The cyclical trends of country music, and all popular music have always thought to be tied to a certain extent to the socioeconomic conditions of the time, but a recent study by the American Psychological Association bucks the conventional wisdom that country music’s stereotypical depressing themes come from dealing with tough times. Conversely, when economic times gets tough, country gets happier, and more female.
The study, called “Gone country: An investigation of Billboard country songs of the year across social and economic conditions in the United States” found all matter of interesting tidbits about the trends of country music, and how they differ from pop. Where pop tends to mirror the mood of society as a whole, becoming more moody and dark in both chord structures and themes when times get tough, and turning to happier topics and structures when things are rosy, country music works virtually in the polar opposite direction.
The study conducted by sociologist Jason Eastman and psychologist Terry Pettijohn II looked at 63 songs that reached Billboard’s #1 position on the country chart from 1946 to 2008. They looked at the lyrical content, the music and the use of major chords (generally considered “happy”) or minor chords (generally considered “sad”), as well as the age and sex of the performer. “Country songs of the year are lyrically more positive, musically upbeat, and use more happy-sounding major chords during difficult socioeconomic times. While older country musicians are more popular in difficult socioeconomic times, unlike pop performers, the country artists of the year are more likely to be females when the social and economic environment is threatening.”
Why would country music cut against the grain compared to pop when it comes to mood? The study concludes, “…the more marginalized working-class listeners of country music use happier sounding songs from comforting female figures, like the wives and mothers portrayed in country songs, as a catharsis in difficult socioeconomic times.”
Beyond the subject of the mood of music and how it’s affected by socioeconomics, this study also reinforces the importance of Billboard’s charts, and their ability to accurately represent genres of music when researchers look back to attempt to understand trends and how music can affect individual’s moods, and the overall mood of society. When Billboard dramatically overhauled their rules in 2012 to include more interplay between genres by boosting the performance of genre-specific songs when they receive pop airplay and attention, it eroded the autonomy country music and other genres have from pop that is vital to studies such as this one from the American Psychological Association. The study was able to register the difference between country and pop because the two genres were defined by clear boarders. One could argue this would be more difficult today in the current Billboard chart climate.
Furthermore the study illustrates why music is important in people’s lives for coping with emotional difficulties. The differences inherent in genres allows listeners choice to more custom fit current music to their mood and disposition. As the differences between all popular music continue to deteriorate, including country music with the current encroachment from rap and EDM influences into the genre, it could potentially render country music less effective as either the emotional crutch, or the upbeat escape it once was for its listeners.