May 31, 2011

Changing strength of social bonds reflected in hit song titles

Continuing the series about how changing patterns of song titles over time reveal broader changes, * let's look at how much social cohesion vs. social anomie there has been. The General Social Survey shows high or rising trust levels from the early 1970s through the late 1980s, a reflection of the greater need to depend on others when violence becomes more prevalent. After awhile, violence becomes too prevalent, plus everyday people have had too many encounters with false messiahs, that they start to withdraw their trust in others.

Because the pool of potential victims now has their guard up, criminals find it more difficult to victimize them, causing the crime rate to peak and then decline. And indeed the peak of the crime rate (1992) lagged behind the peak in the trust level (somewhere between 1987 and 1989). Both have been falling through the '90s and 2000s.

With social surveys, you always wonder how applicable the results are to real life. Over the past two years, I've documented all sorts of ways in which people live more isolated social lives than they used to. Now instead of their behavior, we'll turn to the culture that appeals most to them. The measure is crude but useful: the appearance in song titles of the first and second-person pronouns -- I, me, my, you, your, we, us, and our. While "I" occasionally is used only for self-glorification (like the lame "This Is Why I'm Hot" from 2007), typically it's in the context of one person addressing someone who they're bonded to in some way. The same goes for "you." Obviously "we" is the clearest signal of a feeling of social closeness. Speaking of which, let's take a break first to take in a hit by our good old friend Pat.

Here are the indexes for these three pronouns, along with a total that adds them all up, from 1959 to 2010.

All show roughly the same pattern of shooting up during rising-crime times, aside from a trough around 1980. The peak for all of them is either 1987 or 1989 (only a local peak for "I"), after which point they decline or nearly vanish altogether. As expected, the graph for "we" shows the strongest reflection of social trust levels.

Notice just how weak the social bonds have become -- it's not as though people still trust and are close to a large number of others, but just less than an even more astronomical number than earlier. It only takes two strongly connected people for "I" and "you" to resonate with listeners, yet even that has become rare. People still have plenty of acquaintances, but very few who they feel tight with.

And because a good number of the songs about you, me, and us are love songs, the disappearance of these personal pronouns highlights how distant boys and girls have become. Moreover, singers use these pronouns to refer to boy-girl interaction from first catching sight of another through courtship, heavy involvement, and even after having broken up. So the separation of social worlds of boys and girls is more pervasive than during any one of the phases.

You still hear boys and girls singing about being in the we're-together stage, but hardly at all about infatuation ("When You Walk in the Room") and the navigation of the tempestuous beginning of courtship ("I Think We're Alone Now"), let alone about the stage where it's about to fall apart ("What About Love?"). And forget about covering the full gamut ("Little Red Corvette"). Given how transactional our relations have become, we no more want to hear about the awkward and exhilarating beginnings and endings than we would want to see a fast food ad that dwelt on the exchange of money between customer and cashier, or the stomach ache you got afterwards -- just the yummy part where someone swallows five bowls of pasta.

This is like the picture that Robert Putnam draws in his work on social capital, where we have not merely shrunken the size of our social network, but nearly sealed ourselves off as hermits who transact with other acquaintances at arm's length. But the last period of falling crime only lasted 25 years, which this time around would mean an end around 2017, although perhaps later. It won't take forever, and then people will start re-connecting with each other.

* Here's the original post that explains the methodology and looks at religion and love themes in pop music titles. To reiterate, we look at the #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 and see if their titles mention some theme. For a given year, the index of the theme's prevalence reflects the number of different songs, as well as the number of weeks that this whole group of songs lasted at #1.


  1. Agnostic,
    This is totally off topic, but I found something that I think will interest you. At least I'm pretty excited about it :)

    Like you, I have a low opinion about the misogynistic men common in parts of the Steveosphere. I've also been extremely curious as to who exactly such men are and have noticed you make guesses as has onestdv to a lesser extent.

    I inadvertently came across something that is perhaps very insightful to that question.

    So, I'm checking out the latest on the man-as-drowning-ship, Anthony Weiner, when I come across the news item that he has been interested in selling off a "sexist" statue. Curious to see the statue, I come upon a facebook group that is devoted to its preservation. The six people FB picked randomly as friends piqued my curiosity. "They look exactly what I would expect the denizens of the Roissysphere to look like," I thought. Pulling out the full list (don't have fb; logged in other way), I came across one well-known figure. Digging further, I discovered that it had become a touchstone with the MRAs per a couple of articles at The Spear....

    I haven't had time to look closely, literally have just skimmed, but the very first impression is that it is comprised largely of foreigners and many non-North-Western European men in general. Two other impressions are that the men appear intelligent and there are lots of younger men; too young to have ever been married and jaded by divorce.

    You are always so insightful and I would love for you to analyze it; my only concern is people becoming self-conscious... DELETE?

  2. I want to stress that I would not want to see anyone embarrassed, etc. One also has to disentangle the New Yorkers from the other guys. Personally, I'm not curious about the divorced men whom I mostly understand and can empathize with. It's the ones who are angry at women whom they want to deceive and use that I want to get a handle on; I have four daughters to protect and am afraid of how gullible I can be sometimes. Too trusting of people.

  3. I'll see what that facebook group is about later, but I wouldn't use the word "misogynist" because that's too vague, people include all sorts in that tent (like people who believe men have better spatial ability than women).

    The men's rights people I'd describe more as bitter or resentful. A fair amount of people into Game are that way too. Stupid stuck-up cheerleaders -- I'll *trick* you into dating a fat anti-social dork! And then it blows up in their face.

    "I have four daughters to protect"

    Heh, I trust your husband's already lined up a half-dozen shotguns right inside the doorway, for when the boyfriend comes over to meet the parents.


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