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Listen Carefully: The Evolutionary Secret To Making a Hit Record

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Laid bare on a stark piece of paper, removed entirely from their imposing instrumentals, strong emotions, and intimidating vocal talent, most song lyrics have all the literary force of a puff of flatulence. Once they’re quarantined like this in atonal print—and when you actually bother to read them in a quiet room—some of the most popular song lyrics read like half-dried beads of sweat fallen from a hallucinating eighth-grader’s forehead.

There are exceptions, of course. Scholars hail Bob Dylan’s lyrics as works of poetic genius, and the same applies to that of other songwriters as well. (I think Beck ranks among the greatest surrealists, myself.) But when we consider how some of the more potent melodic memes are at once gratuitously bad yet capable of rooting remarkably deep into our collective consciousness—is anyone not familiar with that most enduring priapic paean, “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon”?—the utter banality of most song lyrics becomes that much more curious.

Don’t just take my word for it. Let’s hear from the “Lyrical Gangster” himself, the Jamaican reggae singer Ini Kamoze, whose dancehall hit, “Here Comes the Hotstepper” soared to the top of the US and British charts back in 1994. And that song went a little something like this:

Extraordinary

Juice like a strawberry

Money to burn baby, all the time

Cut to fade is me

Fade to cut is she

Come juggle with me, I say every time

Here comes the hotstepper, murderer

I’m the lyrical gangster, murderer

Dial emergency number, murderer

Still love you like that, murderer

Astonishing. It’s as though his words go straight to my soul—if my soul were that of a mentally ill, homicidal circus clown. (If anyone out there happens to know why, exactly, Kamoze is inviting people to juggle with him, I’d be very keen to hear.) I don’t mean to pick on this particular performer. In fact, that any given song becomes a #1 hit says a lot more about the consuming public than it does the artist. Songwriters, after all, can pack only so much storyline into a radio-length track, so whatever punch they’re going to throw must come hard and fast, even if that means bypassing sanity or even any relevance to the line that comes immediately before.

Perhaps, however, there is more logic in lyric choice than even writers and singers themselves are aware. After boiling songs down to the weird literary nuclei of lyrics, scientists examining such “juice like a strawberry” coded language have discovered no less than the very essence of human nature. At least, that’s the intriguing claim being made by SUNY-Albany investigators Dawn Hobbs and Gordon Gallup in an article soon to be published in Evolutionary Psychology. In trying to decode the hidden messages in song lyrics, these investigators follow in the empirical footsteps of University of Guelph psychologists Hank Davis and Lyndsay McLeod, who in 2003 sampled a random selection of front-page newspaper stories from eight different cultures going back some three centuries. Davis and McLeod discovered that the hallmark of sensational news—what makes something particularly alluring to any readership—is its relevance to reproductive success in the ancestral past. Most high-profile, front-page stories dealt with things such as altruism, reputation, cheaters, violence, sex, and the treatment of offspring. In other words, argued these scientists, what whets our appetites in the social domain today are the very same gossipy topics of conversation that the first humans were probably gabbing about 150,000 years ago in sub-Saharan Africa. “Literary Darwinists” such as Jonathan Gottschall of Washington & Jefferson College have similarly plumbed the world’s epics, folk stories and fairytales for narrative evidence of a universal human psychology. Still other researchers have analyzed titles of romance novels and found “reproductive issues” to be especially salient, including ringers like Nobody’s Baby But Mine, The Bride and the Beast, and The Millionaire’s Pregnant Bride.

So adding to this body of between-the-lines data, it’s perfectly reasonable, surmised Hobbs and Gallup, to assume that song lyrics might similarly contain evolutionarily relevant messages. Their approach departs somewhat from Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s well-known metaphor of music being simply “auditory cheesecake.” Music has no adaptive significance or function in its own right, argued Pinker in his 1997 classic How the Mind Works, but instead it just so happens to pleasantly tickle other evolved domains of human cognition. Yet Pinker didn’t factor song lyrics into his evolutionary analysis. And if we tune our ears just right and listen carefully between the lines to what singers are actually singing about, we find, oddly enough, none other than natural selection flipping the figures behind the Billboard. The commercial success of droplets of inanity such as Kamoze’s “juice like a strawberry,” and “money to burn, baby, all the time” begin to make sense in this light, reason Hobbs and Gallup, because such language resonates very clearly with our species’ evolved social psychology. In fact—and listen up, prospective recording artists—the investigators found that, across music genres, the more “embedded reproductive messages” a given song contained, the more likely it was to have become a smash hit.

