In 1985, David Bowie and Mick Jagger released “Dancing in the Street”. The Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” played on radios. Katrina and the Waves were singing about “Walking on Sunshine” for Christ's sake. Compare that to 2015, when the moodier voices of Hozier, Adele, and Sam Smith were topping the charts.
You’re not imagining things – pop songs today really are sadder than they used to be, which is perhaps fitting given all the doom and gloom surrounding things like, you know, climate change, nuclear warfare, Trump, and Brexit.
According to a paper recently published in Royal Society Open Science, music is becoming increasingly melancholic but, oddly, more danceable. Researchers from the University of California Irvine came to this conclusion after analyzing musical trends between 1985 and 2015 using the UK top 100 charts and two large data sets from crowd-sourced online music libraries (MusicBrainz and AcousticBrainz).
They matched the success of songs to their acoustical and lyrical features, looking, for example, at things like mood, tempo, brightness, tonality, and danceability.
In general, they found that songs popular today are noticeably less bright and happy than they used to be. This is combined with a slight upward trend for sad songs.
“In particular, it was reported that popular music lyrics now include more words related to a focus on the self (e.g. singular first person pronouns), fewer words describing companionship and social contact (e.g. plural first person nouns) and more anti-social words (e.g. ‘hate’, ‘kill’, etc.),” the study authors write, which, they add, seems to fit with larger trends showing greater loneliness, social isolation, and psychopathology.
The study also found that songs are becoming more "female" and are higher in a feature they call "relaxedness". "Danceability" has increased since the eighties, something that could be tied to a preference for "electronic" and "atonal" music.
But, interestingly, while there has been a broad shift to more wistful melodies, the most successful songs tend to be happier, brighter, and more "party-like" than average. This makes complete sense when you consider the fact that “Happy” (Pharrell Williams) and "Uptown Funk” (Mark Ronson ft Bruno Mars) topped the UK charts in 2014 and 2015.
“The public seem to prefer happier songs, even though more and more unhappy songs are being released each year,” the study authors add.
While wider societal changes like the economy and political climate might influence our musical preferences, it is worth bearing in mind that the way we consume music has changed drastically over the past 30 years.
“The charts are a lot less important now that the sheer amount of music available to the average listener is orders of magnitude greater than it was in 1985,” Adam Behr wrote in a piece for The Conversation.