Which ones are we making these days?
by Rob Mitchum and Diego Garcia-Olano
This is part of our Clarify Data Stories series. Check out the big issues, minus the noise at www.spotify.com/clarify to watch artists take on the issues that matter to them, like Talib Kweli below.
If pop music is about rebellion, it only makes sense that it’s armed. Guns have been a common reference on the edgier ends of American music since the early 20th century, from raw country blues and outlaw country through gangsta rap and hardcore punk. As with other forms of media, guns in music are a well-worn shorthand for bravado, sexual prowess, and alluring danger.
But as gun violence in the United States reaches epidemic status, are popular songs changing their tune when they discuss guns?
To track these trends, we searched Genius for a handful of gun-related terms — gun, guns, bullet, bullets, pistol, rifle, and shotgun — then looked for the songs from every year with the most streams in the summer of 2016. You can view that timeline below, from Sonny Boy Williamson’s 1940 “Shotgun Blues” up through modern hits from Panic at the Disco and Selena Gomez.
The timeline shows that gun culture in music is spread across genres, following popular trends with an evolution from rock in the 70s and 80s to rap in the 90s and pop in recent years. A playlist of these tracks also demonstrates that musical gun references run the gamut, stylistically and alphabetically, from ABBA to Willie Nelson.
The three types of gun songs
While the sounds have changed, have the words in these songs also reflected changing societal perspectives on guns? To dig deeper than song titles, we fed lyric data from Genius into a topic modeling algorithm, which automatically determines similarities between bodies of text and groups them into clusters. So if multiple songs use the word “kill” in combination with one of their gun terms, they would be placed into a group, and the same goes for other frequently co-occurring words — “shoot,” “fire,” “murder,” and so forth, as well as some unexpected matches.
You can pick any number of clusters for topic modeling to sort songs. We tried several different numbers, and arrived at three for the most concise breakdown of different uses of guns in songs.
With a little bit of squinting, you can see some characteristics pop out for each group.
Topic 1, which coalesced around the words that inspire explicit lyrics labels, contains many of the more violent songs from the list, as well as overrepresentation from 90s rap.
Topic 2 features a number of songs that use guns and related terms as metaphors — not one but two songs called “Love Gun,” a track from double entendre lovers AC/DC, and Rihanna’s female take on the sex/violence crossover (“Like a bullet your love hit me to the core”).
Topic 3 is the hardest to characterize, containing several songs where guns play a historical or storytelling role. There are songs set against a backdrop of war, such as ABBA’s “Fernando” or Alice in Chain’s “Rooster.” Others take a political tack, such as The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” And still others are rebel tales with either a Western (“El Paso,” “Shotgun Willie”) or street (“Children’s Story,” “NY State of Mind”) variation. Here’s where you could also find the non-violent messages, from Green Day pleading to “lay down your arms/give up the fight” in “21 Guns,” to Bruce Springsteen’s anti-war “Born in the USA.”
Are we making more violent songs today?
Looking at how these different topics fall along the timeline, there do appear to be changes over time in how musicians use guns in their songs. Topic 2 (gun as sex symbol) dominates the 70s and 80s, while Topic 1 (violent songs) peaks in the 90s. Topic 3, with its more mixed nature, persists across all eras. Since 2000, there’s no dominant group — tracks are as mixed in meaning as they are in genre.
But though the 2010s are split between sex, violence, and stories, a closer look reveals non-violent messages spreading out across all three categories. Selena Gomez’ “Kill Em With Kindness” says to “put down the weapons you fight with,” the main character of Coldplay’s “Paradise” has “bullets catch in her teeth,” but dreams of a more peaceful world, Logic regrets participating in gang violence and Hollywood Undead grapple with suicide.
All told, representations of guns in music have as many different dimensions as you’d expect from an item so tightly woven into American culture. And like the U.S. populace, musicians are divided between condemning the consequences of gun violence, praising guns as an endlessly potent signifier for rebellion and cool, or employing weapons as a familiar metaphor. If music holds up a mirror to American society, it’s only appropriate that the reflection on guns is cloudy and conflicted.