Pop song lyrics use more negative words (“hate”, “sorrow”) than 50 years ago

I fixed the misleading headline in the original source, “Why are pop songs getting sadder than they used to be?” because the article doesn’t contain the answer. The discussion of the methodology and the findings are interesting, nonetheless.

English-language popular songs have become more negative. The use of words related to negative emotions has increased by more than one third. Let’s take the example of the Billboard dataset. If we assume an average of 300 words per song, every year there are 30,000 words in the lyrics of the top-100 hits. In 1965, around 450 of these words were associated with negative emotions, whereas in 2015 their number was above 700. Meanwhile, words associated with positive emotions decreased in the same time period. There were more than 1,750 positive-emotion words in the songs of 1965, and only around 1,150 in 2015. Notice that, in absolute number, there are always more words associated with positive emotions than there are words associated with negative ones.


The rise of negative lyrics in popular English-language songs is a fascinating phenomenon, and we showed that this can be due to a widespread preference for negative content plus some other, yet to be discovered, causes. Given this preference, what we need to explain is why pop-song lyrics before the 1980s were more positive than today. It could be that a more centralised record industry had more control on the songs that were produced and sold. A similar effect could have been brought about by the diffusion of more personalised distribution channels (from blank cassette tapes to Spotify’s ‘Made For You’ algorithmic tailoring). And other, broader, societal changes could have contributed to make it more acceptable, or even rewarded, to explicitly express negative feelings. –Alberto Acerbi, Aeon

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