From a Benzo to Student Loans: Debt Anxiety in Today’s Pop Music

by Rob Mitchum

Welcome to Clarify Data Stories, a series using data to illustrate how the most important political subjects of our time infiltrate pop music and our listening habits. Each week, we’ll take the central issue from our Clarify series and use data from Spotify, Genius, and additional sources to gain new perspective on where politics and music intersect in this election year. It’s not exactly science, but through data on lyrics, musicality, and streaming behavior, we’ll seek out the ripples of today’s most pressing issues in the music listened to by Americans. To register to vote, go to headcount.org/spotify.

The anxieties of youth are the fuel of pop music. From voting rights to the draft to employment prospects to sexually transmitted disease, pop songs connect with young listeners over these stresses, providing a sing-along catharsis and the opportunity to name and exorcise your demons. And for many youth today, that demon’s name is Sallie Mae.

At a time when Americans owe over $1.4 trillion in student loans and the average 2016 graduate owed $37,000 when they finished school, the unlikely subject of student debt has crossed over from financial advisor sessions to verses from rappers and punk bands. Just as Tennessee Ernie Ford topped charts in 1955 with “Sixteen Tons,” a folk song about debt bondage to one’s employer, today’s artists increasingly write about struggling against the yoke of government and corporate lenders. When nearly half of Americans in their 20s hold student debt, it’s a topic that’s going to surface in many areas of pop culture.

We used the Rap Stats tool at Genius to look at the usage of student debt-related terms in hip-hop lyrics and found trends that track with the statistics on rising student debt. In particular, “student loans” shows a steady march upward since the early 2000s, while “student debt” doesn’t even appear until 2010, and the wonkier terms of “sallie mae” and “pell grant” show flatter trends but also recent activity.

Frequency of student debt-related terms mentioned in hip-hop lyrics, and the average student debt for U.S. college graduation classes from 1994–2016. Data: Genius Rapstats, Mark Kantrowitz, Mic.com.

But how popular were songs, both hip-hop and other genres, that name-drop these financial issues in the summer of 2016? We took the results from Genius searches for the terms above and added in Spotify data on listening behavior from May through August 2016, giving us the number of times each song was streamed this summer. You can listen to a playlist of these songs, featuring heavy hitters such as J. Cole, Rick Ross, Azealia Banks, Atmosphere, and Kanye West, below.

As the Rap Stats graph indicates, the majority of songs mentioning student debt come in the last few years — 20 of the 35 tracks with the most streams between May and August of this year were released since the beginning of 2014. But some of the earliest songs to reference student loans remain among the most popular in this group — NOFX’s “Happy Guy” (1994), Kanye West’s “Late” (2005), and Atmosphere’s “You” (2008) still rank among the Top 20 from our student debt playlist when you look at the streaming activity from just this summer.

The far-and-away heavyweight champion of this playlist is Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out,” a moody piece of nostalgia that declares “Out of student loans and tree house homes, we all would take the latter.” The song’s 27 million streams, over a time period that begins three months after it peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, is 34 times higher than second place, J. Cole’s “Cole World.” That popularity bends the data somewhat (and forces the use of a logarithmic scale), but with or without “Stressed Out,” there’s a clear uptick in streams of recent songs that mention terms related to student debt.

Stream count for each student debt playlist song from May to August 2016. Data: Spotify. Figure by Diego Garcia-Olano.

Stream count for each student debt playlist song from May to August 2016, with “Stressed Out” removed. Data: Spotify. Figure by Diego Garcia-Olano.

To be clear, very few of these songs are directly about student debt; most mention loans or lenders as just one facet of economic burden. In “Stressed Out,” they’re a symbol of dreary adulthood, in “You,” Witt Lowry’s “Coupons,” and Vybz Kartel’s “Western Union,” they’re part of the stack of bills weighing down each song’s protagonist. HXLT’s “Reaper” cites loans as a reason not to blindly follow the crowd and your parents’ dreams to college; Cam’ron suggests jail provides a better-value education on “Bubble Music”: “At least after your bid, ain’t no student loans.

Unsurprisingly, most of the lyrical references to student loans are negative, and even the overall songs in which they are set are typically pessimistic. We used a sentiment analysis tool to analyze the full lyrics of each song in the playlist, and found that 56 of 87 songs (64%) were negative in tone. Only 3 songs — Crime in Stereo’s “Sleeping Androids Do Dream of Electric Sheep,” Kimya Dawson’s “Happy Home (Keep on Writing),” and Tabi Bonney’s “Top Notch” — scanned positive.

Sentiment analysis for the songs in the student debt playlist. Lyric data: Genius. Sentiment analysis: http://text-processing.com/demo/sentiment/

For example, The Front Bottoms’ “Skeleton” turns the phrase into a pejorative (“You are the cops, you are my student loans/You are a head shaped hole”) and Azealia Banks uses a loan-free federal aid program to slam a stuck-up subject on “Van Vogue”: “I see you, bitch. With your Pell Grant refund, I see you coming out of NYU/Spitting that refund check, getting fly rainbows and shit/Tryna’ come out of Forever 21 stunting on me/Don’t want to share none of your Whole Foods and shit.” Perhaps the bluntest attack is Tiara Thomas’ anthropomorphizing “Dear Sallie Mae,” which starts off “Sallie Mae is like, the rudest bitch ever” and escalates to “Sallie Mae is a bitch she been rapin’ all the students.”

But despite the overall sentiment analysis results, there are some positive sentiments about student loans within these songs. Dee-1’s viral “Sallie Mae Back” is the most direct, a celebration of reaching loan-free status anchored around a clever pun. Other songs boast about how they paid down their debt, by either selling cars (NOFX) or selling green (Tasha the Amazon). There’s even a rebellious freedom in choosing not to pay — country singer/songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Drunken Poet’s Dream” celebrates a carefree woman who inspires him to let it loose: “Now I’ll never pay back my student loan/Smellin’ like Coors and cheap cologne.

Interestingly, Loyle Carner’s “Ain’t Nothing Changed” is the inverse of “Stressed Out” — the British rapper treating his loans as a reminder of younger days (“I kind of miss my student loan/I miss sitting in the student home”) — perhaps because he received a scholarship to the prestigious Brit School for Performing Arts and Technology. And Kanye West, conflicted as always on the subject of higher education, merely sees his student debt as a step on his climb to fame and wealth: “Will I make it from the student loans to a Benzo?

With student debt soaring past credit card and auto debt, it’s a smart bet that these mentions will only increase in frequency in the near future. Like “Sallie Mae Back,” we may also see the burden of student loans promoted from lists of financial problems to main subject of more songs. Until a new anxiety comes along to haunt the youth of America, student debt should continue its rise as pop music’s newest villain.

To register to vote, go to headcount.org/spotify

The Clarify data team is Manish Nag, Ian Anderson, and Nathan Stein.