It’s long been assumed, through a sneering appraisal of the charts, that a song’s lyrics must have little to no bearing on its popularity, unless they are the lyrics to “Baby Got Back,” or “Ms. New Booty,” or “Dance (Ass),” or generally anything about butts. However, a new study by a pair of researchers at North Carolina State University suggests that lyrics are an important factor in determining a song’s success—though, fortunately for most modern songwriters, only in the sense that certain themes have been found to be a constant in the most popular songs of all time. In other words, while the mere presence of butts might make your song popular, it’s what those butts are feeling that makes your song a hit. And as it turns out, most people like their butts sad.
The study, to be published in the Journal of Advertising Research, looked at the top artists from the past 60 years, breaking down by decade the major lyrical themes in the No. 1 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100. According to its findings, most of what we like to listen to is steeped in suffering: “Breakup” was the most consistently popular theme, while variations on regret, uncertainty, and longing only grew more intense as pop music aged. Sure, like your single aunt, it occasionally delved into self-help with songs about “aspiration” and “inspiration”—but that was just a cover-up. As you can see from the list, as it got older, pop music went from channeling its pain into rebellion to wallowing in pure desperation:
1960s: Nostalgia, Pain, Rebellion
1970s: Nostalgia, Rebellion, Jaded
1980s: Loss, Aspiration, Confusion
1990s: Loss, Inspiration, Escapism
2000s: Inspiration, Pain, Desperation
In addition to revealing that we should maybe be worried that pop music is going to up and kill itself, the study also suggests—with a proclaimed 73.4 percent accuracy—that the presence of any of the seven major lyrical themes can predict whether a song will make the Hot 100. Those themes are “loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, and nostalgia,” and right now, someone is surely attempting to synthesize them all into a single Rihanna song.
Finally, if reducing songs to a broad theme isn’t enough specious analysis for you of what makes a hit, the Journal also compiled a list narrowing them down to the “most influential words” in songs per decade.
Some takeaways: It’s been far too long since we’ve had a good “Female Name” ballad; we pretty much said everything there is to say about the “night” by the 1990s; somewhere along the way, we traded our “heart” for “nigga;” and we just can’t stop singing about “quantity,” apparently—which we’ll just assume is shorthand for “quantity of butts.”