To determine all of this, the authors first developed a detailed coding system that “transform[ed] subjective emotions into objective actions.” By parceling out individual song lyrics from hundreds of songs in this way (drawing primarily from the Country, Pop and R&B genres for starters), the emotion-infused lines belted out or mumbled by singers became blanched Darwinian cryptograms. Batches of written lyrics were assigned to two different raters who evaluated them independently for categorization. For example, they were instructed to check off the category Resources for any lyrics that mentioned money, luxury items, cars, or other assets, or Rejection for those referring to divorce, break-ups, broken hearts or pair-bonded discord. (Note that repeated chorus verses in any songs were only counted once.) The full list of categories is shown below, along with samples of lyrics that exemplify each.

Genitalia (“My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon,” from ‘Baby Got Back’ by Sir Mix-A-Lot 1992)

Other Body Parts (“Put your pretty little arms around me” from ‘Big Green Tractor’ by Jason Aldean 2009)

Courtship/Long-Term Mating Strategies (“He said he’d like to get to know me just a little more/[he] ask[ed] me to dinner,” from ‘Switch’ by Keri Hilson, 2009)

Hook Up/Short-Term Mating Strategies (“Baby tell me I can have it,” from ‘Put It On Ya’ by Plies 2009)

Foreplay/Arousal/Sex Act Precursors (“When I kissed you, girl, I knew how sweet a kiss could be,” from ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by The Archies 1969)

Sex Act (“I want to f*ck you like an animal,” from ‘Closer’ by Nine Inch Nails 1994)

Sexual Prowess (“I rock ‘em, roll ‘em all night long, I’m a sixty-minute man,” from ‘Sixty Minute Man” by Billy Ward and the Dominoes 1951)

Promiscuity/Reputation/Derogation (“You don’t have to sell your body to the night,” from ‘Roxanne’ by the Police 1978)

Sequestering/Mate-Guarding (“I enchain you,” from ‘Pur ti Miro, Pur ti Godo’ by Monteverdi 1642)

Fidelity Assurance/Abandonment Prevention (“I’m gonna love you forever, forever and ever, amen,” from ‘Forever and Ever Amen” by Randy Travis 1987)

Commitment and Fidelity (“He knelt down and pulled out a ring, and said ‘Marry Me Juliette,’ from ‘Love Story’ by Taylor Swift 2009)

Resources (“Money to burn, baby, all the time,” from ‘Here Comes the Hotstepper’ by Ini Kamoze, 1994)

Status (“An army of brave men with me as their leader,” from ‘Celeste Aida’ by Verdi 1871)

Mate Provisioning (“I know she ain’t ever had a man like that, to buy her anything she desires,” from ‘Whatever You Like’ by T.I. 2009)

Appearance Enhancement/Sex Appeal (“Shopkeeper, give me my colour, to make my cheeks red, so that I can make the young men love [me] against their will,” from ‘Carmina Burana’ by Carl Orff, 1935)

Rejection (“She just looked me in the eye, said it’s over,” from ‘Red Light’ by David Nail 2009)

Infidelity/Cheater Detection/Mate-Poaching (“I know somebody paying child support for one of his kids, and on her 18th birthday he found out it wasn’t his,” from ‘Gold Digger’ by Kanye West 2005)

Parenting (“He’d been up there all night, lying there in bed and listening to his newborn baby cry,” from ‘It Won’t Be Like This For Long’ by Darius Rucker, 2009)

Other Reproductive Message/Menstrual Cycle/Incest (“Enamored, the brother courts his own sister,” from ‘Winterstürme Wichen dem Wonnemond’ by Wagner 1870)

When the two independent raters compared their notes, their overall agreement was nearly 90 percent, which is very respectable for content-analysis studies and shows the coding system works. Generally speaking, and across the three different genres—even in opera arias dating back some five hundred years—all of this “auditory cheesecake” was glazed heavily and with a wide variety of reproductive messages. Looking closely at the data, country singers tended to emphasize commitment, parenting, rejection and fidelity assurance in their songs. The most frequent reproductive messages in pop songs, by contrast, were those dealing with sex appeal, reputation, and short-term mating strategies. R&B singers, meanwhile, harped on about resources, sexual intercourse and status. Country songs averaged 5.96 reproductive messages per song, Pop had 8.69, and R&B a whopping 16.77 per song.

For all genres, however, and across a sixty-year history of the Billboard charts, the sheer number of reproductive messages in a song was meaningfully linked to that song’s commercial success. This was true even after controlling for the fame of the recording artist. Many singers sell well because of an established name brand. But like any artist, even famous singers have flops, or at least produce songs that don’t get a lot of airtime. It turns out that these lesser-known, “B-side” tracks are infertile in more ways than one, since compared to their chart-topping counterparts, they contain significantly fewer lyrics coding onto the themes above. “In our view,” conclude Hobbs and Gallup, “the ubiquitous presence of these reproductive themes is a reflection of the evolved properties of the human [mind], where people are voting with their pocket books and listener preferences are [unwittingly] driving the lyrics.”

