October 3, 2019

Songs about traumatic childhood produced by vulnerable phase of 15-year cultural excitement cycle

During the vulnerable phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, people's energy levels have crashed into a refractory state where everything feels painfully over-stimulating, and puts them in a mindset of being victimized or traumatized.

To see how this is reflected in pop culture, consider the ultimate level of victimization -- child abuse of one kind or another.

Wikipedia has a list of songs about child abuse, although it's not only physical abuse that's covered -- anything that leaves the singer psychologically traumatized. There has to be some kind of painful conflict within the family, whether the parents fighting with each other as the child tries to block it out, or getting heated against the child, all the way up to physical abuse by one parent toward the child or toward the other parent.

(And some are not about traumatic childhood at all -- they're just depressing songs that the list-maker associates with a damaging childhood, but are not actually about that topic.)

To ensure that these resonated with the popular zeitgeist, we'll only consider those that made it onto the main Billboard chart, the Hot 100. I'm going with the weekly charts, since using the narrower year-end charts only gives a handful of examples. As in the previous case studies here, I'm categorizing songs by the first year that it was released to the public, either as a single or on an album. These years are grouped into the standard phases of the excitement cycle model: 2015-'19 is the current vulnerable phase, 2010-'14 the last manic phase, 2005-'09 the warm-up phase before that, and so on back through earlier 5-year blocks.

The model predicts a concentration of such songs in the vulnerable phase, and sure enough that's what we find. Here is a table of the songs in order of year released, along with the phase that year belonged to:

The model makes no prediction about the overall number made, or long-term trends, only about cyclical patterns. As it happens, there were a whole lot of child abuse songs in the vulnerable phases of the late '80s and early 2000s, but not so many during the current vulnerable phase. That suggests a longer-term decline. But we see the cyclical pattern in the relative absence of such songs during either half of the '90s, or the early '80s, late '70s, etc.

There were songs about child abuse released in the early '80s, late '70s, back to the late '60s, but they did not chart -- they were in the wrong phases. Still, you'd think there would have been some in the vulnerable phase of the early '70s, but none are in the list. They only became popular starting in the late '80s.

Perhaps the high number in the late '80s reflected the near-peak level of violent crime and child abuse, which didn't peak until 1992 (overall crime) or 1994 (child abuse: see Finkelhor). The early 2000s peak was most likely from Gen X-ers who were recalling their childhoods from that earlier crime and abuse wave, despite the rates having declined by the early 2000s. The shift in attitude from manic in the late '90s to vulnerable and emo in the early 2000s awakened those memories of victimization, leading them to write a bunch of songs about child abuse even though it was far less common by the time the songs were written.

By now, the late-20s Millennials making pop music didn't grow up during the crime-and-abuse wave the first time around, and rates are still declining into the present. That makes it harder for performers to tap into their personal experiences, or current affairs, to make songs about child abuse.

In any case, let's set aside the longer-term trends, and look just as the phases of the cycle. If each phase were equally likely to produce these songs, then there would be 1/3 of the total (22) in each phase, or roughly 7 per phase. Instead, it is heavily lopsided toward the vulnerable phase, which produced 14 of the 22, heavily away from the manic phase (3 of 22), and fairly away from the warm-up phase as well (5 of 22).

For now, we can test the main prediction that these songs will cluster most in the vulnerable phase, and collapse the other two phases into non-vulnerable phases. Then using a binomial test, the probability of getting a result as extreme as this one, or more so, is 0.0035 -- very unlikely. They do in fact cluster in the vulnerable phase.

A secondary prediction is that, among the non-vulnerable phases, such songs would be less common during the manic phase, when people feel invincible and on a constant high, and relatively more common during the warm-up phase. That is apparently true from these results (3 in the manic phase, 5 in the warm-up phase), but I'll run a tedious multinomial test later and post the results in the comments, maybe update the main post as well.

Hopefully this little study will serve as a hint into the cyclical pattern of widespread moral panics -- those involving victimization, at any rate. I'll get around to that when time permits.

For now, a reminder that the "Save the children" moral panic of the late '80s was not restricted only to the conservative busybody housewife types, like Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center. It encompassed the urban bohemian childless 20-somethings as well, who were no less earnest -- if less annoying and imperious. It was indie music made by good-natured social workers. In less cocooning times, the entire society was looking out for one another, and women channeled their maternal instincts into caring about unfortunate children in general.


  1. I noticed Tears For Fears, Cold Shelter is not listed. Even on Wikipedia.

  2. The lyrics for "Pale Shelter" don't say the song is about a child and parent relationship, while all of those listed here do.

    One member of TFF says it's about parent-child love -- OK, no way to tell from hearing it, though. He had to state this overtly because most people naturally hear a song about a boy-girl relationship.

    Sidenote: "Pale Shelter" didn't chart in the US, so would be excluded for these purposes anyway. I can only pick one chart to compare across time. This excludes songs that would support my theory, too, such as "Never Again" by Nickelback from 2001 (vulnerable phase) -- it was big on two rock charts and the Bubbling Under 100 chart, but not the Hot 100.

    I excluded some songs that were about parent-child relationships, but not riven by conflict and abuse -- where the kid is just raging about not wanting to do what he's told. Not wanting to clean your room is not childhood trauma.

    E.g., "Numb" by Linkin Park. Even though that would support my theory, since it came out in 2003 (vulnerable phase). It supports the larger picture of the early 2000s being emo as hell, but it's not about victimizing children, so it doesn't belong in the list here.

  3. Pale Shelter, not cold. Haven't listened to that cd in a long time. Maybe tonight.

  4. With all the controversy over the Peloton commercial, it reminded me that aerobic exercise crazes tend to pop up during the defractory periods. For instance:

    -long-distance running craze in the early 70s, peaking with Steve prefontaine's death

    -Jane Fonda's exercise videos in the mid-to-late 80s

    -revival of running craze in the early 2000s, and a growing interest in the mythos surrounding Prefontaine;

    -late 2010s "spinning class as corporate competition" and the rise of Peloton

    Obsessive aerobic exercise has a numbing quality, which makes it easier for people to handle the over-sensitivity we associate with the vulnerable, defractory phase.

  5. The type of aerobic exercise changes depending on the attention-getting vs. wallflower cycle - with jogging/running becoming more popular during the wallflower vulnerable phases(early 70s, early 2000s), and aerobics classes at a gym or rec center more common in the attention-getting phases(late 80s, late 2010s).

    Running is obviously a more solitary sport; whereas exercising in a class or gym tends to draw more attention from people. Jane Fonda's videos were known for being provocative, yet still taking place during a vulnerable phase - attention-getting behavior is not the same as genuinely wanting to mix it up with the opposite sex.

    Something else I thought of - George W. Bush, and John Kerry were both known for partaking in aerobic exercise fads during the 2004 campaign - Bush was a runner, and Kerry used his exercise bike(in his private home or gym, not in public).


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