Science Says Pop's Getting Sadder, We Say "Duh, Us Too"

A new study of 500,000 tracks released in the UK between 1985 and 2015 tells us that contemporary pop is all about the crybabies.

by Lauren O'Neill
May 16 2018, 4:13pm

Image via Pixabay

Sad pop is a major preoccupation of mine. It's amazing to me that a genre which is, by definition, the most popular on earth can frequently express the difficult sentiments it does with such emotional directness, all the while staying within generic confines. And while pop getting 'sadder' feels like a trend we've been vaguely observing for a while via the rise of artists like The Weeknd, Charli XCX, and the crown princess of Summertime Sadness, Lana Del Rey, science has basically now confirmed that trend.

A new study undertaken by researchers at University of California at Irvine, and published in the journal Royal Society Open Science confirms that yep: pop's getting sad as hell. The researchers analysed 500,000 songs released in the UK between 1985 and 2015, to identify sonic trends that have occurred as time has moved on. In the abstract for the study, they write:

Several multi-decadal trends have been uncovered. For example, there is a clear downward trend in ‘happiness’ and ‘brightness’, as well as a slight upward trend in ‘sadness’. Furthermore, songs are becoming less ‘male’. Interestingly, successful songs exhibit their own distinct dynamics. In particular, they tend to be ‘happier’, more ‘party-like’, less ‘relaxed’ and more ‘female’ than most.

They also outline their methodology:

We used random forests to predict the success of songs, first based on their acoustic features, and then adding the ‘superstar’ variable (informing us whether the song’s artist had appeared in the top charts in the near past). This allowed quantification of the contribution of purely musical characteristics in the songs’ success, and suggested the time scale of fashion dynamics in popular music.

Seems legit!

Amongst the study's interesting findings, it observes a downward trend in the popularity of rock, and confirms pop and dance as the most popular genres. It also notes that even though 'sadder' songs are being released more frequently, 'happier' songs are still most popular. Speaking to the Associated Press, co-author Natalia L. Komarova said, "So it looks like, while the overall mood is becoming less happy, people seem to want to forget it all and dance."

It's an interesting observation, and with the simultaneous rise of sadness as an aesthetic online (as exemplified by Twitter accounts like @sosadtoday, which at the time of writing has 665,000 followers), it's one that seems to make sense. We look for music that reflects the time we're living in and what we're feeling (either for identification or catharsis,) and it is pretty sad around here these days, so it follows that even our pop music is getting more somber. Science, thank you.

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