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Anger and Sadness Are On the Rise in Popular Music Lyrics

Pop music lyrics on Billboard’s Hot 100 are sadder and angrier than ever before.

Pixabay/Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay/Creative Commons

The expression of anger and sadness in pop music lyrics is on the rise, according to a recent language-based quantitative analysis (Napier and Shamir, 2018) of the emotional sentiment contained in over six thousand songs that reached Billboard’s “Hot 100” between 1951 and 2016.

This paper, “Quantitative Sentiment Analysis of Lyrics in Popular Music,” was recently published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies. This study was co-authored by Kathleen Napier and Lior Shamir of Lawrence Technological University in Michigan.

Notably, chart-topping songs released during the mid-1950s were the least angry during the entire sixty-six-year timespan of this pop music analysis except for the three years between 1982-1984.

For this study, Napier and Shamir analyzed 6,150 songs from Billboard's Hot 100 charts using a text-mining program called "Tone Analyzer" (which is part of the computational linguistic tools in the IBM Watson developer cloud) to conduct an automatic analysis of the "tone" of sentiments (e.g., emotions, feelings, attitudes) found in written text such as published song lyrics.

What Is Billboard's Hot 100?

The Hot 100 is a weekly tabulation by Billboard of the most popular songs in the United States. As a college student in the 1980s, I did an internship at Billboard Magazine in Manhattan. My non-paying job was in the "Chart Beat" department, where we used a combination of record store sales, radio airplay on Top 40 stations, and jukebox popularity to find noteworthy trivia and trends that might be occurring in the most popular one-hundred songs each week. This was before the internet.

As would be expected, the advent of digital music technology in the late-20th century created a ripple effect that led to the closing of most brick-and-mortar record stores. Just about every "Wurlitzer" in the country was sold off to memorabilia collectors or antique stores. Suffice to say, Billboard has to update how they calculate the Hot 100 continually. Currently, popularity rankings for the Hot 100 songs in the U.S. rely on music streaming reports from companies such as Spotify and Apple Music, video plays on YouTube and Vevo, social media views, and other metrics.

"Although love and romance have always been the most dominant topic of popular music, lyrics and lyrical styles have changed significantly across the decades, reflecting social and political changes," the authors said. “In general, the results show a clear trend toward a more negative tone in pop music lyrics, with a more significant change around the early 1990s. That trend can also be explained by changes in social values, reflected through changes in mainstream popular music. The results show that anger, disgust, fear, sadness, and conscientiousness have increased significantly, while joy, confidence, and openness expressed in pop song lyrics have declined."

There were two quirky anomalies in the statistical analysis that bucked overall trends of increasing anger and sadness in Hot 100 songs from 1951-2016. Surprisingly, the researchers found that Top 40 songs released in the three years between 1982-1984 were less angry compared to any other period in modern pop music, except the 1950s. Another exception to general trends occurred in the mid-1970s, when there was a dramatic spike in Hot 100 songs expressing joy. (e.g., "Love Will Keep Us Together" was the most popular year-end song of 1975.)

Unfortunately, anger started to skyrocket in song lyrics as the 1980s were winding down and there was more and more anger every year from the 1990s till the end of compiled analytic data in 2016.

Coincidentally, immediately after reading this study for the first time yesterday, I saw a January 27 opinion piece, "The Fleecing of Millennials," by David Leonhardt in the New York Times. This article shares some Census Bureau and Federal Reserve graphics and statistical data that (in my mind) dovetails with the spike of anger and sadness in pop music found by Napier and Shamir in their quantitative analysis of lyrics beginning in the 1990s. This may be serendipitous and a fluke, but as the chart below illustrates, 1989 was a turning point when the cumulative change in inflation-adjusted median net worth by age group took a significant nosedive for every generation under 55.

 Federal Reserve
Source: By The New York Times | Source: Federal Reserve

As Leonhardt explains, “For Americans under the age of 40, the 21st century has resembled one long recession. Rather than starting new projects, companies are sitting on big piles of cash or distributing it to their shareholders. This loss of dynamism hurts millennials and the younger Generation Z, even as baby boomers are often doing O.K. Because the layoff rate has declined since 2000, most older workers have been able to hold on to their jobs. For those who are retired, their income—through a combination of Social Security and 401(k)’s—still outpaces inflation on average. But many younger workers are struggling to launch themselves into good-paying careers. The generational gap in both income and wealth is growing."

One could assume that millennials and members of Generation Z are the songwriters creating most of today's Hot 100 music and that their age-group peers are the majority of pop music consumers who make these songs popular. Therefore, if their day-to-day lives are filled with economic struggle and limited prospects for the future, it makes sense that the popular music that defines these generations is filled with anger and sadness.

How Did the Researchers Determine the Sentiment of Each Hot 100 Song?

As mentioned earlier, the researchers fed all of the lyrics from 6,150 Billboard Hot 100 songs from 1951 through 2016 into a computer program called "Tone Analyzer." This quantitative analyzer uses psycholinguistics to link specific words with 13 different tones that are subdivided into three categories: (1) Emotional Tone: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness; (2) Language Tone: analytical, confident, tentative; (3) Social Tone: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, emotional range.

The sentiment of every non-instrumental song is created by a combination of all the tones expressed in the words and phrasing in the lyrics. Once Napier and Shamir had compiled the data for each year of Billboard Hot 100 songs since the early 1950s, they created year-end averages and determined if each particular sentiment had increased, decreased, or remained constant in relation to other years between 1951-2016.

