In times of economic trouble, one might assume that America would want to escape with cutesy innocence—as when we spent the Great Depression watching Shirley Temple, the tapping of her flailing baby limbs drowning out the sound of our stomachs gnawing on boiled shoe leather. But according to a recent study, the opposite may be true: It says that when times are tough, we tend to gravitate toward performers whose faces have more mature features, while we celebrate prosperity with younger-looking stars. It’s a report that should prove a boon to economists who are really sick of looking at numbers all the time.
For everyone else, of course, it’s just an interesting (if questionable) correlation proposed by psychology professor Terry F. Pettijohn II. He’s published a study that compares the faces of the most popular country music stars from 1946 to 2010 to the economic index of the years they were popular, a measurement that includes everything from unemployment to suicide rates to determine the general mood of the nation. And according to his team’s findings, the worse the economy, the more likely that year’s most popular country singer has a face with the features associated with maturity—the smaller eyes, larger jaws, and thinner cheeks sported by adults who have been transformed by life’s cruelty into lamprey eels. Meanwhile, the happier we are, the more we want babies in cowboy hats.
For example, The Atlantic points out, the economy was doing fairly well in 1968, and so the most popular country singer was Johnny Cash, whose wide eyes and smaller chin made him resemble a typical infant in the Marlboro-filled nurseries of the 1960s. But during the economic crash of 2008, the charts were topped by James Otto’s “Just Got Started Lovin’ You,” with Otto’s wide chin and beady eyes ostensibly offsetting the fact that he looks a giant baby with a beard drawn on.
As the study explains, country music stars were found to be a good base for comparison, as so many of them tend to be thirtysomething white guys, resulting in the same “purity” in his data as country music can expect from its concerts, wink wink. And as dubious as these patterns may be, the correlations are somewhat backed up by Pettijohn’s earlier study, which found that older country musicians are more popular during economic downturns. Particularly older female country music stars, who represent “comforting female figures, like the wives and mothers portrayed in country songs” that cater to a nation transformed into scared children desperate for guidance, even if it’s in the form of a country music song.
And when the nation’s doing relatively well, as it is now, country music can get back to lionizing singing dolls like Taylor Swift, and using women primarily as jeans-filler for the next batch of tunes about drinking beer in a pick-up truck.