When I was a teenager, I used to watch a lot of MTV and listen to the radio. I’d go play basketball in the recreation center and inside, the radio would be playing music from Matchbox Twenty, Goo Goo Dolls, and Third Eye Blind. Good memories and good times! I’d spend hours in the gym shooting around, listening away while I practiced my jumpshot. But even then, I couldn’t help but wonder why nearly every song dealt with the same set of topics. They’re always about love, relationships, attracting a lover, mating rituals (hand holding, grooming, fitness displays, etc), reputations, showing off resources, status, dealing with rejection, dealing with infidelity, sex appeal, and so on. At the time I never could understood why, but after studying evolutionary psychology many years later, it was almost obvious why this is the case. But as a young man, love never played a large role in my life, so it was always hard to understand. I was primarily interested in computers, business, and later, science. It just baffled my teenage mind that the only thing people could think about was sex and relationships. Not that I’m against either. It just seemed to me that there should be more running through someone’s mind than just those things.
I’ve always wanted to do a study on this, sifting through a long list of popular music in hopes to prove I’m not crazy. Turns out researchers at the University of Albany did this very study and they found just what I expected: 90% of all popular music covers themes related to love and reproduction.
… Of the songs that made it into the Top Ten on 2009 Billboard charts, over 90% featured embedded, evolutionarily relevant reproductive messages. These included references to sexual intercourse, body parts, promiscuity, infidelity, sex appeal, and rejection.
Country songs contained an average of 5.9 different reproductive messages per song, with the most frequent being about parenting, commitment, rejection, and fidelity assurance. Pop songs contained 8.7 reproductive references per song, where sex appeal, reputation, short-term mating strategies, and fidelity assurance were the most common. For R&B there were 16.7 reproductive messages per song, with sex appeal, resources, sex acts, and status being the most prevalent.
A further analysis showed that across all three charts, popular songs that made it into the Top Ten contained significantly more reproductive messages than those that failed to rise to the top of the charts.
Source: Journal of Evolutionary Psychology
Fascinating. So what were the messages they were looking for? I found the criteria they used instructive, so I’ll list them all out for you now. These categories are what you’ll find in nearly all popular music.
Any explicit, implicit, implied or slang reference to genitalia.
2. Other Body Parts
References to any other body part other than genitalia, including waist to hip ratios and shoulder to hip ratios.
3. Courtship/Long Term Mating Strategies
References to dating, handholding, and other sincere courtship displays and overtures.
4. Hook Up/Short Term Mating Strategies
References to short-term mating strategies such as “hooking up” and overt solicitations for short term relationships.
5. Foreplay/Arousal/Sex Act Precursors
Any reference to kissing, fondling or undressing, as well as physiological precursors to intercourse.
6. Sex Act
Any explicit, implicit, implied or slang reference to sexual intercourse.
7. Sexual Prowess
References to stamina, sex drive or other sexually related skills and/or bragging of such.
Includes references to promiscuity, as well as negative reputational references, attempts to defame another person’s reputation or make negative social comparisons.
9. Sequestering/Mate Guarding
Keeping tabs on a mate, watching, guarding, tracking and/or isolating a mate. Also includes references to privacy, secrecy, and isolation for the purpose of intercourse.
10. Fidelity Assurance/Abandonment Prevention
Questions or statements to assess the fidelity of a mate. Seeking information to ascertain the commitment of a mate and prevent abandonment/cuckoldry.
11. Commitment and Fidelity
References to dedication, sincerity and long term commitments to a relationship such as marriage, boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, and husband or committed other. Also includes honest courtship signals such as diamond rings which indicate a committed relationship.
Any reference to luxury items, cars, money, or things that denote resources.
References to a person’s high standing in society; VIP status, being referred to as the “boss” or a “rockstar” or other high ranking person.
14. Mate Provisioning
Use of status or resources specifically to protect/retain a mate.
15. Appearance Enhancement/Sex Appeal
Grooming, physical appearance, general attractiveness, fitness displays and/or signals, or references to any visual /physical aspect of a potential mate.
References to divorce, breakups, broken hearts, or discord within the context of a pairbond relationship.
17. Infidelity/Cheater Detection/Mate Poaching
References to cheating, extrapair copulations, suspicions of infidelity, stealing another person’s mate, or paternal uncertainty.
Includes any reference to parenting, child-rearing, or desire for children. Also includes references to grandparents and grandchildren.
If you want to read the research paper itself, you can find it here.
I often see news articles poking fun at us men, saying we’re obsessed with sex, thinking about it once every hour. I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s just us men though. This type of thinking is ubiquitous among both sexes. We’ve evolved here on planet Earth as DNA replication machines. Our bodies want to replicate and make copies of themselves, so finding a mate is imperative. Most of what our brains think about is securing a mate, creating successful copies of ourselves, and making sure those copies survive and flourish. Then we all carefully watch as the copies try to make even more copies before we pass on, and such is life.