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How the Great Recession affects popular music

Associate Commentary Editor

Published: Monday, February 11, 2013

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08

The No. 1 song in America on September 6, 2008 was “Whatever You Like” by T.I., in which the rapper assures his girl that money was no object and he could buy “whatever you like.” Sample lyrics: “You need never ever got to go to your wallet / Long as I got rubber-band banks in my pocket.”

Within the following month, Lehman Brothers would go bankrupt, Congress would pass the financial industry bailout, and the full unemployment rate would reach its highest levels in 14 years.

This week the No. 1 song in America is “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Wanz – in which not merely one individual lyric but the entire song celebrates the savings found at discounted bargain outlets. Sample lyrics from the chorus: “I’m gonna pop some tags / Only got twenty dollars in my pocket / I’m hunting, looking for a come-up / This is awesome.”

Welcome to popular music in the age of the Great Recession.

Much as our most popular stories feature relatable characters facing hardship who achieve happiness, music audiences during times of economic hardship evidently desire relatable lyrics while wanting the music itself to be happier and faster. Robert J. Brym at the University of Toronto and Gabriel Rossman at UCLA analyzed every song to reach the Billboard top 100 between 1955 and 2009, graphing the results against the corresponding contemporary stock market performance. Strong correlations indicate that the worse the stock market, the faster the songs’ tempos and the higher the songs’ modalities. (Higher modality means the chords are major rather than minor, sounding “happier” to the ear.)
People flock to music which create positive emotions at a time when the outside world outwardly provides no reason to feel good at all. Although the “Thrift Shop” lyrics relate to modern penny-pinching, the song itself showcases an upbeat rhythm and has received play at dance clubs.

Specific historical examples also bear out this finding. In the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, radio stations looked for lighter and happier fare while Americans turned to religion for comfort. This unique combination resulted in what remains among the most unusual songs to ever reach No. 1: “Dominique” by The Singing Nun, a Belgian nun singing gleefully in French about a traveling Catholic priest.

Neuropsychologists provide a scientific explanation. Robert Zatorre at McGill University conducted fMRI brain studies on participants listening to music, and reported “clear evidence that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release,” the chemical which stimulates pleasure in the reward centers of the brain. This likely explains why, as cultural anthropologist John Blacking famously noted, every known human society has music.

Perhaps this basic truth has even saved lives. In 1916, explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew traveled to Antarctica, where their ship became trapped inside pack-ice. Facing dwindling supplies and rations, unable to communicate with the outside world, and sheltered in a steadily collapsing vessel, Shackleton permitted each crew member to salvage only two pounds of possessions before abandoning ship to cross the frozen continent on foot. As one man was discarding his banjo, Shackleton stopped him. “We must have that banjo,” the captain commanded. “It’s vital mental medicine.”

All 28 men of the crew survived.

And so it is today that, in an era of mass unemployment, unease, and anxiety, a phenomenon emerges in popular music. Just as Shackleton was unsure if he and his crew would survive the brutal Antarctic winter, America remains uncertain if we will ever escape our present economic condition. Indeed, many skeptics contend that these last few years represent not a temporary setback but rather “the new normal.”

Let us hope that our most popular music soon features slow tempos, minor chords, and lyrics about spending.

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