March 8, 2010

Innocent love songs in wild times, dirty songs in tame times

Over at my data blog, I just looked at how levels of social trust are related to levels of risky sexual behavior among young people. The latter have been in decline since their early-'90s peak, along with all other sorts of thrill-seeking behavior.

Yet when we look to popular culture for clues about the sex lives of young people, we see the opposite of what we'd think at first -- from the late '50s through the early '90s, love songs aren't very raunchy or sassy, don't glorify promiscuity, and are typically addressed to a single person who is driving the singer crazy. OK, with the occasional exception. Still, look over the Billboard Hot 100 number ones from 1987 and note how refreshing they sound. During the tame times since the early '90s (and perhaps during the '30s and '40s, too, but I don't know much about that music), the fraction of songs about boys and girls that are provocative has gone up. What gives?

The kneejerk cynical answer is that people are hypocrites. The promiscuous people sing more sincere love songs to disguise their promiscuity, while the sexually less active people sing about being dirty to disguise their sub-promiscuous activity. Both are singing to disguise what they see as the flaws in their sex life. But then this explanation means nothing since it assumes that both see their sex lives as shameful and worth covering up. In general, you can impute hypocrisy to anyone by just assuming their mindset is what's needed for the theory to work. Even if this were true here, the cynical response wouldn't explain the shift across time -- why all of the suddent was the shameful thing less promiscuity, rather than more?

I think the answer comes down to trust in others, which has been falling since sometime in the late '80s. When social trust is high, you feel safer and will engage in riskier behavior -- and perhaps get burned, have to go back to square one, and thereby rack up more partners. People who are very trusting are also going to sing more about a single person and will emphasize the loss of control they feel. Low-trust people would never invest that much in another person, and they certainly wouldn't make themselves vulnerable enough to feel that they have little control over their actions.

I don't have to remind you what recent songs about men and women are like. Take anything by the Pussycat Dolls, Nelly Furtado, or Fergie. It's addressed to a crowd of men, men in general, or a generic man, who are all at a great social distance -- not the singer's one and only, who she trusts (or used to trust). And like everything else in the culture since the mid-'90s, the voice is highly self-conscious -- "don'tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?" -- rather than a voice from someone who's lost their sense of individuality through joining the other person who they trust -- "I'll stop the world and melt with you."

This self-consciousness is part of the foundation for their sense of control and power, unlike the vulnerability and lack of total control that singers expressed during wild times. And it sure is easier to feel in complete control when you don't trust others and rely only on yourself.

The apparent exception today is the Norah Jones school of sappy singer-songwriter junk -- that's hardly raunchy and power-thirsty. That may be so, but those songs still sound like they come from a low-trust society because the women never sing about how uncontrollably gone they are, nor express it in their inflection. Instead it's like, "Gosh, it's really, really neat to date you. Really neat!" They're intrigued in a gee-willikers way that a scientist might perk up on observing a colony of bacteria through a microscope. No involuntary passion.

Listening to the Pussycat Dolls or Norah Jones, you actually shouldn't be so surprised that promiscuity and sexual activity in general is down among hormone-crazed young people. If a girl feels like a spotlight is on her alone, and like she's in full control of her emotions and actions, she is not in a very susceptible state for risky sexual behavior. She has to feel like she's being swept along in the moment, like she can't help it, and so like there's no point in trying to fight it. She might as well just surrender now. I can't imagine that horse-faced transvestite Fergie getting into that mindset, but it used to be perfectly common. Here's just one of many that still stick in my memory even though I was only 6 or 7 when they were on the radio:


  1. The Belinda Carlisle songs and public image were so very G-rated, and every source I've seen (including recent interviews with her) says she was unusually, er, *libertine*, even by pop star standards. Anyway, it would seem to support your thesis.

  2. Perhaps decadence and fortitude play off of communal trust levels? In times of high trust, people can successfully get away with sleeping around, drug use, even crime and other risky behaviors because of the general trustful atmosphere. After enough people do it so often, the members of the community realize that such behavior ought to be stemmed, have less faith in others and expect harsher penalties for breaking the rules.


    Some pretentious art debates there^

  4. Where is your "data blog" then?

    Is there a link somewhere?

  5. Forgive me if you have wrote of this, but hitch-hiking was much more prevalent in the 60's and 70's as compared to now. Thats a decline of a trusting behavior if there ever was one. I seen a hich-hiker the other day and noted to myself that its been a long time since I saw one.

  6. Here's a good example of some noname youtuber doing a vulnerable song. In keeping with agnostic's thesis, it's a cover whose original dates back to the Great Sixties Freakout.

  7. I was going to include This Mortal Coil's version of "Song to the Siren" whenever I get around to the downer song edition of the '80s did it better than the '90s / 2000s. I actually like it better than the original.

  8. I like the Starsailor version (with all the weird vocalizations and buckets of reverb) better, though even the Buckley fans on youtube seem to prefer his acoustic folky version.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."