The authors, incidentally, are careful not to claim that lyrics are the only factor behind a song’s success. That would be naïve, given the huge variability in vocal talent. Never mind lyrics, an Amy Winehouse song probably wouldn’t have very much financial get-up-and-go with, say, Kim Kardashian in the recording booth. There are also hugely successful instrumental songs, not to mention (as I’ve discovered firsthand with Eastern Europeans’ immortal love affair with Michael Jackson and 1985’s Madonna) those that do well despite their being in a foreign language. And there are still many valid questions remaining, including how listener characteristics such as age and sex—perhaps even menstrual status in women—may relate to song choice or attention to lyrics. Beyond the simple “sex sales” axiom, however, Hobbs and Gallup’s data do reveal somewhat dramatically how song lyrics are related to our species’ most-pressing adaptive problems.

And buyers respond eagerly, it seems, to songs that push those creaturely buttons.

Image: Wikipedia

Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering is Associate Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). To learn more about Jesse's work, visit www.jessebering.com or add him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jesse.bering). Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Kapitano 1:00 pm 08/31/2011

    So, Evolutionary Psychologists don’t get the difference between sexuality and reproduction. Or consumerist culture and resources for child-rearing.

    It might be nice if they got the difference between a scientific explanation and a just-so story. Or a common cultural feature and confirmation bias.

    Link to this
  2. 2. jeffj900 12:20 pm 09/2/2011

    Noticing that the language of pop lyrics “resonates very clearly with our species’ evolved social psychology” does not imply anything about whether our appreciation of music was an actual adaptive capacity. It simply means that, guess what, our preference for flavors of “auditory cheesecake” depends on the things we like and are interested in based on how we evolved. There is nothing surprising in this, and it implies nothing about why we like music.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Ed Sanders 9:55 am 09/5/2011

    While this is all well and good, any discussion of music that begins or even considers music as “auditory cheesecake” has to be looked at skeptically. I’m not a psychologist, but to start with the presumption that “Music has no adaptive significance or function in its own right…” is beyond ridiculous. Take a look at the way this article breaks down and there is a very obvious hypothesis about the role music plays in people’s lives: tribal identity.
    Our music is a signal just as our fashion or our language. On the separate question of the value or power of lyrics, I think you might learn more about people and their culture by looking at the music that persists (Dylan?) that the fluff that comes and goes like Kamoze.

    Link to this
  4. 4. h_jablome 12:09 pm 09/5/2011

    seems like a lacking fluff-filled study that fails to explain a lot of possibilities. and like other posted comments state, there seems to be some unexplored foundational assumptions (e.g. “Music has no adaptive significance or function in its own right…” what? music is completely void of evolutionary function? you gotta be kidding.)

    to me, a huge logical gap here is explaining the popularity of music that has no “auditory cheesecake” content. i.e. how do you explain the huge popularity of METALLICA? songs about nightmares, drug addition and 1st-person death-row confessions are not exactly full of sex.

    Link to this
  5. 5. SelenesMom 7:20 pm 09/5/2011

    Jeez! Too bad that someone who thinks “most song lyrics have all the literary force of a puff of flatulence” took it upon himself to review a study of them. A glutton for punishment, I guess.

    So if the hypothesis of this study was that “the sheer number of reproductive messages in a song was meaningfully linked to that song’s commercial success” — and assuming that “reproductive messages” include not only messages about love, babies and fidelity, but also bragging about “my big 10-inch record,” celebrating how “you shook me all night long” and reminiscing about the woman who “wanted a pearl necklace” — then wouldn’t it be interesting to follow up and look at some of the Billboard Top 10′s that bucked the trend?

    I mean, sure, we all know there are umpteen songs about laughter, joy and loneliness, and sex and sex and sex and sex. But how does this theory account for “Convoy” by C.W. McCall? Or “Timothy” by the Buoys, written by Rupert Holmes before “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”? Or the dead-animal genre such as Michael Murphy’s “Wildfire” and Henry Gross’s “Shannon”?

    These researchers, if you ask me, have only scratched the surface. Another pool of grant funding must await.

    Link to this
  6. 6. gmperkins 10:06 pm 09/7/2011

    The lyrics point is interesting but other studies have looked at the actual music to “identify” chart toppers (I can’t recall the study off-hand, pretty sure I read it in SciAm).

    Clearly its a mix (no suprise)

    Also, no suprise that our base instincts are again hard at work. I don’t need studies to illuminate me that sex sells. Of course, the studies often highlight the exact way that sells best, which is interesting. In this case it seemed reproduction was the big cue for a “good” lyric.

    Ah well, the more we study the brain the more complex it seems to get yet we also get more studies showing how simple and instinctivley driven the reasons we do what we do appear to be. We just surround the “how and why” with ever more complex explanations to viel the very simple desires that drive humanity.

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