The New York Times recently featured an article with this tempting headline: “This Just In: Study Shows Songs About Sex Are Hot Sellers.” I’ll bet you didn’t know that before! James C. McKinley, Jr. reports on a study just published in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology. The journal’s press release announces: “Song lyrics contain reproductive messages.”
If you read the actual study (available on PDF), you may be surprised to see what counts as a reproductive message. The categories are: Genitalia; Other Body Parts; Courtship/Long Term Mating Strategies, Hook Up/Short Term Mating Strategies; Foreplay/Arousal/Sex Act Precursors; Sex Act; Sexual Prowess; Promiscuity/Reputation/Derogation; Sequestering/Mate Guarding; Fidelity Assurance/Abandonment Prevention; Commitment and Fidelity; Resources; Status; Mate Provisioning; Appearance Enhancement/Sex Appeal; Rejection; Infidelity/Cheater Detection/ Mate Poaching; Parenting. So we’re not talking just about sex in the narrow sense here. Included in the study would be songs about money (a resource) and child-rearing. In fact, the explanation of the “Parenting” category reads: “Includes any reference to parenting, child-rearing, or desire for children. Also includes references to grandparents and grandchildren.”
Not surprisingly, especially given the broad definition of “reproductive messages,” the study found that “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.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the study was breaking down music into Billboard categories: Country; Pop; and R&B. This distinction found some curious but not altogether surprising results:
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.
I guess I had better start playing country music around my house. No more of that provocative R&B for me and my family!
In many ways, this study from the State University of New York in Albany confirms what we already know as people immersed in culture. Yet, it encourages us to consider with greater discernment what messages we are taking in each day. Parents, in particular, should pay more attention to what their children are hearing, seeing, and doing as they bathe in the pool of pop culture.