Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Songs of the heart

When I think about what my favorite song lyrics are, they can generally be sorted into two categories:

1.  Heartwrenchingly poignant/sad


"No Bad Days" by Bastille
"39" by Queen
"I Will Follow You Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie
"Dance in the Graveyards" by Delta Rae
"100 Years" by Five for Fighting

 2.  Relentlessly upbeat and cheerful


"I Was Born" by Hanson
"Try Everything" by Shakira
"Geronimo" by Sheppard
"Good to Be Alive" by Andy Grammer
"The Sound of Sunshine" by Michael Franti & Spearhead

I've often wondered what makes certain music captivate some people and not others.  For myself, I suspect the resonance these songs have for me is because my own mood can oscillate between the high peaks and the valleys pretty quickly, and -- especially when I'm down in the low points -- a good cry can help process some of those emotions.

To be fair, though, I'm one of those people who cries as easily at happy or touching moments as I do at sad ones.  It's why I'm a misery to sit next to in the movie theater, because while everyone else is smiling, I'm sitting there sobbing, choking out, "B...b...but it's just so beautiful!"

*brief pause to blow nose loudly*

My own mild neuroses notwithstanding, it's interesting to consider what triggers the surges of emotion most of us feel when we hear a song we really connect to.  And just last week, a study was published in the Journal of the International Association for Relationship Research that looked at this topic -- specifically, how the lyrics of favorite love songs reflected an individual's own approach to romantic relationships.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Kashirin Nickolai, Music listener, CC BY 2.0]

The first finding, which is perhaps unsurprising, is that people who are attachment-avoidant tend to like songs that describe an avoidant approach to relationships.  (You have to wonder if a favorite is Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats.")  Similarly, people with attachment anxiety are more attracted to songs that reflect their own insecurities about romance.

More interesting, though, were the overall trends in music over the past few decades.  From 1946 to 2015, the researchers found a steady increase in song lyrics reflecting social disengagement.  In the 1940s and 1950s the vast majority of lyrics that dealt with the topic of love were idealizations, happily-ever-after stories about Finding True Love And Never Letting Go.  Even the oddly popular subgenre Dave Barry calls "Teen Death Songs," while undeniably morbid, are really about how perfect and beautiful love is.  ("Last Kiss" by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers comes to mind, which was later -- weirdly -- covered by Pearl Jam.)

But as the years went on, lyrics about romance became more complex and nuanced -- and darker.  For example, consider Pink's song "Try," which is not only a song about how difficult love can be, but has some of the most stunning choreography of any music video I've ever seen, reflecting perfectly the clasp-and-crash relationship the lyrics describe.

A friend of mine and I were just talking about how disconnected we've all become, and how hard that is -- that so much of the depression a lot of us experience is due to disengagement and loneliness.  It's no wonder that gets reflected in the music we make, and the music that resonates with us.

Music is a powerful force in so many of our lives.  It touches us at a completely visceral level, and allows us to access incredibly intense emotions that are often walled off from us by the strictures and demands of daily life.  It's like a pressure valve for our hearts.

Now, y'all'll have to excuse me, because I'm gonna put on some songs.  Maybe I'll put my iTunes on "shuffle."  A sure way to get musical whiplash, but hey, it's all part of the experience.


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