How Pop Song Titles Reflect Cultural Trends, from 1940 to Tomorrow

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The Popular Music Industry is one of the most sensitive to cultural trends because of the need to cater to a continuously evolving population with evolving mores and interests. We’re all familiar with the stylistic changes in popular songwriting, from the emergence of rock and roll to the rise of hip-hop to the modern alternative movement. But has the actual subject matter of the music changed at all? Let’s use Signals to find out.

The free, open-source One Million Song Database, contains metadata of (who knew?) one million songs since 1940 and up till 2011, including the song titles and the year in which they were released. Though the database is rich with other content, it is these two categories we shall focus on for the moment. From Signals’ textual analysis and comparison of the subject matter of 515,576 different popular song titles across seven decades, we can draw several conclusions as to which topics have dominated the musical conversation across English-language musical history, and how that conversation has changed over the years.

What We Universally Write Songs About

Buzzword, a Signals feature that generates a word cloud of the most used words across a category, found several terms that were particularly frequent in the titles of popular English-language songs across all seven decades:

Song Titles - General

The dominating term here is “Digitally Remaster” which is just affixed to songs that underwent digital postproduction, so we can ignore that for now. Though the whole word cloud is fascinating, we can see several topics in particular worth exploring in further detail: the Christmas themes, for example, and then songs about “Broken Hearts”. There also seem to be of plenty of songs about that stretch between Saturday night and Sunday morning as well (why isn’t Tuesday afternoon so special?), and a lot of songs specifically made for “Radio” or the “Club”. There are two cities entrancing enough to merit enough songs to make it on the word cloud: New York (unsurprisingly) and San Francisco (more surprisingly). Finally, the archetype of the “Pretty Girl” continues to the drive the musical conversation.

Importantly enough, however, is that this word cloud doesn’t provide the full picture. Many of these terms may have had a heyday during one decade or another and then faded out of the conversation later in history. Fortunately, Signals can easily track the change in topics by simply narrowing the search to a certain decade. Let’s explore how culture has guided the subject matter of songs throughout modern history.

A Walk Through the Decades

Let’s start at the end of World War II, when America was at its optimistic and patriotic heights. We used Buzzword to analyze the subject matter of songs released in 1947.

Song Titles - 1947

The dominant songs were about Santa Claus, smoking, and work. This is certainly reflective of the traditional working values of the 40s generation. But go to the 70s and things get a little more interesting:

Song Titles - 70s

Santa Claus and Christmas songs have been replaced with songs about NYC and San Fran (and Kansas City?!). Even more interesting is the emergence of Rock and Roll as a subject title, showing how the new movement is catching on to the point where it is not simply a genre, but a pop culture topic. But the 90s look very different:

Song Titles - 90s

The category overview feature (left), groups terms found in the same vicinity as each other. By the 90s, the category involving “Hip Hop” has overtaken “Rock Roll”, showing the triumph of a new scene over an old one. Also noteworthy is the re-emergence of traditional Christmas music, with “Merry Christmas” and “Silent Night” all headlining two of the top six categories. Another important, but relatively unknown observation, is the appearance of “Radio Edits” into the musical conversation — showing the trend for musical companies to release songs specifically for radio airplay.

Song Titles - 00s

The 2000s show the dominance of the “Radio Edit”, but also the emergence of Remixes such as “Club Mix” and “Vocal Mix” trending into the conversation. Anyone who had Signals in the mid-2000s would recognize that alternative ways of releasing music are on the rise, and in today’s remix-heavy musical climate, he would be right. Signals gives businesses the power to discover emerging trends, whether day-to-day or decade-to-decade before anyone else. So what is Signals saying about the future of music?

The Future of Music

The latest the One Million Song Database records is 2010, but since we’re measuring decade-to-decade trends, we can still gain long-term insights from the Signals feature about the future of music.

Song Titles - 2010

Just from a passing glance at these two features of Signals, we can see several trends in contemporary popular music. First is the trend towards globalization. Whereas before American cities were often the focus of songs titles, it’s telling that now the prominent words in this Buzzword reference “Asia”, “Antarctica”, and yes, even “Space”. Industry execs can interpret this information as cues to cater their music to a more world-wise and interconnected group of listeners than ever before.

Secondly is the trend towards verbs over nouns. In this club and dance-obsessed age, gripping, action-y phrases like “Bang Bang”, “Boost”, and “Hit Dust”, overpower the concrete subject matters of previous generations. Look for further emphasis on the action versus the object in music today. (Such as this Rihanna line: “Work Work Work Work Work”)

Using Signals we were able to discover the subject matters of popular song titles across seven decades, showing how they reflect growing cultural change as we went through. Even more powerfully, we were able to, with one quick glance at the interface, determine instantly the future of music. Traditional data analysis software can’t compete because they require someone to sift through to figure out what is relevant or important to analyze. Signals recognizes what is important to analyze and categorize and puts it all into easily readable diagrams for anyone to instantly generate actionable insights, whether it’s about the past the present, or even the future.

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