Pop Songs Are Unpredictably Predictable

It turns out that hit pop songs aren’t so random and when we say we’re "not really listening to the lyrics" we, in fact, are.

A study by two researchers at North Carolina State University eked out the top 12 lyrical themes from five decades of No. 1 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. If you’re unfamiliar, this chart is where people like Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Beyonce, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake kick ass and take names on a regular basis. This week Pharrell Williams is ruling the Hot 100 roost with his infectious "Happy" and I, for one, hope Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" doesn't unseat him anytime soon.


So what does the public like to hear? We’re pretty emo, actually. The term "Breakup" is a leading theme, and so were the following for each decade:

1960s: Nostalgia, Pain, Rebellion

1970s: Nostalgia, Rebellion, Jaded

1980s: Loss, Aspiration, Confusion

1990s: Loss, Inspiration, Escapism

2000s: Inspiration, Pain, Desperation

According to another study in the Journal of Advertising Research, writes the Pacific Standard, those very themes can decipher whether a song will be popular enough to crack the Hot 100 chart at all.

In an effort to control for music style and genre, which presumably are consistent within an artist’s catalog, Henard and his colleague Christian L. Rossetti focused on the top two artists in each decade from 1950 to 2009. The analysis shows that the presence of the top seven most common themes in a song’s lyrics could predict with a 73.4 percent accuracy whether a song would make the Hot 100 list. (Those themes are loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, and nostalgia.)

These findings really give new meaning to the idea that pop songs are manufactured by record labels, because if they weren't already, after this study, they definitely will be.

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