluding that pop recordings have become more “sad-sounding” over time, as characterized by slower tempos and the increased use of minor key.
“Popular music with mixed emotional cues has always existed,” the authors noted, “but [in today’s music industry] artistic integrity and commercial success are no longer contradictory.”
Although the journal does not mention how much crack cocaine the study’s authors had ingested over the course of their research, their conclusion that pop music has grown “smarter” and “more complicated” suggests that they have not actually listened to a pop song in at least twenty years. Or perhaps they watched that SNL skit in which the cast members bawled to Adele’s “Someone Like You” and jumped to the conclusion that heartfelt weepers are all the rage. Either way, their claims come across as wildly untenable.
Far be it from me to contradict a critical analysis that holds up to the almighty Scientific Method, but isn’t today’s pop music insufferable enough without the psychological community stirring the pot with studies about how it’s getting more complex? For argument’s sake, let’s look at 2009—the most recent year in the study. Were the researchers really impressed by the “mixed emotional cues” of such deep-thinking chart-toppers as Kelly Clarkson, Jason Mraz, Beyonce, and the Fray? Or did the fact that Billboard chose Kanye West and Taylor Swift as the best artists of that year send a strong signal to the psychological community that complex music has finally gained mass appeal?
Of course, there’s always Lady Gaga, who dominated the charts in 2009. From what I’ve been told, she does actually sing songs, some of which apparently do not make you want to rip off your own ears with a pair of salad tongs. But in the end, isn’t she known more for her edible evening wear and amusing Twitter antics?
Scientists, for all their harping over objective methodology, are really a rabble-rousing bunch. Every other year, a study comes out claiming to disprove the big bang or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Respectable people are, of course, free to disagree on specifics, but the steadily deteriorating quality of pop music is not really debatable. It has been a widely accepted model of musicology since the baby boomers left Haight-Ashbury and got jobs. Every generation since has come to understand that the music it grew up with is wholly superior to the current crop of radio-ready offerings. Admittedly, this mode of thinking may be fraught with subjective underpinnings, but for most of us, it works just fine. Let us not be swayed by the dissenting murmurs of a few radical researchers. That would just be sad.
Read more about this misguided study in Pacific Standard magazine.