May 24, 2011

What happened to songs with someone's name in the title?

Next in the series of changing themes in #1 pop songs, from 1959 to 2010, is a look at those whose title bears a person's given name or surname (not just a generic title, honorific, or figure of speech). Giving a character a name is one of the most basic ways of making them more human for the listeners, who don't know them. If the character is fictional, having a name makes it easier for the singer to pretend they're real and channel a more authentic feeling.

And apart from making the song more believable, names heighten the sense of social bonding -- it's not just "hey you" or "baby" or going right into the address without calling the person by any title at all. You may not have to be the closest friends to address them by name, but you have to be more than mere acquaintances. If the closeness between two people in a song doesn't even clear this low threshold, that is an honest sign of a lack of intimacy and trust.

For this reason, I excluded two songs where the name referred to the singer themselves, in an act of self-glorification ("Ice Ice Baby" and that "Soulja Boy" song from a couple years back).

Before getting to the data, though, it's worth playing a couple "name" songs since they aren't made anymore.

"Sara Smile"
by Hall & Oates

"Sheena is a Punk Rocker" by The Ramones

"Joan of Arc" by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

"James" by The Bangles

"Amanda" by Boston

"Dirty Diana" by Michael Jackson

"Tania" by Camper Van Beethoven

Here is a graph showing the prevalence of name songs among the Billboard Hot 100 #1s (a combination of the total number of different songs and how long the whole group lasted at #1 that year):

As I've detailed elsewhere, during rising-crime times people pull close together and disband when violence levels start falling. That includes the social circles of boys and those of girls, which largely overlap when the world is getting more dangerous (one obvious reason among others being that girls want more protection then), and that separate when the world gets safer.

Sure enough that pattern shows up here, with the rising-crime period of 1959 to 1992 containing just about all of the songs with names. Even by the early '90s these songs were dead, right around the time when social trust levels peaked (trust peaks a couple years before the crime rate does). There does not appear to be a second-order pattern, where the first or second half of this period has most of the examples -- they are pretty evenly distributed. The only exceptions during falling-crime times are "Maria Maria" from 2000, "Ms. Jackson" and "Lady Marmalade" from 2001 (the latter is an adaptation of an earlier #1 from the '70s), and "Hey There Delilah" from 2007.

So here's another sign that the falling levels of social trust reported on surveys are real. For roughly 20 years, the singers of the most popular new songs have not felt close enough to anyone to call them by name, or at least not comfortable enough to do so before an audience. The bonds linking boys and girls have never been weaker, in contrast to a time when every overpass had an "I Love Susie" painted on it, every sidewalk had a square with "Kimberly Loves Bobby" impressed into the cement, and every wooded area had a tree with "Stacy + Mike 4VR" carved into it.


  1. I recall in Arbogast & Ross' "Chaos" every mocking 50s song just consisted of a girl's name. It was recorded in 1958.

  2. You'll be less interested in this, but every track in the Yowie album Cryptozoology is a girl's name starting with 'T'. They're all noisy instrumentals though

  3. I looked through the Billboard Hot 100 #1's from 1940 to 1958, and there aren't a lot of names in those titles either.

    I'm still deciding what to do with those years because there were three separate charts, although they all seem to give the same answers to what was the "it" song of some period.

    One thing that popped out was how many non-English titles there were (mostly from Latin languages) during this earlier period of falling crime, kind of like Livin' La Vida Loca, Viva La Vida, Macarena, etc.

  4. When you put in those notable songs with names, I'm surprised you didn't do Derek & the Dominoes' "Leila" or Allman Brothers' "Jessica"/"Melissa"/"Little Martha". Melissa is also, oddly enough, the name of the first Mercyful Fate LP, and when King Diamond went solo he made "Abigail".

    Now that I think of it, "Gloria" is a classic name song. The chorus even spells it out.


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