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Sex sell music…DUH!

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 6, 2012

A recently published meta-study purported to prove what everyone already knew, sex sells. One study that tracked the number of ‘reproductive messages’ in the billboard top 10 for Country, Pop and R&B, showed that 92% made at least one reference to reproduction with the rest as a whole making an average of 10.49 references.

This study was a lyrical analysis of songs on the billboard in 2009. What qualified as ‘reproductive messages’ fell into 18 categories ranging from “Any explicit, implicit, implied or slang reference to genitalia” to “Commitment and Fidelity”.

On the surface, we all kinda figured this was true. Continuing in the obvious, but perhaps good to confirm, Country songs had an average reference rate of 5.96 while R&B had a whopping 16.77. Now when I first read this article I was thinking R&B was Barry White and BB King…so was surprised by the extreme references. However as I read on, R&B included Hip-Hop and Rap…so, THAT explains it, at least from my ill-trained ears perspective.

Country songs made reference most often to commitment, parenting and rejections, again corresponding to my stereotype. While R&B referenced sex appeal, sex acts and resources most often; Resources being like money and possessions. Pop focused on sex appeal, reputation and ‘short term strategies’.

Another study, which compared the sex references of charting songs vs. non-charting songs for an artist also showed that sex sells. That charting songs had almost twice as many ‘reproductive references’ than non-charting songs.

A third study attempted to test the hypothesis over time. They compared ‘top ten’ lists from selected years from 1959 to 2009. This showed a relative stability over time. Interestingly Pop started out with fewer references than Country and R&B but all three were about equal by the 1970s. Then in the 90’s, again to no-one’s surprise I suspect, R&B (with the advent of Hip-hop) skyrocketed in reference, having four times more references now than in 1970.

The last study attempted to push back the clock by analysing operas and art songs going as far back as 1597. This showed a difference in category distribution, none the less they make a similar number of references as modern songs.

The conclusion of the study, if the music has been and continues to be an avenue of evolutionary reproduction, that we, at least partly, are attracted to songs that re-enforce themes of reproduction.

Now there were a number of significant issues with these studies. First off, some of the terms that were deemed ‘reproductive’ included mentions of “Money”…perhaps because it’s a sign of partner fitness? Some categories like ‘rejection’ see less re-enforcing reproduction, than arguing against it. Listen to any number of Country and Western songs and you will get the idea the ’partnering up’ and ‘reproduction’ always end in heart ache and best avoided.

Also, if it’s an evolutionary advantage…to whose advantage is it, the writer, the performer, the listener? Not to mention the reverse correlation argument. That, again relying on stereotypes, as an performer becomes more popular their ‘reproductive encounters’ increase, thus when they write the themes lyrics; they write what they know…sex… also their writing skills increase meaning the songs are more likely to be top of the charts. A self-fulfilling prophecy

But these are perhaps niggling issues.



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