In their paper, Napier and Shamir give four tangible examples of how their quantitative sentiment analysis of lyrics in popular music works:

For example, the first sentence of the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (Bonnie Tyler) is "Turnaround, every now and then I get a little bit lonely and you’re never coming round.” The most dominant sentiment in that sentence according to Tone Analyzer is sadness, with a value of 0.786. Sadness is also a dominant tone for that entire song, with a score of 0.52. Joy, on the other hand, is scored low for that song, with a score of 0.09. Fear has a value of 0.53, conscientiousness 0.08, extraversion is 0.02, and openness has a score of 0.48 for the song.

The first line of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” is “Young man, there’s no need to feel down,” and the dominant tone in that line as analyzed by Tone Analyzer is tentative, with a score of 0.61. Extraversion score for that entire song is 0.55, and the joy score is 0.65. Anger, disgust, and fear are scored much lower, with 0.11, 0.07, and 0.09, respectively.

The first line of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” is “Buddy you’re a boy make a big noise, playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day,” analyzed by Tone Analyzer as agreeableness (0.64), extraversion (0.85), and fear (0.39). Tones with lower scores are disgust and sadness, with a score of ~0.07).

The Bee Gees song “Too Much Heaven” opens with “Nobody gets too much heaven no more, it’s much harder to come by, I’m waiting in line.” For that part of the song, Sadness is the most dominant tone as deduced by Tone Analyzer, with a score of 0.64. For that entire song Tone Analyzer computed low scores for anger (0.01), disgust (0.003),and fear (0.01), while joy (0.62), agreeableness (0.95), and extraversion (0.77) are scored high.

If you were to make a playlist of songs that scored high on joy and agreeableness but low on anger and sadness, what songs would you choose?

For me, the answer is obvious. A few days ago, I wrote a post, “One Neurotransmitter May Alter the Music You Like or Dislike,” about a recent study (Ferreri et al., 2019) which found that dopamine modulates both pleasurable feelings and disinterest in specific songs as well as how much someone would be willing to pay for a song that evoked hedonic and pleasurable feelings.

 K-Tel Records/Fair Use
Top-Ten hits from the Hot 100 were periodically compiled on "K-Tel" records throughout the 1970s. These vinyl albums were sold at brick-and-mortar stores like Woolworth's and Sears.
Source: K-Tel Records/Fair Use

In the above-mentioned post, I shared some autobiographical examples of how the Hot 100 music on the radio today doesn’t evoke positive emotions for me, but that my 11-year-old daughter seems to love it. I wrote, “As someone who is self-admittedly stuck in the 1970s and ‘80s regarding my musical preferences, any Top 40 song from the summer of 1983 (e.g., "Holiday," "Flashdance...What a Feeling") is guaranteed to make me feel good.

As an example of empirical evidence reaffirming everyday, real-world life experience, I was astounded and delighted to see that Napier and Shamir's analysis of seven decades of Hot 100 music found that the three years between 1982-1984 had significantly less anger than practically any era since Fonzie's rootin'-tootin' "Happy Days."

In closing, this study inspired me to curate a playlist of some well-known and not-so-well-known songs that were chart-topping hits or "bubbling under the Hot 100" in the 1980s. Because I religiously listened to Casey Kasem's weekly broadcast of the American Top 40 growing up and was an intern at Billboard Magazine, I have an encyclopedic memory of Hot 100 popular music from the 1970s and '80s. The stream-of-consciousness compilation below was cobbled together in about ten minutes.

For the record: There is no rhyme or reason to this playlist other than a gut feeling that these songs and other music from this era have the power to open up the dopaminergic floodgates in my brain. I know these songs make me feel good. Hopefully, listening to a few of these golden oldies from the '80s will be a temporary antidote for negative sentiments and make you feel good, too.

The Antidote for Anger Playlist: Hedonic Hot 100 Songs from the 1980s

"Tenderness" by General Public (1982)

"Ebony and Ivory" by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney (1981)

"We Are the World" by USA for Africa (1985)

"Love Plus One" by Haircut One Hundred (1982)

"Tarzan Boy" by Baltimora (1985)

"Lucky Star" by Madonna (1983)

"Flashdance...What a Feeling" by Irene Cara (1983)

"Magic" by Olivia Newton-John (1980)

"Seven Wonders" by Fleetwood Mac (1987)

"The Longest Time" by Billy Joel (1983)

"Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves (1985)

'How Will I Know" by Whitney Houston (1985)

"You Make Me Feel So Good" by Book of Love (1986)

"Shake Your Love" by Debbie Gibson (1987)

"Never Too Late" by Kylie Minogue (1989)

"Sowing the Seeds of Love" by Tears for Fears (1989)

"Cherish" by Madonna (1989)

"Jump (For My Love)" by the Pointer Sisters (1983)

"The Message Is Love" by Arthur Baker and the Backbeat Disciples feat. Al Green (1989)


Kathleen Napier and Lior Shamir. "Quantitative Sentiment Analysis of Lyrics in Popular Music." Journal of Popular Music Studies (First published: December 2018) DOI: 10.1525/jpms.2018.300411

Laura Ferreri, Ernest Mas-Herrero, Robert J. Zatorre, Pablo Ripollés, Alba Gomez-Andres, Helena Alicart, Guillem Olivé, Josep Marco-Pallarés, Rosa M. Antonijoan, Marta Valle, Jordi Riba, and Antoni Rodriguez-Fornells. "Dopamine Modulates the Reward Experiences Elicited by Music." PNAS (First published online: January 22, 2019) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1811878116

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