Thanks in large part to the influence of R&B, electronic music, and hip-hop, pop music of the past decade or so has been wildly experimental, artistically rich stuff. Many of the best artists have blurred these genres to the point where they’re unrecognizable, like, say, Rihanna, whose Anti was one of last year’s most scrappy, endearingly weird pop records.
She is also, per a fascinating study on The Pudding, doing this with an almost machine-like efficiency in her lyrics. Author Colin Morris used a dataset 15,000 songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1958 and 2017 to figure out if pop lyrics have, as people have long surmised, actually gotten more repetitive over the years. The short answer is: Yes, they absolutely have.
It’s not just a matter of mere number of words used in a song—their individual vocabularies—but those words’ placement. Using Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” as an example, Morris shows that the same set of words can be placed varyingly to create a much less repetitive listening experience. By finding these points of repetition and eliminating them, you can reduce the chorus ”Cheap Thrills” by 46 percent of its length. So, applying that same technique across the decades in this vast set of songs, Morris reduces every song as much as possible, tracking the most repetitive songs (which is a lot of dance and club stuff, like “Around The World” by Daft Punk, “Pump Up The Jam” by Technotronic, and “Turn Down For What”). He also averages out all of the songs’ compressibility by year, which forms a pretty clean upward arc, from 45.7 percent compressibility in 1960 to almost 55 percent in 2014, which Morris dubs “the most repetitive year on record.” Songs that enter the top 10 are more repetitive consistently for every year analyzed.
All of this is drawn in animated interactive graphs and playable widgets, letting you see how musical artists in individual eras cluster together, as far as repetitiveness. This can be fascinating to pore over. For example, in the ‘00s, rap and country music (Brad Paisley, Eminem) had far less repetitive lyrics, while pop and rock like Britney Spears and Nickelback had much more repetitive lyrics, the genres forming clear-cut trends. In the ’70s, on the other hand, almost everyone is clustered in one big group, except for The Guess Who, who were vastly more repetitive than any of their peers in that era, implying they were ahead of their time in at least one way. You can also see how individual artists fare, which is where RiRi comes in: She is, per Morris, the most repetitive artist of all time, lyrically.
Analysis like this can be reductive, as if quantity of words or their repetition were something to be shamed in pop music. The Pudding previously did an analysis of rapper’s vocabularies, which famously illustrated just how many words Aesop Rock packs into his verses, but it also missed the terse lyricism of someone like Too Short or Missy Elliott’s mastery of delivery. Of course, the pieces on The Pudding themselves don’t draw these conclusions; they just present the data beautifully, and let us play around with it. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, even if it does dangerously imply that J. Cole doesn’t suck.