Do Music Tastes Change With The State of the World?

mariasci | October 27, 2008 12:00 pm

In The Guardian, lovable imp Alex Petrirdis makes a facetious connection between AC/DC and the economy, showing that the band’s most successful points (such as right now) correspond with negative economic indicators, and their biggest flops come during boom times. He’s kidding, but some people do take this idea seriously. Following the famous idea that hemlines raise during good times and fall during bad, a professor named Terry F. Pettijohn II has argued that people prefer more “meaningful” songs during times of economic crisis:

Looking at Billboard No. 1 songs from 1955 to 2003 for a study to be published in the journal Psychology of Music, he found that in uncertain times, people tend to prefer songs that are longer, slower, with more meaningful themes.

“It’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ and ‘That’s What Friends Are For,’ ” he said. “In better times, it’s more likely to be faster, upbeat songs like ‘At the Hop’ or ‘My Sharona.’ ”

The correlation isn’t perfect. The song Mr. Pettijohn’s raters called most meaningless, “Macarena,” was a hit in a relatively bad year.

The question here, of course, is how the study defined “meaningful.” Since the article hasn’t come out and the researcher didn’t want to share data (understandably!), we can only guess, but it’s probably some sort of index involving complexity and, I guess, the number of themes that aren’t love or sex. As for why this happens, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe people prefer music that seems in step with the general mood? Or do they take the opportunity of a recession to reflect on the emptiness of consumer spending, at least until times are good again and they can buy more giant televisions? If you can figure it out, you can probably predict what sort of music we’ll all be listening to next year. Or, you know, you might not buy the theory at all.

Things really must be bad – AC/DC are No 1 again [The Guardian] A Hemline Index, Updated [NYT]